There’s unspoken conflict as we try to gain control of this story. I have been directed to do a test drive. Danish Sheikh is keen on theory and the canon of self-help books that a coach draws from.
He is a shy boy from Indore. From a modest home, he found that his classmates belonged to a socio-economic strata different from his. He set himself a challenge — of speaking to a stranger every day, mostly tourists. Dale Carnegie’s How to Make Friends and Influence People helped him. He succeeded in roles of communication, localisation and training in a series of corporate jobs that lead to this destination — a charisma coach. India’s first one, at that, he claims.
His tale is inspiring, but when are we going to get to me? My job, every day, is to be deeply interested in my subject’s motivations and life-story. It’s a luxury to have someone interested in me.
My interaction with Sheikh furthers a private theory — currently, attention is transactional; we don’t listen as much as wait for an opportunity to turn the conversation back to us or what we know. This is ironic because one of the most powerful tools of charm is “active listening”.
Personally, I define charisma as an ephemeral combination of sophisticated manners and a genuine interest expressed through gestures and speech. The dictionary defines it as a compelling charm that can inspire devotion. World leaders cultivate to “convey a sense of power,” Sheikh says, “but the real charisma relies in communicating the value of that power. Of how it will benefit you. You convey this through micro-expressions and macro gestures.” Charisma makes people follow you, “because they want to.”
With a client, Sheikh first spends a day observing him/her in their natural environment. Our case is unique because he is both, the subject of change and the object of my day’s inquiry.
He talks about how he first focused on his out-worldly ‘avatar’ to make sure he stood out, but in a “preferred way”. He worked with things he already had, like glasses. He now chooses distinctive frames. They have become his trademark accessory, along with a jacket “because we respect a person in a suit”. He admits it’s a bit tough to wear it in muggy Mumbai, even though most offices and cars are air-conditioned, “but you have to suffer a bit, no?” He has a part-mohawk, which is slicked down to look professional, but identifiable.
Sheikh’s first advice to me is to cultivate a characteristic accessory. This could not come at a more opportune time. Almost three years of working from home has deprived me of sartorial stimulation. Out of despair, I am wearing distressed skinny denims, a loose coral tee (hoping the colour will make up for lack of character), practical lace-up shoes in ink blue (but very vanilla). A crochet necklace hangs around my neck with the sullenness of someone with no better place to go. A jangle of gold cuffs and bracelets mingle with my gold digital Casio watch, but they don’t say much. My unwashed hair is in a messy braid.
Sheikh advises that I blow-dry my hair before important assignments. And put on some make-up. He suggests I wear a button-down shirt of a distinctive brand. “It’s shallow,” he admits, “but it works. Wouldn’t you feel safer leaving your bag with me if you need to go to the loo, seeing that I work on a MacBook and have an iPhone 6?” My iPhone 5s is in a silicone protective case to protect it from two sharp cats and a toddler niece. My deep bag is custom-made, but label-less. “Sometimes, I advise growing a beard — look at Amitabh Bachchan. It has become his trademark,” says Sheikh. I don’t think it would have the same results with me.
He dissects my body language next: My expansive gestures, voice modulation and animated expressions are good, but I need to work on uncrossing my body, focusing my eyes on him instead of darting to see who’s coming in the door.
I cover my mouth with my palm too much, giving the impression that I am holding down an impulse to say something.
These are all valid observations and corrections, but ones I could have got from an image consultant or my mom. Should I speak slowly? How should I employ humour? What kind should it be? How do I make a compliment sound genuine?
The elusive nature of charisma is pinned down by a 91-year-old sex counsellor I meet the same evening. He wears no visible brands. His cell phone is an indestructible brick from the 2000s. He is neatly groomed, but later, I can’t remember what he wore. What I remember is how he politely shortened a call because “a young lady had come to see him; and who knows when that will happen next”. I remember how he did not presume to know my thoughts or complete my sentences. And though I was there to interview him, he turned the conversation to me in the beginning and at the end of our meeting.
I wish Sheikh had taught me this — how to channel genuine attention to make a person blossom.