How It Works: Clinton's "Reality Distortion Field" Charisma

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One piece of the puzzle: getting eye contact right. Not evasive, not creepy — just right. (Photo: Mr. Theklan)

This is a guest post from Michael Ellsberg, a good friend who’s spent the last several years studying interpersonal persuasion and language (spoken and unspoken).

He has performed hundreds of tests in the field as the creator of Eye Gazing Parties, which resembles speed-dating with no speaking. Elle magazine called his parties “New York’s hottest dating trend,” and for good reason. Having attended one party, I can attest: three minutes of staring into someone’s eyes tells you more about them than ten minutes of talking.

In this post, he deconstructs Bill Clinton’s so-called “reality distortion field” into elements you can practice for business or pleasure. Don’t miss the play-by-play video demonstration…

Enter Michael Ellsberg

I’ve figured out the secret—or at least, a big secret—of Bill Clinton’s legendary charm and face-to-face persuasion.

“I have a friend who has always despised Bill Clinton,” a person at a cocktail party told me during the time I was writing my book about eye contact. “Yet, somehow my friend found himself at a function that Bill Clinton was attending. And, within the swirl of the crowd, he was introduced to Clinton.”

“In that moment, face-to-face, all of my friend’s personal animosity towards Clinton disappeared, in one instant,” my new acquaintance at the party continued. “As they were shaking hands, Clinton made eye contact with my friend in a way so powerful and intimate, my friend felt as though the two of them were the only people in the room.”

Steve Jobs is famous for having a “Reality Distortion Field” (RDF)—an aura of charisma, confidence, and persuasion, in which people report it almost impossible to avoid surrendering to the man and following his will when interacting face-to-face. Well—love his politics or hate them—Clinton is known for an RDF even stronger than Jobs’.  Perhaps the strongest in the world.

So, what’s the secret to Clinton’s RDF?

While writing my book, I heard some version of the above story about Clinton not once but three times. So, I Googled “Bill Clinton” and “eye contact.” A number of references to Clinton’s eye powers turned up.

A New York Times Magazine profile near the beginning of his presidency referred to his facility for “making eye contact so deep that recipients sometimes seem mesmerized. Tabloid rumors aside, Clinton embodies the parallels between the seductions of politics and the seductions of sex. As one Clinton watcher said recently: ‘It’s not that Clinton seduces women. It’s that he seduces everyone.'”

A post on the celebrity news blog WENN said, “Actress Gillian Anderson has discovered the secret behind former U.S. President Bill Clinton’s sex appeal—lingering eye contact.”

Anderson (Special Agent Dana Scully on The X-Files) spoke on Late Night With David Letterman of an encounter she had with Clinton several years earlier: “We all, mostly women, lined up. And when he gets to you, he takes your hand and makes eye contact. After he leaves and he moves on to the next person, he looks back at you and seals the deal. When I got home, I expected to have a message from him, and I didn’t. I bet women across America expect it too.”

Is it possible to hack this skill with eye contact? Is it possible to recreate Bill Clinton’s fabled RDF? (At least, the eye contact part?)

Absolutely. In my experience training myself and others, you can become a world-class master of eye contact in about 2 weeks.

How to Go From “Eye Shy” to “Eye Ballsy” In Three Easy Steps

STEP 1: Practice Brief Eye Contact With Strangers

While you walk down the sidewalk (during daylight hours!) look at the eyes of every person walking towards you long enough to see their eye color. Less than a second. Then look away. This is the best technique I know for building solid eye contact skills quickly. In my experience, if the eye contact is brief enough, no one minds at all, and you get tons of practice in.

You can also practice longer eye contact with waiters, salesclerks, cashiers, and other paid service staff, so long as you do it respectfully and in a friendly way.

In all cases, keep a neutral facial expression and soft gaze. You don’t want anyone to think you’re trying to stare them down, rob them, or get them into the sack. If you practice all this for a week or two as you go about your daily business, the quality of your eye contact will become better than most people’s, in a short amount of time.

STEP 2: Learn the Art of Personal Space

You’ve probably experienced bosses or strangers “get up in your face,” and it feels very unpleasant. Bill Clinton and others with RDFs are experts at getting close to you while making you feel totally safe and comfortable. This increases feelings of intimacy, trust, and affinity.

How do they do it? They have mastered the subtle art of personal space. First written about in-depth by anthropologist Edward Hall, our sense of “personal space” is the feeling we get of being “invaded” when someone steps too close.

