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Issue: 74 - Feb 16, 2015
Charisma for the Socially Inept Practitioner
By: Dr. Phil Zeltzman
Dr. Phil Zeltzman

Every time I attend a conference, I am reminded that vets have the reputation of being introverts and socially inept.  Multiple personality tests reach similar conclusions – at least for most of us.

So let’s swallow our collective pride, and see what we can do about it.

Believe me, I’m far from being the poster child for charisma, but at least I understand the theory. Let’s go over the basics, which apply to any situation, whether you greet a client, you are in a social setting or you meet a colleague at a conference.

Studies show that in the first 7 seconds, someone you just met makes thousands of judgments: about your trustworthiness, about your character, about your skills.

You can have all kinds of diplomas and certificates on your wall.  You can have 27 letters after your name. You can have 30 years of experience.  This is all pretty useless if your client doesn’t like you or trust you. Of course, the fact that a client likes us or not can seem futile. Yet it can be critically important to the health and potentially the lifespan of the other creature in the room: the patient.

Our job is not only difficult because our patients can’t speak (how cliché…). It’s also challenging because we need to convince a complete stranger, or someone we barely know, that we are trustworthy and that we have the solution to their beloved pet’s problem.

I am absolutely convinced that charismatic colleagues help more patients than others.

So here are 7 things you can do in 7 seconds to be more charismatic.

1. Smile
Your smile may not be as great and friendly as you think. Practice in front of a mirror. Don’t worry, nobody will ever know. Try it. It will likely prove that you should smile more widely than you currently do.  However, remember that you are not posing for a toothpaste commercial, so remain natural.

2. Eye contact
You shouldn’t stare at people in a creepy kind of way, but you should be able to remember the person’s eye color.

3. Personal space
In our Western society, you should not be any closer than 2 feet from people. That’s about an arm length.  Respect their personal “bubble.”
Simple enough, right? Yet at every CE meeting I attend, I meet a “close talker” who doesn’t understand that rule.  Add bad breath, a bit of spittle or a couple of drinks to the mix, and it makes the encounter really awkward… and brief.

4. Posture
Lean slightly forward.  Keep your shoulders back.  Keep your chin up (not too high though).  Don’t drag your feet.  Look groomed.  Dress appropriately for the occasion.  Appear confident, not like you’re lost or bored.  Subconsciously, people pay more attention to our body language than to what we say.

5. Name
Forgetting someone’s name is a criminal offense in the US. There are tricks to better remember names, such as repeating the person’s first name within 5 seconds: “Nice to meet you Jane.”  Then internally repeat the name a few times. Or start a few sentences with the person’s name: “So Jane, where do you work?”  Then at the end of the conversation, conclude with: “It was really nice meeting you Jane.”

6. Hand shake
This one always fascinates me. A good handshake should be firm, but you should not crush the other person’s hand (I’m sure we all know bone crushers).  A good handshake should be clean and dry - not all sweaty or covered in moisture from your drinking glass.  A good handshake should last a few seconds – not 10 or 20.
In reality, a handshake is really a figure of speech. You are not shaking bed sheets here.  You should merely "pump” once (maybe twice), from the elbow.

7. Be present
I suspect many of us are guilty of not wanting to hear Ms. Smith’s detailed account of her dog’s daily bowel movements for the past 2 weeks.  Sure, it’s sometimes difficult to pay attention to every word uttered by a client, a colleague or even a family member.  We have so much to do and so much on our minds.  But people can sense when you’re not present.  Just like you can sense when your client is not present. Be authentic, be present, be aware, and you will appear more caring and charismatic.

Interestingly, only one out of these 7 concepts is verbal (and presumably conscious). Most is non-verbal communication, related to our lizard brain. The whole idea is to become more aware of the non-verbal part of your communication, because people (clients, family members, colleagues) will believe your non-verbal signals every time.

Mastering these 7 basic skills is critical, because we are judged based on them far more than on our medical or surgical skills.

Phil Zeltzman, DVM, DACVS, CVJ

Dr. Phil Zeltzman is a traveling, board-certified surgeon in Allentown, PA. His website is He is the co-author of “Walk a Hound, Lose a Pound” (