I more or less stopped drinking recently, and though it's been good for my health, weight, bank account, day-to-day mental clarity and for bucking the generations-long trend of to-the-grave alcoholism that blights the men in my family, it's been absolutely atrocious for my smalltalk skills. You do not realise this because you are drunk, but: there is the special, sparkling moment, between the first pint and the third, where the tight conversational gears that govern our days are loosened and lubricated, and everyone and everything just relaxes this barely perceptible half inch, and everyone goes from "so… what are… you up to… this weekend… then?" to talking genuinely and freely, and you can only observe it from a position of perfect sobriety.
Without alcohol, there is a certain social gumming up. A certain freezing of the anecdotal muscles. There is a conversational place I am struggling to get into when I'm only on the soda and lime. So when a PR asked me if I wanted to learn how to be charismatic over the course of an hour-and-a-half long session with Richard Reid, I said: "Yes." And then absolutely nothing else. Because I still hadn't learned how to be charismatic at this point.
* * *
Q: What is "charisma"? Charisma is hard to define because it's this sort of ethereal quality, an electricity some people just plain straight up naturally have coursing through their veins, and other people – normal people – do not. You think you know charisma and maybe have a touch of it yourself, and then you meet someone with actual charisma, capital-C charisma, and you are like: fuck. You know when you meet someone and you sort of suspect they are famous, or should be famous, or maybe they are low-key famous and you're just out-of-the-loop enough to not know about it? That is charisma. When you meet someone, and you walk away thinking you were the focal point of the conversation – that you, for a moment, were the centre of their world? That is charisma. Because charisma makes people feel good, charisma moves the gateposts, opens doors, elevates the people who have it most. Most world leaders have it, present Prime Minister excluded, because they've risen high on the gas of it – Obama had it, Clinton had it, Cameron had it, and Blair, too. Brown not so much, but what can you do. Farage has it, Trump has it. "Hitler had it," Richard repeatedly reminds me. "Hitler was very charismatic." He cannot stop saying Hitler was charismatic. "He was, though!" Charisma isn't always used for good, is the takeaway lesson from this. Charisma can also be very evil. Charisma can easily be subverted into power, and power corrupts. The most charming people are the most likely you stab you in the back for a shot at the big time. Charisma lets you get away with a lot. I want to have it.
* * *
Your brain is really easy to hack, it turns out, and that is a lot of the basis for today. This is simple, so simple as to feel somehow too straightforward, but try it out anyway: visualise yourself, ideally on a recent holiday or something, the sun was shining and you weren't checking your email, and crucially you were very relaxed, perhaps you had a drink and perhaps you didn't; I'm not going to judge you, I'm not going to tell you how to spend your holidays and how to live your life. What's crucial here is the feeling, that holiday feeling, which we are going to tap into by re-imagining ourselves back on that beach, in that water, that place. You got it? You know where you're going yet? Okay: close your eyes and count to ten.
Feels sick, right? Totally fucking relaxing. That is all it takes to trick your brain into not worrying for a few seconds.
* * *
We're doing an exercise where I learn to shake hands. The only time I've ever paid attention to a handshake is when I met my first girlfriend's dad and was briefed that he took handshaking extremely seriously, so practised a few times on friends and family before knocking him with a firm three pumps, intense eye contact, medium-grip combo. Since then, my handshakes have been perfunctory at best. Richard is here to change that, because handshakes are very important, and introductory routines like these are the building blocks of charisma.
"Lots of the everyday things have their origins in safety behaviours," he explains. "Things like the handshake – classic part of charisma – that originates from wanting to feel safe. So when we shake hands with somebody, it's an indication to them of our strength and our intention towards them… but equally it gives us an idea of how they're disposed towards us. A lot of people have a misconception that having a strong handshake is a good thing, but actually if that's not matching the handshake to the other person it can interpreted as a power play and make the other person feel uncomfortable. So you're less likely to get the best version of them. And they're less likely to come away from that experience feeling positive about you and positive about that memory."