Interestingly, our sense of personal space is not a pure function of physical proximity; many other psychological factors influence it. In general, your sense of physical proximity with someone increases when they are:

– Making direct eye contact with you
– Facing you directly (as opposed to standing side-by-side looking into the crowd)
– Touching you (i.e., rubbing elbows in a crowd, patting your back, touching your arm or shoulder)
– Raising their voice
– Talking about you (as opposed to a neutral subject)

If a stranger starts doing too many of these at once, your personal space begins to feel violated, and you start having that icky “eww get away from me!” feeling we’ve all experienced with unwelcome conversations at parties.

In contrast, if you learn to modulate these five different factors, and combine them in different ways, you can make your conversation partners feel safe and comfortable while at the same time feeling close and intimate with you.

When you increase eye contact, try leaning back or standing back a little to increase their comfort. When you are physically close because it’s a crowded room, try lowering your voice. When you pat someone on the back or touch their arm as you talk, try standing at an angle, not facing them directly.

By playing with these different factors, cranking some of the dials up as you turn others down, you can create the feeling of being incredibly close, without triggering the “Red Alert! Get Away!” response in your conversation partner. People with RDFs are masters of this skill. And it’s very seductive.

STEP 3: Practice Being Present

Have you ever felt someone was making eye contact with you, but wasn’t taking in a thing you were saying? My friend Marie Forleo has referred to this phenomenon as a “pretend gaze—their eyes are on yours, but their mind is on a Hawaiian beach.”

In our age of tweets and Facebook status updates and cellphone buzzes and new texts and IMs and VMs every few seconds, focusing your inner attention on the same person you’re talking with can be challenging, but its worth practicing the skill. (BTW, following Tim’s low-information diet helps with this.)

For one week, whenever you talk with someone, practice noticing whenever your mind drifting—to the laundry, your bills, you co-worker’s snide comment today, that hottie you just spotted at the party whom you want to meet. Then, when you notice this inevitable mental drifting, bring your attention back to whomever you’re talking with at the moment. They will truly appreciate it.

We are living in a world where no one, it seems, has attention for anyone or anything for more than a few moments. How rare it is when someone pays attention to us. Consider the wording of the phrase: pay attention. In industrialized nations, at least, attention is becoming almost as scarce a resource as money. Someone who “pays” it to you is giving you something of true value.

As Elizabethan poet and statesman Fulke Greville has written, “Our companions please us less from the charms we find in their conversation than from those they find in ours.”

Clinton pays out his focused attention generously, making us feel he’s truly interested in us and what we have to say. This is why people love talking with him face-to-face.

That feeling of “we were the only two people in the room,” which Clinton is so skillful in fostering, stems from his eye contact, from his careful use of personal space, and from his unshakeable attention once he’s talking with you.

Learn to combine these three factors together, and you’re on your way to a rock-star Reality Distortion Field. Just be careful about what you do with all the attention!

BONUS: If you want a fantastic education in how the three factors we’ve been talking about–eye contact, personal space, and presence–interplay to create legendary persuasion, watch the below video clip from the second Bush-Clinton-Perot debate, on October 15, 1992.

The idea of a town-hall format was proposed to the Bush team by Clinton’s team in 1992, and Bush agreed. This was the first town hall presidential debate in US television history. Little did Bush know he had just agreed to battling the master on his own territory.

To appreciate just how fully Clinton nails this debate moment, I suggest watching the 4-minute clip twice–first with audio turned off, and then with audio on. If you’re at all interested in this post’s topic, it’ll be worth it.

I’ll put several comments below the video. [Note: I am not making any endorsement one way or the other about the political views expressed in this clip. I’m only talking about body language and persuasion.]

Commentary:

First point: In the initial seconds of the video, Bush checks his watch when the voter begins asking him a question. Presence? How about “How long do I have to listen to you before I can talk?” This was widely considered a “Dukakis-in-the-tank/Dean Scream” moment during the campaign, and among the worst gaffes in presidential debate history (up there with Gore’s sighs and eye rolls in 2000). And it all hinged on one moment of absent presence.

Notice Bush’s eye contact as he answers the woman’s question. It is sporadic, weak, drifting, and random. He hasn’t decided whether he’s talking to her, to the moderator, to the whole audience, or to the air in the room. In terms of personal space, he is totally unsure of how close he should stand; he walks closer to her, then backs off, visibly uncomfortable with the personal space aspect of the interchange. In all three factors of RDF we’ve talked about–eye contact, personal space, and presence–he’s clearly not making a personal connection with the voter.

At 2:30, when Clinton begins to answer, notice how he manages to simultaneously own the space and put the woman at ease. He walks up several yards closer than Bush did, making a personal connection in her space, without making her uncomfortable. His eye contact is clear, unwavering, and calm. There’s absolutely no mistaking whom he’s talking with. Clinton’s there in the room with two rival candidates, news media, other audience members, and a national TV audience of millions. Yet that feeling of “The only two people in the room” is palpable when he talks with the voter.

