According to the etymology of the word ‘charisma’, it would seem that this ‘grace’ is an innate quality that would indicate that one is born with this ‘aura’ that is so precious in a professional context. However, charisma is above all a faculty linked to a ‘presential power’ which is close to that found in the actor who ‘gets on stage and manages to occupy the space in a right way from the start’.
The ‘paradox of the actor’
Jack Waltzer, the last undisputed master of the Actors Studio and coach of the greatest actors (including Marlon Brando and Nicole Kidman) reminded us in class that on stage as on the big screen, it is not a matter of acting but of ‘living truthfully moment to moment under imaginary circumstances’ offered in the script. What is important here is this capacity for presential quality developed by the actor who, even if he knows his lines by heart, must be able to live them instantaneously, sometimes adapting to an unexpected context. A partner who no longer knows his line, for example, an audience that does not have the expected reaction, such as laughing at the comic passage, or a set that collapses at the romantic moment.
In the professional context, these are obviously ‘real unexpected circumstances’ that must be dealt with. A hierarchical superior who is absent when thanked, an cold audience while the speaker desperately tries to emotionally ‘connect’ by recalling team building sessions, or the regular strategic ‘disconnections’ of people while in virtual meetings that deeply destabilise the speaker. The paradox of stage presence is this dichotomy that exists between the author and the actor. It is even stronger in a corporate environment since generally the one who ‘goes on stage’ to speak is both the author of his text and the interpreter. However, what an author is looking for is above all the integrity of his precious text, elaborated with care and heart. One can imagine the work of Shakespeare to ensure that each verse is interpreted perfectly, to the nearest comma. On the contrary, what an actor is looking for is above all the improvisation in the moment, the freedom of adapting himself in the instant.
To have charisma, you must always give priority to the actor. Even if you have prepared your text for several hours, even if you know your speech by heart, you must remember that the important thing is how you adapt it to your audience, by delivering your message and by embodying it totally. The charisma of a manager who presents to a group assumes that he is there just for him, like an actor who, despite the fact that this is his 170th performance, will find the strength within himself to regenerate for these spectators to ensure that for him as for them ‘it is the first time’. Strengthening his stage presence thus comes from an acceptance of living in the moment by putting aside this learning by heart of his text by speaking not in front of an audience but for the audience.
I see, you see, we see
Stage presence supposes a certain ‘radiance of availability’, both mental and physical, from the very beginning. To do this, being present in the moment requires a real psychological and physical preparation. Some actors do breathing exercises, others jump on the spot to raise the heart rate and force the stress level to come down in order to be more ‘in the body rather than in the head’. It’s not about being ready to fight, but on the contrary, ready to give your word, to give your voice, to give your information while accepting to receive, no matter the feedback, positive or negative.
Charisma, just like aura, is in fact in the acceptance of the look of others by being more interested in seeing than terrorised by being seen. Too many speakers lose their presence because they fear the gaze of others, fearing judgement, criticism, and ridiculousness. However, any stage presence supposes the acceptance of this game of gaze, by not defining oneself as a passive victim of the gaze of others, but rather as an active source of a benevolent and curious gaze, more of what one discovers in the moment in others than of remembering the exact information to be delivered. We often see this in speakers who tend to have eyes that ‘go’ to the top right or bottom left, proof that they ‘look’ at themselves to seek the accuracy of the words spoken rather than favouring a frank, true gaze that dares to look at its interlocutors not with an inquisitive air but by showing them the depth of a human being who knows he is being watched. We often speak, in connection with charisma, of a look that bears witness to a true ‘inner life’. Just as the actor knows he is being watched and accepts this gaze in order to ‘take the audience somewhere’, the inner life of the charismatic leader is revealed in the fact that he accepts the gaze of the collective in order to make them live an experience, without shame and without glory, in a right and peaceful presence. I invite you to watch this exclusive interview with Jack Waltzer
Guila Clara Kessous holds a PhD and a postdoc from Harvard University. She is a Gold Medal of Performing Art recipient from the French National Conservatory.