Don't overthink it, but: shaking someone's hand is possibly the most vital social interaction you can ever participate in. So we're practising.
First I walk through the door and shake Richard's hand (You can do this at home: I've taught a number of people to shake hands since this day). It is not very good. "You looked at my hand too much," Richard explains. "Next time you come through the door, put your hand out and figure that I'll find it. Make a bit more eye contact with me."
This is the second handshake, and it is demonstrably better than the first. "Okay, now we'll try something else," he says. I go outside the door and practise the visualisation exercise from above: I'm on a beach, swimming in the sea, the sky is aquamarine and the water too, I am relaxed, I am eating a small piece of pineapple from a stick, the garnish from my cocktail glass. Walk in and shake the hand. "How did you feel then?" Richard asks. "Better!" I say. The photographer Ruchira says there was a notable difference. But what was it? What was it? "You just walked in with more presence." What was it? How does this work? I am starting to think that Richard Reid is a wizard or at least warlock.
The fourth handshake, the ultimate upgrade, is this: when my hand finds his, I'm extending my arm too much, so to counter that I am to pin my elbow to my side and offer my arm out at a 90 degree angle, which serves to 10x magnify the entire handshake and bring the handshakee into my personal zone. It's a tiny difference in my stance that makes a huge difference in terms of shake. I am very close to Richard Reid now. I could, very feasibly, pull in and kiss him. "You are quite tall," he says. "Maybe you have to adjust to that, but… yeah." And I can shake hands now. In three minutes, I have learned to shake hands.
CHARISMA LEVEL: UPGRADED
* * *
We need to talk about the Human Brain and the Reptilian Brain, a theory that you might remember that stoned guy in your first year of halls trying to explain to you once in vagaries while simultaneously trying to finger you ("The brain is…. like… there is a brain inside your brain?"), because it's important to understanding charisma, both why you don't have it and how it can be taught. "There are three main parts to the brain," Richard explains, "the reptilian brain, the mammalian brain and the human brain. The reptilian brain is where all of our impulses are – it's all about safety and survival – and it's the part of the brain that will gauge any situation within seconds and decide how safe we are. That's why handshakes are so important: it's how we gauge a view about a situation or person within a few seconds, because from an evolution point of view, we needed to size things up quickly. So it has a place, for definite, but it often gets triggered in inappropriate situations."
This is because the reptilian brain is four million years old and confused by, like, human speech, and iPhones. "Clearly the world we live in now is very, very different," Richard says. "We're in an office all day, the reptilian brain doesn't understand relationships, reptiles don't have families, they don't hang out with friends, they might stand next to each other but they don't really interact. The reptilian brain doesn't understand higher emotions, it doesn't understand higher thinking or creativity or any of these things that make us stand out and more human. What tends to happen is when we go into stressful situations it hijacks the human brain – which is where all the rational thinking is, where all the creativity is, our ability to articulate – and causes people to dry up. You see it in all kinds of situations: quiz shows, for instance, where people get asked very simple questions and can't come up with the answers, but as soon as the buzzer goes it comes back to them, because that part of the brain is activated again. So it gets in the way a lot, makes us speak faster and think or process less, so we want to be working with the human brain as much as possible in these situations – so you can choose how you want to react more than acting out of default."
So how do we suppress our dumb, dumb lizard brain and ascend to the galactic human brain instead? Richard works with clients on techniques that are rooted in mindfulness ("really the antithesis to how the reptilian brain likes to work") to re-pace thinking and regain focus, which is especially important in conversations when the reptile brain is doing all the driving. That's what visualising the holiday is all about: porting from one mind to the other, following a string out of the darkness and into the light by anchoring on to a memory. "Most of us have one way of talking with people, and a lot of the time it can go badly wrong and the person you're talking to is too polite to speak up," he says. "When you engage the human brain, you can pick up on those things, you can either address it in the conversation or think about what would be a slightly different tact." And they walk away thinking you're more charismatic as a result, because you're not a wide-eyed lizard boy desperately hoping he doesn't get attacked at any time by a hawk.