The result of this town hall debate? 58% of viewers declared Clinton the winner of the debate, 16% for Bush, and 15% for Perot. (In the previous debate, with a traditional podium format, 47% of viewers declared Perot to be the winner, with 30% for Clinton, and 16% for Bush.)

Look at the woman’s response at 3:22. Clinton completely has her. (Remember actress Gillian Anderson’s comment?) Bush’s facial expression at 3:47 is priceless. He knows he’s been beaten.

###

About the author: Michael Ellsberg is the author of The Power of Eye Contact. For his forthcoming book, already purchased by Penguin/Portfolio, he’s seeking to interview people who didn’t finish college who are successful at what they do. Fit the bill? Go to this page.

Ellsberg is also the creator of Eye Gazing Parties, a series of social events based on eye contact which attracted feature press coverage from the New York Times, Associated Press TV, CBS News, CNN, Good Morning America, MSNBC, Regis & Kelly, and more. Elle magazine called Eye Gazing Parties “New York’s hottest dating trend.”

Posted on: November 21, 2010.

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222 comments on “How It Works: Clinton's "Reality Distortion Field" Charisma

  1. Hey Tim,
    Great guest post! I have always been fascinated by how some politicians like Bill Clinton have always been able to instantly connect with people they talk to. The secret, at least from I’ve learned from interacting with people like that, is that they make you feel like the only person in the room, even if it is a crowded party. I would guess that after meeting a politician, 90% of voters would support them if they had a very positive interaction with them, even if it was only for a few minutes!

    Like

  2. I’m reminded of Fran Lebowitz’s line — “The opposite of talking isn’t listening. The opposite of talking is waiting.” (Clinton’s checkered past brings to mind Martha Stout, Ph.d.’s comment in her book THE SOCIOPATH NEXT DOOR about how sociopaths manipulate others: “The first technique is charm, and as a social force, charm should not be underestimated.” p. 87.)

    Like

    • This is the best guest post I’ve read on your blog Tim, because it doesn’t just highlight the spectical of the RDF, it makes it make sense. Well done Michael. Thank you.
      @ Lupercalia, you hit the mark as well with Fran Lebowitz’s line — “The opposite of talking isn’t listening. The opposite of talking is waiting.”

      It’s important to ensure the charm that comes from this is used in moral ways, because if you take advantage of the charm in the wrong way, you become sleazy.

      The definition of sleazy? If the girl you flirt with finds you attractive, you’re charming, but unattractive, you’re sleazy.

      The lesson? Clinton’s charm combined with ill intentions will come across as a sleazy car salesman.

      @Tim: The new reply system is great too.

      Like

      • Thanks, Tgrrr! This quote in your comment is fantastic:

        “The definition of sleazy? If the girl you flirt with finds you attractive, you’re charming, but unattractive, you’re sleazy.”

        Ah, c’est la vie!

        Tim

        Like

      • Tgrrr, you’re absolutely right that “it’s important to ensure the charm that comes from this is used in moral ways, because if you take advantage of the charm in the wrong way, you become sleazy.”

        I think that the more we study persuasion, the more we also have to get in touch with our own sense of integrity and values. Persuasion in the service of your highest ideals, or of helping someone (such as persuading someone to eat healthier, stop smoking, take their career more seriously, etc.) is noble. Persuasion in service of getting something from someone, with no benefit to them, is icky. It’s a fine line, and ultimately your own sense of integrity has to be the arbiter.

        I think there’s also a lot of hidden wisdom in your funny line, “The definition of sleazy? If the girl you flirt with finds you attractive, you’re charming, but unattractive, you’re sleazy.”

        It’s so true… and it shows that the sense of trust and charm comes “before” actions–i.e., people find your actions trustworthy and charming because they find *you* trustworthy and charming–not the other way around. So, even though Steps 1 and 2 in my post teach outer “techniques,” I really think that Step 3, cultivating presence, is where the heart of it is. That’s where you get real, and it makes it much more likely that others trust your words and actions. Of course, back to your first point–it all has to be backed up by integrity.

        Like

      • “The definition of sleazy? If the girl you flirt with finds you attractive, you’re charming, but unattractive, you’re sleazy.”

        Disagree. Plenty of very physically men come across as sleazy and/or smarmy. Plenty of plain and less attractive men (although, admittedly, few genuinely ugly) are made very appealing by their charm. The charm involves personal attention and wit. The sleaze factor isn’t very physical. A mediocre personality but ugly appearance isn’t really going to hit on my radar much at all; mediocre and ugly is neutral and peripheral.

