Social Cues, Overcoming Awkwardness, and Improving Your Communication Skills with Vanessa Van Edwards

Vanessa van edwards is a recovering awkward person and introvert who is on a mission to help everyone learn how to engage, interact, and lead with authenticity and genuine engagement. What that means is that she’s teaching people how to interpret and use the many verbal and non-verbal cues that often go unnoticed so you can feel more at ease and in control of how you show up.

It’s really fun stuff. I’m very into it. I’ve learned a lot from her that I’m already putting into practice.

Vanessa is the Lead Investigator at Science of People. She is the bestselling author of Captivate: The Science of Succeeding with People. More than 50 million people have watched her YouTube tutorials and TEDx Talk.

She works with entrepreneurs, growing businesses, and trillion-dollar companies; and has been featured all over the web.

More than anything, what I love about Vanessa is how she practices what she preaches. She’s warm, engaging, and a fantastic communicator.

I loved this conversation, and I think you will too.


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Resources Mentioned:

Vanessa’s website

Vanessa’s Instagram

Vanessa’s new book: Cues (Master the Secret Language of Charismatic Communication)

Software Generated Transcription:

Dan

Vanessa, I am so excited to have you here with us. Welcome to The Meaning Movement podcast.

Vanessa

Oh, I’m so happy to be here. Thanks for having me.

Dan

The question I like to begin with is how do you begin to talk about the work that you do in the world?

Vanessa

This is easy. I must say, right off the bat, the way I like to talk about my work is I’m a recovering awkward person. So I have never found communication to be very easy. I’ve always struggled with social skills. I struggle with some social anxiety. And the very beginning of my career journey, I realized that I had to catch up my social skills, that if I did not know how to communicate well, there was no way that people were going to believe me or be interested in my ideas. And so what grounds me in my work is helping my fellow recovering awkward folks. If you’ve ever felt awkward, you are not alone, giving you some really practical tools that you can use. And also for my fellow introverts on people’s skills and communication was written by extroverts. And the underlying feeling I had when I read those books was you have to fake being an extrovert to be liked, to be charismatic. You have to fake it till you make it. You have to pretend to be outgoing. And that just never felt authentic to me. So I also would share that for my introverts, you can be charismatic without having to be extroverted.

Vanessa

You can be heard without being loud. So that’s what grounds all my work.

Dan

I love it. It’s such a good such a great place to start. I’m also a fellow recovering awkward person. You’re in good company. I blame it on the fact that I was homeschooled. And at some point, I kind of realized that I need to figure out how to relate to people because those social skills were harder for me to gain, I guess, naturally. And so I guess I’m just such a fan of the work that you’re doing. So I have your book right here, which we’ll get to, and we’ll talk about it. And I was like, I wish I had this book like, 1520 years ago. That would have been so helpful.

Vanessa

Me too. Me too. The funny kind of side story is that one of the I think that it’s interesting to talk about what makes us awkward, right. And how our awkwardness dresses up. And so everyone has their awkwardness. It shows up in different ways. Some people, they feel awkward. They feel that seed of not belonging, doubt, worry, fear. And it makes them hide. It closes them up and makes them inhibit. It makes them go quiet. Other people feel that seat of awkwardness, and it makes them go loud. It makes them show off. It makes them be dramatic. It makes them get angry. And so one thing that I noticed for me is my awkwardness makes me confused. So what was happening to me? You mentioned 15 years ago, my story starts, I think right around the same time is I noticed I was misinterpreting neutral cues as negative. So I would be in the interaction and think, oh, she hates me. Oh, my gosh, I’m saying I sound so dumb. He doesn’t like me. And I would get in my own head when actually they were sending me totally neutral cues, but I was misinterpreting them as negative.