CHARISMA LEVEL: UPGRADED
* * *
Who goes to a charisma masterclass? This seems an important question. We are in a fine office in Mayfair. The carpet is squidgy beneath my feet. This building has a concierge and a front door too thick to comfortably push. You don't get in here without money. And not just money: money. So much money that you can comfortably pay your bills and still have enough left over for a training session in how to shake hands. Who, exactly, fits the psychological profile as i. successful enough to afford handshake lessons and ii. but also in need of handshake lessons? Who has ascended so far up the career ladder without really ever knowing how much eye contact to give the people around them?
It's more people than you'd think, Richard says, because everyone alive is constantly scared they are going to get found out. "What I learned over a number of years is that lots of people were coming to me from a business background and struggling with making the next step up in their career: struggling with influencing people, dealing with conflict, and also what we call 'imposter syndrome'." You know what imposter syndrome is, because you absolutely have it: the constant fear, more so amongst high-flying individuals but down here amongst the scum too, that you will be exposed some day as a fraud. "So people in perhaps very successful careers outwardly seem to be doing everything that anybody would want them to," Richard explains, "but not necessarily actually, genuinely feeling like they're that person." He works with people to build confidence, endorse their stronger qualities rather than identifying their bad, work through visualisation techniques to help be more present in their Human Brain than Reptilian Brain, and overall practice just not freaking out all the time and thinking you're unworthy of it all.
But then, I suppose, as charm, charisma and a confident sense of self can be slowly and carefully teased out and built up in any human being, we have learned to backwards code charisma as well: Richard has just essentially taught me that you can explode anyone's ego like a bomb just by sidling up to them at work, middle of the day, that nice little post-lunch lull when you're just sort of checking email a lot and not doing much of anything, then going, "Hey."
"Come on, give up.
"Come on, the jig is up now.
"You're in over your head.
"Quit your job and give it to me."
* * *
Chris Evans. Tim Lovejoy. Jessie J. I am close to a realisation here: whenever I have been baffled by the ongoing career of someone whose appeal I cannot figure out, it is almost always down to charisma, them having it in the void where others don't. Paloma Faith. Nan's Choice Ed Sheeran. Ellie Goulding. James Corden. You cannot understand Pixie Lott, can you? Marvel at Pixie Lott. Consider the riddle of Pixie Lott. But now assume she is the most charismatic person you've ever met: she is so charming and charismatic that she keeps tricking people into endorsing her career. And now you understand Pixie Lott. Pixie Lott, if she wanted to, could be the next Hitler. We should be thankful she uses her powers for good – i.e. a doomed pop career then a descent down the reality show circuit, inevitable stint on The Jump, six-month Loose Women career when she bravely overcomes back surgery – when we consider what else she could be doing with it.
* * *
We are practising conversation now, which sort of makes me feel a little like a morbidly virginal pick-up artist practising his first ever neg, alone and in a fedora, in a popular bar on a Saturday night, i.e. pathologically unvarnished and unready for human interaction. One facet of charisma that is often overlooked, Richard says, is that charismatic people often do more listening than talking: it's a misnomer that the most charismatic person in the room is the one who talks the most, or at least something along those lines: it sort of taps into all of our egos that we tend to think of someone who allows us to talk and rattle on about whatever old shit is in our head as being charming, whereas all they really did was let us talk; we project good feelings about ourselves onto other people's willingness to let us sound on, and on, and on and on and on, like a foghorn. A major part of charisma isn't real at all; it's just about creating a space for other people to talk in.
CHARISMA LEVEL: UPGRADED
Anyway, to get people to open up you're meant to use open-ended questions and not anything that can be answered with a straight "yes" or "no" ("yes" or "no" either drives the conversation off a cliff or ends up with you, the supposed question-asker, taking control of the conversation and talking about yourself, which is v. uncharismatic).