        The above descriptions of entering someone’s personal space rings true, so those descriptions are what I am referencing in this next statement:

        Sleaze is all about personality. Sleaze is perceived when I feel as if the man is abusing and manipulating my space. This is beyond just invading my personal space. An invasion for its own sake, deliberate or accidental, feels more like blunt force. When a man invades my personal space and causes me to feel as if he a) expects *me* to *enjoy* the invasion and b) expects to receive something in return… that’s the sleazy smarminess that rankles my nerves. I can reject blunt force and I might not even notice neutral, but a deliberate invasion that is trying to slink its way in hoping to receive something back? Ew.

        Like

      • I agree with Lorien. If I had to rely on my looks, I would be sitting in my room playing Atari (more than I already do). Over the years I have learned that the sexiest part of a man’s body is his ear. I found that listening, repeating back, understanding and then empathizing goes a long, long way. Throw in some confidence and humor and you have a great recipe for success.

        Like

    • lupercalia (sic):
      are you suggesting that president clinton is a sociopath? as for “checkered past,” i was hoping that we had stepped out of the lurid details of stained dresses (not for us to comment on but exclusively the domain of bill and hillary clinton’s private relationship) and considered important presidential issues such as balancing the budget, for example. how interesting, instead, that in this debate the future president inherits a deficit from bush senior, fixes it, hands it to bush junior who will in turn create another deficit, and will hand it to president obama — who is now blamed for the economic recession.

      Like

      • be fair. without the republicans winning in 94 there is no balanced budget. as for the republicans blowing out the deficit after that, I cant argue. The problem is now we don’t have a president who wants to balance the budget.

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      • Gloria- This was a post about eye-contact, not the merits of anyone’s politics. But since you couldn’t resist jumping in… 1) Clinton is more than charming rascal… he’s a serial abuser and rapist -* Juanita Broaddrick ring a bell or did you forget her among all the others?* 2) Would intentionally infecting hundreds of people with HIV and Hep C for money count as sociopathic behavior? Google Clinton’s involvement in the Arkansas Red Cross blood scandal 3) I don’t know what your ‘Ph.D’ is in but it cant be economics- the illusion of the Clinton economic surplus was based on virtual internet capitol which vanished with the dot com bust- and that happened in the last quarter of his presidency

        But the man’s eye contact is stellar..

        Like

  3. Fantastic! I’ve highlighted every time Clinton’s name is mentioned in “Never Eat Alone” by Keith Ferrazzi (almost finished reading it). Fantastic study Tim and Michael!

    Tim, you may get a laugh out of this – When I read step 2 above, all I could think about at first was the Seinfeld “Close Talker” episode :)

    Cheers!

    – Josh

    Like

  4. Wow, that was fascinating! I just got done watching “Lie to Me” a few moments ago… Tim Roth’s masterful show about reading body language and facial expressions. Very similar premise to this post. Cool stuff, both.

    Like

  5. I recall one such eye gazing event I attended in San Fran, hosted by the AMP/AWE group (awesome people, BTW).

    Standing across from someone you like is easy. With someone you might prefer in smaller doses, now that’s where the *real* action is!

    Like

    • Clinton’s also the master of spinning tall tales. Knowing him after 8 years in office, and after reading his book, it’s obvious that he is able to tell bold-face lies to the woman who asked the question while looking her square in the eye. He doesn’t know the factory worker that gets laid off in his state. He doesn’t know what it’s like to suffer in a downturn in our private sector because he’s always been dependent on government for his wage and his home since he left for college. Yet he can seem empathetic and understanding while lying through his teeth. A true sociopath!

      Like

  6. This is very true. Try talking only when making eye contact. Silent when one looks away; pause. Resume speaking only when eye contact resumes. The difference is amazing. Especially in a sales environment.

    Like

  7. Tim,

    Thank you for always posting very interesting, and thought provoking articles. Persuasion is a near and dear subject to my heart and anything that explains techniques and ideas of how it works, is very useful. I’ve been trying to come up with ideas for a product involving persuasion but so far have fallen short. Would love to get your process of product creation, from how you get the initial idea, to the development of the final product.

    Ergest

    Like

  8. Hi Tim –

    I just had the amazing opportunity to have lunch with Michael, and his beautiful wife, Jena. What I noticed immediately was they both communicated so much with their eyes without saying a word. I’ve also been in a room with Bill Clinton, and he has definitely mastered the art of eye contact.

    Eye contact + Presence + Sincerity = Instant Attraction

    Thanks for a great post!

