Give Me Presence! The Magic of Charisma

No, the third word in the title isn’t a misspelling. I do mean “presence,” not presents.

Just wanted to get your attention.

According to the online “wiktionary,” the word presence can be defined as “a quality of poise and effectiveness that enables a performer to achieve a close relationship with his audience.” It goes on to give an example: “Despite being less than five foot, she filled up the theater with her stage presence.”

It is that almost indefinable quality about which I am writing. An ineffable “something” about a person which draws us to him, focuses our attention, grabs us so that we are “taken” by him to the point of being more easily influenced, touched, or otherwise affected. The kind of characteristic that people refer to when they say that they can’t take their eyes off of someone or are mesmerized by his voice.

It tends to be a thing that one either has or doesn’t have, not a talent that is easily taught or self-created.

Wilhelm Furtwängler had it. Furtwängler was best known as a German symphony and opera conductor who lived from 1886 to 1954. He was a physically unattractive man (see photo above): tall, bald, and socially awkward. Yet remarkable stories are told about him, and his recordings of the great German composers (e.g Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert) are riveting.

The long time timpanist of the Berlin Philharmonic, Furtwängler’s orchestra, recalled a rehearsal at which they were led by a guest conductor. Werner Thärichen, the timpanist, was waiting for his part in the composition and simply following along in the musical score, turning pages as he did so. Then, suddenly, he noticed that the tonal quality of the sound changed dramatically; that is, the intensity, expressiveness, and beauty of sound abruptly increased.

Startled, he looked up.

Furtwängler had simply walked into the hall in order to observe the rehearsal. His physical presence alone, even in the absence of a look or gesture, was enough to alter the way that the musicians played and evoke a different aural characteristic.

Surely you have known people like this. They have big personalities and a magnetism that is hard to resist. It is said by those who have spoken face-to-face with Bill Clinton, even by some of his detractors, that when he talks to you his gaze makes you feel as if you and you alone are the only thing that exists in his universe.

But “presence” is not always benign. Some people, without ever saying a word, have a physical bearing and facial expression that produces intimidation. Others can intimidate not by looking menacing, but by the combination of their intensity, seriousness, and apparent intellect.

One can try to change or soften one’s presence, but it can be difficult. It is said that the dramatic and exciting conductor Sir Georg Solti sometimes implored the members of his orchestra, the Chicago Symphony, to play in a softer, less aggressive way than they characteristically did for him. To his dismay, despite his words, the musicians were compelled to respond to his large, angular gestures and the urgent, kinetic quality of his being. Although they desired to achieve what he wanted, he evoked a different sound than that which he described on these occasions; the players were irresistibly carried along in a way that neither they nor he wanted.

Might you know someone whose basic good humor and shining presence makes you feel good when he enters a room? My youngest daughter, from an early age, would complain that “people are looking at me!” At first my wife and I worried about the possibility of an early developing paranoid state.

But then, we noticed something interesting.

People were looking at her. Carly had an animation and expressive vitality that drew the eyes of strangers and today, make her an excellent performing musician. She “owns” the stage and that quality was there, on its own, from the start.

Confidence and a lack of self-consciousness help to create a big personality, of course, but they are not absolutely essential.

No, this is something quite mysterious. You can be beautiful and not alluring, plain but engaging, unwise but compelling; you can have the right answers to which no one listens; or be a charismatic leader with the wrong answers — indeed, disastrous plans that can sweep a whole nation along with you to its doom. Any time we worship at the altar of charisma we are at risk.

Even so, it is better for each of us to have a strong presence than not and best to know how we are perceived by others and whether we are producing an unwanted impression.

Still, most of us don’t want to be the guy who, when he is in a crowd, makes the crowd stand out. Having some impact is usually better than having none.

But, as relationship consumers, each of us needs to be sure that the person we are with is not simply a great “presence,” but that he has something substantial to offer.

Be careful.

We are all drawn to the sound of the “sizzle” of a steak on a grill, even without the steak actually being there.

Unfortunately, the sizzle without the steak doesn’t make much of a meal.

The top image is of Wilhelm Furtwängler. The bottom image is of Sir Georg Solti.

4 thoughts on “Give Me Presence! The Magic of Charisma

  1. I too am no exception, I’m intrigued as well by people who posses the personality traits you’ve mentioned.

    “But, as relationship consumers, each of us needs to be sure that the person we are with is not simply a great “presence,” but that he has something substantial to offer.

    I contend that, properly applied, presence can be the most substantial thing.

    Great Read, thanks!

    Like

  2. Actually, as a young man, Furtwängler was a handsome guy with lots of hair. At least he was handsome enough to father several children out of wedlock.

    Like

    • Thanks for your comment. Yes, I’ve seen those photos of the conductor as a young man and agree that he was then much more physically appealing. I suspect, however, that his sexual prowess had less to do with his appearance and more with his charisma and celebrity, not to mention that he continued the active pursuit of women without regard for his marriage vows.

      Like

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