Why Joel Osteen, “The Smiling Preacher,” Is So Darn Appealing

It’s hard to quantify charisma, but by any measure Joel Osteen has some pretty impressive stats. Every week, the man some call “The Smiling Preacher,” draws an estimated 43,500 individuals to his Lakewood Church, which he moved into a former professional basketball stadium just off Houston’s Highway 59 in 2005. Osteen’s weekly sermons are beamed across seven networks in the United States and, by some estimates, reach 95 percent of the nation’s households and more than 150 countries.

The 53-year-old pastor, with his boyish good looks, ubiquitous incisors, and his impeccably coiffed mane of wavy, brown locks, oversees a budget estimated at upward of $70 million. He has penned no less than seven best sellers (most derived from his sermons), has amassed a net worth estimated at $40 million, with book sales and related revenue reportedly exceeding $55 million, and lives in a 17,000-square foot, $10.5 million mansion. All of it is built upon the personality—the words, the wisdom, and in no small part the charisma—of the man the congregants of the nation’s largest charismatic church refer to, simply, as “Pastor Joel.”

So, what is it that makes Osteen different from the rest of us? What is the source of his magical magnetism?

Many—including Osteen himself—might attribute his gifts to the favor of a higher power. After all, charisma, wrote the early 20th century German sociologist Max Weber, who gave the word its most widely used modern definition, is a quality that sets an individual “apart from ordinary men,” and causes others to treat him as “endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities.”

But there’s a small but growing group of individuals who have another explanation. Using brain-scan technologies and modern statistical techniques, a band of committed academics in recent years have set out to decipher that mysterious quality from which legendary leadership is born. And some have reached what a previous generation of observers might have considered a dubious conclusion: That it’s possible not just to reverse-engineer charisma, but that it’s something, at least in part, we might learn to master.

“Charismatic tactics can be taught, and the more charismatic leadership tactics used, the more individuals will be seen as leader-like by others,” says John Antonakis, a professor of Organizational Behavior, and Director of the Ph.D. program in management at the University of Lausanne. (Read the Nautilus feature about how we create charismatic leaders and the dangerous consequences of their power.)

By studying well-known charismatics and replicating their actions in the lab, Antonakis has identified a series of what he calls Charismatic Leadership Tactics (CLTs), which range from the use of metaphors and storytelling, to nonverbal methods of communication like open posture and animated gestures at key moments.

t the request of Nautilus, Antonakis assigned a doctoral student, Benjamin Tur, to sit down and code the first 10 minutes of a 2012 sermon by Osteen, “The Power of I Am,” a speech that Oprah Winfrey says changed her life.

The sermon opens with a photographic montage that includes an image of a smiling Osteen, standing with his photogenic family—son, daughter, and wife—autumn leaves cascading joyfully down around them. It moves to snapshots of his son throwing a football, his daughter kissing a puppy dog, and finally lands on Joel standing with his beautiful wife Victoria, her long blonde hair billowing gently in the wind. The screen cuts to a camera slowly moving over a huge multiracial stadium crowd of all shapes and sizes, panning in and resting with the handsome Osteen. That’s when the magic begins.

Osteen is clad in an impeccable Cerulean blue suit, crisp white shirt and purple, paisley tie, and he is at that very moment, extending his arm and open hand outward toward the screen—toward me—toward all of us—beckoning viewers to join him.

“God bless you! It’s a joy to come into your homes,” Osteen says, pointing his index finger E.T.-like at the viewing audience for just a second, flashing a humble smile, then leaning his right shoulder ever so slightly toward the camera, while blinking his long eyelashes rapidly, as if awakening to a bright, glorious morning. “We love you. If you are ever in our area, please stop by and be a part of one of our services! I promise you we’ll make you feel right at home. Thanks so much for tuning in.”

Osteen shambles over to a wooden podium, places a hand gently on its edge, and tells the audience he likes to start with “something funny.”

“I heard about this 92-year-old man,” Osteen begins. “He wasn’t feeling up to par and he went to the doctor for a checkup. A few days later the doctor saw him walking in the park. He had this beautiful young lady by his side and he seemed as happy as can be. The doctor said, ‘Wow you sure are feeling a lot better aren’t you!’ He said, ‘Yes, doctor, I’m just taking your orders. You said, ‘Get a hot mama and be cheerful.’ The doctor said, ‘I didn’t say that, I said ‘You got a heart murmur be careful!’”

With the tone set, Osteen is off, exhorting his followers to hold their Bibles aloft, repeat a prayer, and then launching into an inspirational message.

Right out of the gate, Osteen is using three of Antonakis’ identified tactics: an animated voice, facial expressions, and gestures. All three figure in Osteen’s opening, even before he has launched into his actual sermon. Taken together, the gestures cue the audience that they have arrived on friendly territory, and encourage them to let down their guards. Osteen begins his sermon. “I want to talk to you today about the power of I am,” he says. “What follows these two simple words will determine what kind of life you live. I am blessed. I am strong, I am healthy. Or, I am slow, I am unattractive, I am a terrible mother. The I ams that are coming out of your mouth will bring either success or failure.”

To connect through a verbal message, Antonakis says, a leader must do three things. He must

  1. frame” a vision or paint a picture by using metaphor or stories. He must
  2. express sentiments of the collective. Finally, he must
  3. deliver it all in an in animated and passionate way. In the minutes that follow, Osteen will continue to do all three.

