The Marginalian
The Marginalian

What Makes People Compelling

What makes a winning personality? How can some people walk into a room and instantly entrance everyone into a state of amicable submission? What makes someone like Carl Sagan at once so beloved and so respected? That’s precisely what communications strategists John Neffinger and Matthew Kohut, who met while working at Harvard, explore in Compelling People: The Hidden Qualities That Make Us Influential (public library) — a synthesis of six years’ worth of their research and experience of working with Nobel Prize winners, CEOs, media personalities, politicians, and NASA commanders.

It turns out that when we assess someone’s personality, we pay heed to two main criteria: “strength,” which as a personal quality is a measure of how well a person can will the world into obedience, and “warmth,” which induces a sense of belonging or being cared for, often through shared interests or concerns. Neffinger and Kohut explain how the two come into play and interplay:

Strength is a person’s capacity to make things happen with abilities and force of will. When people project strength, they command our respect. Warmth is the sense that a person shares our feelings, interests, and view of the world. When people project warmth, we like and support them. . . . People who project both strength and warmth impress us as knowing what they are doing and having our best interests at heart, so we trust them and find them persuasive. They seem willing (warm) and able (strong) to look out for our interests, so we look to them for leadership and feel comfortable knowing they are in charge. Strength and warmth are the principal criteria on which all our social judgments hinge.

They illustrate this with a few examples of where that vital osmosis of strength and warmth works or fails:

The waitress’s sweet talk projects warmth, while her level gaze suggests she does not put up with nonsense. The boss’s awkward posture projects insecurity and undercuts his employees’ respect for him. The customer service rep projects warmth by sympathizing with the caller, saying that the snafu must have been aggravating — but then expresses confusion about the problem, projecting weakness and losing the caller’s confidence. Like a cost-benefit analysis or a pros-and-cons list, the strength + warmth lens reveals something fundamental about our experience.

But while reading those signals happens in a deeply intuitive, almost automatic way — even if we aren’t initially able to name that the emanation of “strength” is what’s winning our respect for a person or the absence of “warmth” is rendering another unlikable — sending them is a whole other matter. Learning to control our own emissions of these two critical qualities, Neffinger and Kohut argue, is an extraordinarily disorienting endeavor — attempting to project both strength and warmth simultaneously is incredibly hard:

Strength and warmth are in direct tension with each other. Most of the things we do to project strength of character — wearing a serious facial expression, flexing our biceps, or flexing our vocabulary — tend to make us seem less warm. Likewise, most signals of warmth — smiling often, speaking softly, doing people favors — can leave us seeming more submissive than strong.


The ability to master this tension, to project both strength and warmth at once, is rare— so rare, in fact, that we celebrate, elevate, and envy those people who manage it. We even have special names for this ability. The ancient Greeks called it “the divine gift,” from which we get the word “charisma.” Today it goes by different names in different circles: It is called “leadership potential” in the modern workplace, “cool” in social settings, and even just “it” in the entertainment business, as in “She’s got it!”

In the rest of Compelling People, Neffinger and Kohut go on to explore how variables like gender, ethnicity, body type, and age might affect this interplay and offer a framework for mastering the vital balance between strength and warmth, both in professional and personal contexts.

Published January 28, 2014




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