This is a preview of The Charisma Coach, a long-form story published today by MATTER. You can read the whole piece for just 99c at the MATTER website.
ON A RAINY EVENING in the spring of this year, around 30 men and women gathered in an apartment high above the streets of San Francisco. They were dressed in business casual and cocktail attire. Fading light from the wraparound windows painted the sparsely furnished room in hues of orange and pink. Sixteen stories below, a row of silver railway cars lined up at the city’s Caltrain station, looking like children’s toys against the backdrop of skyscrapers. Orange-and-black-clad baseball fans streamed from the station and headed to the nearby AT&T Park, but the cocktail party seemed oblivious to the night’s game. In place of sports trivia, their conversations were peppered with organisational affiliations. Google. MIT. Stanford.
In the crowded kitchen, a 50-something man in thick, designer glasses recounted a birthday dinner he had thrown for his fiancée. “We must have drunk ten thousand dollars’ worth of wine,” he said.
He turned to a nearby guest, an acquaintance who had recently piloted a new type of mobile app, and asked how things were going.
“It’s okay,” the guest said. But, he added, someone had recently told him —
That’s wrong, designer glasses interrupted loudly. “It’s a great idea.” He sipped his drink, then looked around for a new conversation to join.
To the side of them, on a black marble kitchen island, trays of hors d’oeuvres sat forgotten. A store-bought red velvet cake with a house-warming message piped onto it had only a single slice missing. Around the food, though, the party was a churning network of people. Strangers moved towards each other with a smile and a firm handshake.
“What do you do?” they asked each other. “And how do you know Olivia?”
Olivia Fox Cabane, the 33-year-old host, was wearing a low-cut, black dress and dark tights. Her feet sparkled with the red sequins that she had added to her otherwise simple flats. She had pulled her curly, brown hair into an elegant half-updo, a nice complement to her long, pale face. Her heavy-lidded eyes were rimmed with gold eyeshadow, and they grew wide whenever she spotted an introduction that needed to be made. Software engineers met neuroscientists, entrepreneurs mingled with investors. Email addresses were exchanged, lunches scheduled. And Olivia kept moving.
She came into the kitchen. Two young men were now trying to start a party game. “It’s a game of first impressions,” explained one, a 20-something Stanford graduate with black, spiky hair and tight, dark-wash denim jeans. “We all have preconceived ideas about who other people are, but we’re not always right.”
The guests nodded.
Spiky hair continued. The idea is that you share your first impression of someone else in the group, he said. And that person has to refute it with a story. “For example,” he said, pointing at the woman standing across from him, “I might say, ‘I think you’re really boring and you’ve never done anything interesting in your life.’ And you would say?”
“Uh,” the woman replied. She looked lost, and a short but distinctly awkward pause followed. Olivia swooped in. “That reminds me,” she said, lightly touching the startled guest’s arm and pulling her away. “Have you met Laurie? She’s a fabulous girl. Super intimidating. Let me introduce you.”
After she seemed sure the new connection was taking root, Olivia began to pull back from the conversation. She slipped away from the group, threading her way through the living room and towards her private office. She closed the door behind her and, now alone, took off her sequined shoes and lowered herself to the floor. She lay supine on the white carpet, next to her desk, with its built-in treadmill, and a pile of well-worn Terry Pratchett novels.
Olivia Fox Cabane was hiding from her own party.
She took a few deep breaths and let the silence wash over her. It wasn’t the first time this evening she’d done so, and it wouldn’t be the last. She was finding it exhausting to be around other people. She needed time to recharge, even if it meant physically closing herself off from everyone for a few minutes.
Olivia needed to be charming that night. As is often the case when she is playing host, she had to work hard at it.
We’re used to thinking about charisma as an intangible. It’s a quality that is instantly recognisable in its natural form, yet defies definition. Martin Luther King Jr had it. Steve Jobs, too. Michelle Obama has it. So does Don Draper. Whether it’s the way someone always remembers your name, seems to care about your life or notices your new haircut, the draw of charismatic people is almost universal. We don’t just like who they are: we like who we are around them. They make us feel important, and yet we are the ones who end up wanting to please. Popularity and power are the birthright of the naturally charismatic.
But Olivia wasn’t born with it. She is, and has always been, an introvert. As a teenager she was a high-school outcast — the kind of kid who sits silently, then says too much, and at the wrong time. She has an engineer’s mind and an occasionally clumsy grasp of social nuance. It took her years to learn how to be a good host, and to do so she had to seek out the science of charisma. She had to assemble tools and tricks that could transform a shy teenager into a socialite. She had to reverse-engineer the intangible. Now she earns a six-figure salary by teaching others how she did it.
Olivia’s clients include Fortune 500-CEOs, human resource managers, heirs to international fortunes and the executive directors of major charitable organisations. Increasingly, they’re also the engineers and tech entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley. After all, hot startups can grow from five to 500 employees in a few years, forcing the founders — who are often computer programmers — out of their cubicles and into roles that require them to inspire and emote. What’s more, the teams these founders manage have become diverse: engineers and designers are valued equally in many startups. The new executive has to get the best out of both. Olivia is very busy.
After a few minutes on the floor of her office, Olivia sat up and brushed the carpet fuzz from her dress. Her face was serene, satisfied. When she opened the door to rejoin her guests, she practically floated towards the Stanford kids, whose game had stalled on another confused guest. Olivia reached down to scoop up a small black-and-tan puppy — a foster dog she was watching — that had been wandering around without anyone noticing. She handed the burrito-sized animal to the Stanford duo, who took turns holding it while other guests cooed. The conversation shifted to dog people versus cat people. Olivia smiled at the pair, who seem relieved to be saved from the game they had created. The party rolled on.
…and that’s just the first 1,100 words. Visit MATTER to read the remaining 8,000.