Olivia Fox Cabane: How to Be a Charismatic Speaker

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Charisma Myth" by Olivia Fox Cabane. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What does it take to become a charismatic speaker? Which vocal styles are more charismatic than others?

In her book The Charisma Myth, charisma expert Olivia Fox Cabane explains how to become a charismatic speaker. She says that you need to make the listener feel important, use a wide range of emotions, and speak with authority.

Here are some tips on how to speak with charisma, according to Olivia Fox Cabane.

Become a Magnetic Speaker

In order to be a charismatic speakaer, Cabane advises you to make every word count. People like to talk, so you want to make sure every second they’re listening to you instead is worth their time. To provide value to the other person, be humorous and entertaining, offer them interesting and useful information, and give plenty of compliments. In short, empathize with them and fulfill their wants and needs.

Make People Feel Important

Cabane claims that conversational “value” can take several different forms, but it’s possible that all these types of values are fulfilling the same human need: In How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie theorizes that more than anything else, the thing people want from their social lives is to feel important. In his eyes, people need feelings of “importance” as much as food or sleep.

Cabane’s suggestion to offer compliments is the most direct way to make someone feel important, but her other tactics feed this need just as well. If you make jokes to entertain someone or offer knowledge to help them achieve their goals, your efforts to support them will make them feel valued and important enough to warrant the effort you’ve put into pleasing them.

Amend Your Vocal Style

Cabane notes that certain vocal styles are far more charismatic than others. Research shows that the way a lecture is delivered has a greater effect on its audience than its content—delivery is everything. (Shortform note: Countless articles and communication textbooks support Cabane’s claim that delivery is more important than content, citing the statistic that 93% of all communication happens nonverbally. However, this widely-spread statistic is based on two studies with flawed methods from 1967. In reality, communication cannot be this easily dissected—content and delivery are so intertwined that it’s impossible to analyze each one separately.)

Cabane recommends you let a wide range of emotions saturate your voice. The more your voice fluctuates in tone, volume, and speed, the more engaged and charismatic you’ll seem. (Shortform note: Cabane doesn’t explain why voice fluctuation is so charismatic, but according to the research she’s citing, voice fluctuation implies attentiveness and responsiveness to the current situation. The more your voice changes from moment to moment, the more you seem emotionally invested in the present—and thus, the more mindfulness and goodwill you project.)

Furthermore, Cabane explains that to convey more authority, you should speak slowly, loudly, in low, rich tones. To convey more goodwill, smile. Smiling adds so much tangible affection to your voice that people can detect it even over the phone. (Shortform note: Cabane’s assertion that people are adept at detecting smiles in the voices of others fits with her earlier theory that people are constantly scanning each other for goodwill. If humans have always been on the lookout for those with good intentions, it makes sense that they would be especially sensitive in detecting smiles.)

What Makes a Voice Authoritative?

Cabane notes that low, deep voices instinctively imply authority, but why do we perceive them that way? This is, in fact, an ongoing debate. 

Classicist Mary Beard argues that we only perceive deeper voices as authoritative because our cultural ancestors from Ancient Greece and Rome established a bias against the speech of women. Since our models of governance and public speech descend from theirs, we also inherit a cultural disrespect of high-pitched voices.

Alternatively, one team of researchers theorizes that we perceive low voices as authoritative for biological reasons. Men with deep voices have higher testosterone and lower cortisol levels, which marks a stronger immune system—so we associate deep voices with fitness and strength.

Olivia Fox Cabane: How to Be a Charismatic Speaker

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Here's what you'll find in our full The Charisma Myth summary:

  • How charisma is a set of habits and behaviors that anyone can learn
  • How to become a magnetic presence wherever you go
  • Why it’s more important to be a charismatic listener than a charismatic speaker

Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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