    Like

    • Hey Tonya–thanks for the sweet comment! Yes, Jena and I first met on a salsa dance floor with loud music (at Burning Man) so almost all of our initial communication was body language, much of it eye contact. Now we’re married! Powerful stuff indeed. . .

      Like

  9. Thanks for this post Tim. I’m going to pick this book up (after I read the 4HB!)
    I wonder if this is something that Clinton had to learn or if this is natural? More posts on this topic please.

    Like

  10. Great post and thanks for sharing! It’s always great to read information that can break down why certain people have more charisma than others, especially for shy people like me! Really interested to see if there are eye gazing parties in Sydney Australia now!

    Like

  11. Dear Tim,

    Great post. It’s truly fascinating to watch the video. In the 4 seconds between 0:03 and 0:07 Mr. Bush checks his watch AND hitches up his trousers—almost as if to say “I’ll make this quick because I’m in charge AND because the person asking the question is an idiot!” At the SAME TIME, watch how Mr. Perot echoes Mr. Clinton’s stance. Mr. Perot is sitting behind Mr. Clinton’s line of sight but Mr. Perot is wise enough to know who to echo in terms of stance and overall body language, and it’s NOT Mr. Bush.

    At 1:31, Mr. Bush points at the questioner … and then he closes his eyes and HE LOOKS AWAY! Totally dismissing the woman and her line of enquiry. Whoops, and George has fluffed it!

    At 02:32, when Mr. Bush has finished speaking, he returns to his seat but
    his back is to the entire audience. Freeze the frame just there and there’s a subtle but DISTINCT difference between Mr. Bush’s retreat and Mr. Clinton’s advance.

    At 02:42, EVERY EYE in the audience is on Mr. Clinton. A second later, the man and woman directly in front of Mr. Clinton both look to their left (at Mr. Bush). And at the same time, the four people to the left and right of Mr. Clinton’s head ALL look at Mr. Bush. It’s only on screen for a fraction of a second before the camera cuts back to Mr. Clinton, but by then, the damage to Mr. Bush may well have been done. At 03:19, when Mr. Clinton is talking, we see the questioner AND Mr. Clinton and the questioner is nodding her head: VICTORY for Mr. Clinton!

    All incredibly revealing and all magical. Thanks again for sharing this.

    Kind regards,

    Gary Bloomer

    Like

  12. Right, I would say Steve Jobs is probably the ultimate salesman/story teller we have, and as far as charisma, he was pretty much THE GUY in the 1980’s. These day’s he can turn it on when he wants to, but as Apple has grown into the biggest (Market cap) Tech company on the market, he’s often in a position of defending himself, not so much the Golden Boy he once was.

    If you want to hear him tell a few great stories, go download the free Podcast with him and Bill Gates at the D conference a few years back (2007 I believe).

    Also, an amazing gem: an print interview with Playboy (I swear it was like 2 hours long) http://bit.ly/dykCzs … Where Jobs basically talks about the power of computing, back when it was just breaking into the Mainstream.

    Like

  13. As a relatively conservative republican, I have to admit that Clinton is absolutely a social genius. The above clip is just legendary. Great article.

    Like

  14. The reason Clinton is so successful IMO is that he really really cares about people. It’s part of his small town Southern roots and his being a boy raised by adoring grandparents (he lost his father before he was born). He didn’t have a sibling until he was much older. He’s highly intelligent, politically gifted (and this is connected with his love of people and his desire to be loved), and wants to make life better for people. He’s devoted his life to other people, not to personal gain or retiring to golf. Consider the Clinton Foundation.

    I don’t think he has such a wall between him and other people as those who are more guarded or, fell abandoned by a parent in some way do. He fells your pain because he is genuinely empathetic. A psychopath might study the various ways to manipulate people, but basically, it’s all a charade and people will catch on eventually. He doesn’t have to read someone else’s words off a teleprompter to know what he values. Read “First in His Class” by David Maraniss to understand more about the man’s life.

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    • I didn’t catch it the first time either. The really powerful thing here is that our unconscious minds probably caught it. All this body language stuff really resonates at the unconscious level.
      :-)

      Like

  15. This is something I have been wanting to learn more about for a long time. I do massage in Miami so it is important to me that I get the eye contact part down at the first meeting so that the client feels totally comfortable.
    I practice it in many situations throughout my life, but sometimes I look away awkwardly and hate myself for it. Success depends on the situation, the other person, and the amount of distractions. The hard thing about this is that success is hard to determine and when I realize I’m doing this successfully, I drop the ball. It feels like there is a lot of energy involved in maintaining the balance and congruency.
    I guess you could also call RDF Jedi Mind Tricks. The book will make a good Christmas gift for myself.

    Like