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14 October 2002updated 27 Sep 2015 5:20am

How to walk like a president

Can the rest of us acquire the Clinton charisma that took Blackpool by storm? John-Paul Flintoff fin

By John-Paul Flintoff

The party conferences have finished, and the award for most magnetic male goes to . . . a man who belonged to none of them. Bill Clinton performed for 50 minutes in Blackpool, and wowed almost everybody who saw him.

How did he do it? According to research carried out at the University of Pennsylvania, the impression we make on others can be divided into three parts: appearance, voice and content. Of those, the least important – accounting for just 7 per cent of the overall effect – is content. More significant is voice, covering everything from volume to accent; but the thing that accounts for 55 per cent of the impression we make is our appearance.

A smart haircut, a dark suit and Kevin Spacey at your side are not enough. Nor are fixed assets such as – in Clinton’s case – height. You must go deeper, as did Clinton himself when, among other efforts, he learned to walk like John F Kennedy under the guidance of a hypnotist named Tony Robbins.

Is presence – or charisma, or whatever you call it – available to the rest of us, too?

To find out, I visit Hugh Vivian and Elizabeth Lawlor, consultants at a firm called Penna Meridian, who teach business executives and others how hard to shake hands; how close to stand beside people in various contexts; and how vigorously to smile. At one of their sessions, Vivian dims the lights and puts on a video. This shows actors in assorted scenarios. Each scene unfolds twice – first, with comically bad body language, then with something more polished. What this teaches can be summarised as follows. If people touch their faces a lot they’re bored. Crossing arms, or rubbing earlobes: they feel defensive. When giving a talk, try to sustain good eye contact around the room. And never wag your forefinger: this, according to the anthropologist Desmond Morris, is “like using a club to hit someone”.

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But these basics are familiar, one imagines, even to such indifferent performers as Iain Duncan Smith. What today’s delegates need are higher-level techniques. Which is why I go to see the hypnotist Paul McKenna, who has used his skills to train executives, royalty and sports stars. At his Kensington office, McKenna says: “The more ways you can find to feed back to people their behaviour, the greater the rapport you create.”

This is high-level “mirroring” – a refined version of our innate tendency to match what people around us are doing. Eventually, you move beyond mirroring to lead the other person’s body language. “You can start practising right now,” he says. “Get into conversations with people and gently mirror their posture, voice tone, speed of speech, gestures and breathing. After a short while, make subtle changes and after a few minutes more, look to see if the other people have followed.”

I meet yet another consultant, David Pearl, at a restaurant in central London. Pearl has worked as a cocktail pianist at Claridge’s, an opera singer and TV presenter; these days, he provides training to blue-chip companies. “I’ve coined this phrase,” he says: “‘experience engineering’. It brings together everything I know about performing arts, hypnosis and language. I work with senior business people. I help them to get things across with pizzazz – make the audience sit up and take notice.”

This sounds good. What can he do for me? “Tell me one person you would like to be,” he says.

Several names rush into my head. Michael Meacher? Lord Irvine? After thinking for a moment, I reject politicians and suggest Cary Grant.

“OK. You’ve seen his films, they’re still in your head. You can ‘download’ that. Before going into a meeting, just think of it, then let go. Your brain will keep working on it.” One technique is to visualise myself stepping into Cary Grant’s clothes, or his shoes. This, more or less, is how Clinton learned to walk like Kennedy. “Alternatively,” says Pearl, “imagine a big screen in front of you and look up at the people you admire. Ask them what to do. If it’s Gene Hackman, he might say: ‘Think more, say less.'”

Pearl himself uses John Travolta to gee himself up before big events. “I do this little rolling thing.” In the middle of the restaurant, he stands then shuffles his feet, wiggles his hips and spins his hands as Travolta did in Saturday Night Fever. Watching him, I can’t help thinking this technique might benefit John Prescott.

Ultimately, Pearl says, “Having presence is about attitude, which is several rungs up from technique. It’s more philosophical, metaphysical. When you get to advanced, ninja-level charisma, you have to start stripping things away. Removing the veneer.” One way to impress people, for example, is to seem interested in them. “And one of the best ways to do that,” says Pearl, “is to be interested.” Just turning up in Blackpool demonstrated Clinton’s interest. “The more you give, the more you get. Make people twinkle. Get them fired up. They’ll think you’re cool – and you’ll think they’re cool. It sounds too simple to be true, but it is true.”