A Brief Illustrative Interlude Featuring Marco Pierre White Really Angrily Chopping Some Mushrooms
Here is a video of Marco Pierre White really angrily chopping some mushrooms, and it's one of my favourite videos in the world. It's back when Marco was a kind of unflappable Hollywood-faced smouldering sex god, and then Keith Floyd pops up, charmingly and eccentrically pissed, and they make mashed potato together, and Marco sort of thaws a little bit because Keith Floyd is very nice, and I just find the whole video very soothing (it is nice to imagine having lunch with Keith Floyd, him making drunk little puttering noises of gratitude, eating mashed potato with a single finger, RIP), apart from the bit at the start where Marco Pierre White is arse-ily answering questions [0:30–2:06] with the old classic yes/no, which we must – if we are to become charismatic together – learn from:
The lesson here is: assume everyone you speak to is Marco Pierre White in a 90s huff, and do not feed them any conversational cues they can answer only "yes" and or "no" to, while really aggressively chopping mushrooms. End of lesson.
So we are practising the open-ended question thing. Open-ended questions are ones that include "how", "where", "when" and "what" – they tend to steer away from "why", because "why" questions can often have a judgmental feeling to them ("Why did you flip that buffet table over? Why are the police here? Why is Michael Barrymore sobbing in the corner?") and instead should be reworded to include the more cuddly open-enders ("How come there's all these sausage rolls on the floor? When did the police turn up? What happened to Barrymore to make him cry so much?") that illicit longer, more complex responses. To look for clues as to what question to ask next, just listen closely to what the other person is saying, and pay attention to anything they explain in any way that seems important to them (this also acts to suppress your pesky Reptile Brain and bring the Human Brain into play). This is, admittedly, Conversation 101, but even practising it in a soft-walled environment, it's quite hard to stay totally on it with the open-ended stuff.
R: So imagine you've just asked me where I've been on holiday. So: last summer we went to France.
J: OK… where in France?
R: So we started off in Normandy and then we made our way to Bordeaux, we spent about ten days there and then we came back up and we went to the Somme and had three more days there.
J: So were you sort of driving around Fran— that was closed. Shit.
R: Try again.
J: OK: why did you decide to spend 10 days in Bordeaux. [Richard sadly shakes his head because I am an idiot] That's closed-ended?
J: Shit! I made a value judgement. Shit. Shit shit shit.
This £799 charisma masterclass is refusing to stick because I keep judging people going to France.
* * *
Before I leave, I ask Richard the golden three rules of charisma, to pass on to you, the assumedly un-charming reader.
"One is have a template," he says, referring to those little visualisation exercises (like being on the beach, or another one where you remember a time you felt really, really hype and in control), "have some kind of visualisation about a situation where you've been at your best. The second one would be around the kind of questions that you ask: do you use open-ended questions, or do you ask loads of closed-ended questions and hijack the conversation? And number three is a very simple one: make more eye contact. If you're uncomfortable, you look away, so from now every time you shake someone's hand make a point of looking at them for a fraction longer than I normally would. Those are three very basic things people can do that can make a big difference."
I do the open-ended conversation thing on three people over the course of the week. I'm struggling to unlock a friend I meet after work for a drink until I start couching things with how, where and when questions, at which point he spends 20 straight minutes moaning about his job. An open-ended conversation with my girlfriend's mum turns into a whole big thing about how she didn't sleep well and it's ruined her entire day as a result. To be the charismatic man, I tell myself, you just basically let people moan at you a bit and sometimes nod. An interview goes on frankly far too long after I start asking open-ended questions and I am not looking forward to that transcript at all. But then I suppose this is the price you have to pay for being superhumanly charismatic. That's the final lesson in all of this: charisma is as much a blessing as it is a curse. That it can be good, as well as bad. Light and dark. Power and corruption. I am charismatic now, and that has made me stronger. CHARISMA LEVEL: UNSTOPPABLE.
You can learn more about Richard Reid and getting totally charismatic here.