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You Can Learn Charisma

Dez Dickerson My Time with PrinceIt’s 1979 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Newly signed Warner artist Prince had just finished a showcase. Warner had a problem. Prince wasn’t good enough to take out on tour.

So what’s a label to do? They sent him into the studio to record a second album. (And that’s a whole-nuther subject which I won’t get into now!)

The second album hit the Billboard charts, and their artist was ready to send out to open for Rick James (“Superfreak”). By the end of that tour, Prince was wowing his audiences, so much so that Rick James was being overshadowed.

How did Prince manage to go from someone who didn’t know how to engage his audience, to a performer with so much charisma he was upstaging the main act? (More importantly, how can you get there?)

According to a Forbes online article about Prince’s tour and his charisma, “Prince commanded his audiences, leading call and response chants, wowing them with his dance moves, and flipping the microphone… How did Prince get that good? By decoding the communication strategies that constitute a charismatic rock performance. And mastering them.”

I’ve got good news — I’ve decoded those communication strategies for you! What you need to do: master them!

You’ve probably heard me say that for the first 10 years or so that I was helping artists with their live show, I believed people in the industry who said “you can’t develop charisma… after all, an artist either has that magnetic personality or they don’t.” Today, I believe that artists, if they are willing to be led and are willing to commit to the process, can find their charisma. Because I’ve seen it happen many times.

It doesn’t happen overnight. It takes work.

A friend of mine who used to play in Prince’s band told me Prince announced he was going to take a week off to work on something. During that week he worked on his mic stand technique. When he came back, he was able to do his classic spins and turns, using the mic stand with a unique and personal style he was developed through practice and woodshedding. We look at Prince now and say, “oh, he just does that” or “that comes natural to him,” when in reality it took a lot of hard work!

Master the fundamentals, develop the skills, woodshed movement, learn your onstage tools. But even more importantly, understand the concepts behind those fundamentals, skills, and tools. What does it say to your audience when you stand behind a mic, or sit on a stool, or turn to the people singing harmony with you? Why should you move down front to play a guitar solo, and what is the best place to stand when you have something important to say? Why is the concept of “first word, first step” so important? And on and on and on…

You need to have a plan, then carry it out with confidence and authority.

One thing I’ve noticed about the people who are most successful in commanding the attention of the audience in their realm is that they’re not thinking about what they should do onstage. No, it’s natural and fluid. They just do it! And they aren’t afraid to take chances.

Building a set list that’s exactly right for your audience and your situation isn’t just a good idea… it’s absolutely crucial. And again, simply knowing the order of the set lists I’ve developed (see Chapters 6 and 7 in my Live Music Method Book) isn’t the end. You need to understand the reason for the order of those moments so you can bring your audience what they’re looking for with your own unique style.

Charisma is part of a bigger plan for success.

If you decide to simply develop charisma for the stage, you’re going to miss the mark.

It’s like a football team. Success doesn’t come from one place. You need great players willing to put in the time and effort it takes to play a great game. You need a game plan — plays designed to work in different situations for both offense & defense. Then you need a coach to pull players and playbook together. Someone who gets a vision for what can be done on the field for a successful season, and then knows how to implement that. If you have only one of those things — just great players… just great plays… just a great coach… — you probably won’t have a winning football team.

It’s the same with your performance. All the concepts are integrated. The construction of the set list is important. Rearranging the songs is huge! Capturing a vision is part of the process. Learning the fundamentals, having authority, leaving space in the songs, planning for spontaneity, etc. — all of it works toward developing your charisma. And unlike a football game, where the defense is trying to thwart the efforts of the offensive team, your audience wants you to win.

Even if you’re not the best looking person in the world, don’t have the “right” body, the best voice, or the greatest playing skills, if you are willing to put the work into the process, you can develop a charisma that transcends your music.

Tom Jackson

Tom is uniquely talented and skilled at transforming an artist's live show into a magical experience for the audience; helping artists at every level create a live show that is engaging and memorable, teaching them to exceed their audiences' expectations and to create fans for life. Tom has taught indie and major artists of every genre. He has worked with Taylor Swift, Le Crae, Home Free, The Tenors, Shawn Mendes, The Band Perry, Francesca Battistelli, Jars of Clay, & many more. Tom also teaches at colleges, conferences and events worldwide.

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Greenroom Comments

  1. Awesome article Tom! I’m totally willing and so is one of my bandmates (violinist), the other person (drummer) wants to get paid even at gigs that don’t pay us (to get him to be motivated). Thinking I may need to find a new drummer that’s more of a team player and willing to put the work in together as a team. Your thoughts?
    Thanks Tom.

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