Of the 12 different CLTs that Antonakis and Tur look for, nine are verbal. They are:

  1. metaphor and comparison,
  2. story,
  3. rhetorical question,
  4. contrasts,
  5. lists and repetitions,
  6. moral convictions,
  7. expressing the sentiments of the collective,
  8. setting high and ambitious goals, and
  9. creating confidence that goals can be achieved.

Osteen uses on average one charismatic verbal tactic every two sentences. By comparison, Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech has well over three times as many verbal signaling techniques per sentence—his language is infused with powerful imagery and metaphor. “Osteen’s speech is rather average when it comes to use of verbal signaling techniques,” the academics say.

But Osteen makes up for his relative poverty of verbal CLTs by the way he delivers his sermon. He takes full advantage of the medium of the television, which allows us to watch him up close.

Antonakis and Tur say that Osteen shows an open body posture and uses representative gestures at key moments; for instance, when he says, “I am so old,” he mimics wrinkles at the corner of his eyes. There is also his voice. He displays variation both in term of pitch and speed, slowing down, using pauses or speeding up. “Like MLK, his voice sometimes vibrates in this preacher style,” Antonakis and Tur say. Finally, there is Osteen’s facial expression. “He is smiling constantly and accompanies that by raising his eyebrows, making his face more expressive.”

In conclusion, say Antonakis and Tur, the handsome Osteen “embodies his speech and smiles constantly throughout the talk. This combination of nonverbal behavior makes the speech captivating for the audience.”

President Trump seems to be saying more and more things that aren’t true

Since Saturday, Trump has tweeted false or misleading information at least seven times on the topic of immigration and at least six times on a Justice Department inspector general report into the FBI’s handling of its investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private email server. That’s more than a dozen obfuscations on just two central topics — a figure that does not include falsehoods on other issues, whether in tweets or public remarks.

.. in June, Trump has been tweeting at the fastest rate of his presidency so far, an average of 11.3 messages per day. 

.. The president often seeks to paint a self-serving and self-affirming alternate reality for himself and his supporters. Disparaging the “fake news” media, Trump offers his own filter through which to view the world — offering a competing reality on issues including relationships forged (or broken) at the Group of Seven summit in Canada, the success of the Singapore summit with the North Koreans, and his administration’s  “zero tolerance” policy on illegal immigration.

..  “As far as I can tell, the best way to understand anything he says is what will best serve his interests in the moment. It’s irrespective to any version of the truth.”

.. Trump had made 3,251 false or misleading claims in 497 days — an average of 6.5 such claims per day of his presidency.

.. Trump’s use of repetition is a particularly effective technique for convincing his supporters of the veracity of his false claims, in part because most people have a “truth bias,” or an initial inclination to accept what others say as true.

.. “When liars repeat the same lie over and over again, they can get even more of an advantage, at least among those who want to believe them or are not all that motivated either way,”

.. “So when people hear the same lies over and over again — especially when they want to believe those lies — a kind of new reality can be created. What they’ve heard starts to seem like it’s just obvious, and not something that needs to be questioned.”

.. While Congress could pass a legislative fix, Republicans control both the House and the Senate — making it disingenuous at best to finger the opposing party, as the president has repeatedly done.

.. Trump again falsely painted the humanitarian crisis as a binary choice. “We can either release all illegal immigrant families and minors who show up at the border from Central America, or we can arrest the adults for the federal crime of illegal entry,” he said. “Those are the only two options.”

.. twice in the past four days has singled out Germany as facing an increase in crime. “Crime in Germany is up 10% plus (officials do not want to report these crimes) since migrants were accepted,” Trump wrote. “Others countries are even worse. Be smart America!”

.. In fact, the opposite is true. Reported crime in Germany was actually down by 10 percent last year and, according to German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, the country’s reported crime rate last year was actually at its lowest point in three decades.

.. The president has also falsely claimed that the inspector general report “exonerated” him from Mueller’s probe, when the report did not delve into the Russia investigation.

.. On a conference call Tuesday morning, for instance, a senior Health and Human Services official said the new policy was focused on deterrence and was working — contradicting the public comments of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, who has publicly said that family separation is not a policy, is not new and is not about deterrence.

.. the past week may mark an “inflection point” in how both the media and the public treat Trump’s mistruths.

.. “The lies have been so bald and discernibly false, I think people have felt license to challenge him and use the word ‘lie’ more freely than they have in the past,”

Donald Trump’s Playbook for Smearing

“This is a classic example of where Trump begins to demonstrate something he talks about all the time today, which is he’s a counterpuncher. So somebody comes after him and says that he’s done something nefarious and horrible, and he just goes back at them with all guns blazing you know, boom, boom, boom. And admits nothing, never admit anything, never say you made a mistake, just keep coming.

And if you lose, declare victory. And that’s exactly what happened there. He lost as clearly as you could lose but he loudly proclaimed his victory.”

.. But of course the description also applies to so much else — including Trump’s support for the Iraq War, his “birther” conspiracy theory, his refusal to release tax returns and, most recently, his history of sexual assault.

.. “His lawyer said to me, ‘Donald is a believer that if you repeat something enough, people will start to believe it,’” the journalist Marie Brenner says in the same episode of Frontline that includes the Schwartz interview I quote above.

.. When Trump is feeling cornered, in business or politics, he has a go-to strategy: He lies, and he just keeps lying.