Vanessa

And that created so much confusion where I would leave an interaction or I would leave an interaction overthink it. Oh, why did I say that I should have done that or before interaction, I would have so much dread and anxiety that I wouldn’t be able to sound smart, that I wouldn’t be able to pitch my ideas, that I wouldn’t be able to show up as my best self. And so all that confusion, I needed a system. That’s a crazy thing to say about human behavior because I know humans are very complicated, but I literally needed a system. I needed a blueprint. I needed a cheat sheet. I wanted flashcards for, like, here’s what I say, here’s what I do with my hands for those learners. If you have confusion or you just feel like you don’t have control over your social interaction or communication, I think that there is a different way to do it, which is having a system for our communication.

Dan

I love it. What’s? So I guess ironic about it is it feels like just to Zoom out of this conversation and say, I’m going to present to you a system of this checklist that you can use to be engaging and all these. It sounds like the outcome of that would be like really stiff and robotic robotic, but it’s actually 100% the opposite, which is just so surprising about the whole thing.

Vanessa

Yeah, you’re right. Actually, let’s talk about robotic, the robotic sort of stiff, stoic robotism robotism. Whoa. We’re creating words today. Let’s talk about this because this is one direction that people will go in their awkwardness, which is I don’t know what queues to send, and I don’t know what keys are being sent to me. So I’m going to send no queues at all. So you’ll notice a lot of people who are very smart, have amazing book smarts and intelligence will go stoic. It’s like they think if I don’t show any emotion at all, I can’t get in trouble for my emotion. So what happens is you’ll have very smart people who become robotic because they don’t know what to do. The confusion is causing them to go cold. The problem is under. Expressing under cueing is in itself a cue. We actually know that when someone goes mute or goes cold, that is a sign of either nervousness deception or shame. Liars often go mute because they’re saying a lie. Right. So they rehearse their lie, but they make their body and their expressions go completely mute because they haven’t practiced that part. So when is this someone who is incredibly intelligent but they’re delivering to us in a robotic way?

Vanessa

Our brain goes, wait a minute. What are they stifling? What are they hiding here? Yes. What’s wrong here? It triggers alarm bells that’s what happened to me is in my confusion, I underemoted. So I tried to be as cold and stoic as possible because I thought my ideas can speak for me. But actually what’s happening is I was lessening my credibility because I wasn’t showing enough cues. We need cues to be able to connect with someone. So, yes, I think that having a system can actually free you to be more authentic because you know which cues you like and which you don’t. There are 96 cues in the book, and some of them you’re going to hate. Some of them you’re going to be like, no freaking way, Vanessa. Am I going to do that? Cute. Okay, cool. That’s like a food allergy like food. And I like to have everything like food because why not make that a metaphor if we have 96 ingredients to make our recipes and you have some allergies, some that you just do not like. I don’t like cilantro. That is like a food allergy to me. I have cues that I just do not use.

Vanessa

Okay, there’s going to be cilantro for you in the book, too. And there’s going to be Queues where you’re like, yes, these are my staples. These are my go To’i do these naturally. Oh, great. I didn’t even realize that doing that naturally is going to work great. That’s your rice, your favorite food. You’re going to use it a lot, and then there’s going to be a couple. The middle is like, I wonder what that would taste like. Maybe that would add some flavor. Maybe that would add some spice. So the reason I think having a system works because you can safely try each food with a little bit of like a dash. See if I like the flavor that is charisma. Right? Like, highly charismatic people have different flavors of charisma. It would be very weird if we all had the same recipe. Steve Jobs has a very different charisma than Oprah. Oprah has a very different charisma than Ted Lasso. They’re all charismatic. I would say Ted Lasso, Oprah and Steve Jobs are all charismatic, but they feel different and they use different cues. And that’s why we don’t become robotic.

Dan

I love it. I love it. Such a robust explanation and just so great. I want to dig into your book. Queues is the name of the book. Small signals, incredible impact. I’ve read it and it’s awesome. But before we dig further in, I just want to kind of Zoom out just for another minute longer, just to say so at the top of the call mention you’re recovering awkward person you notice in your career you are feeling awkward and set out to resolve that for yourself. How do you go from that to making a career out of this? I want to know some of that transition, of course, for people listening who like, maybe they have things that they’re really passionate about that they’re trying to solve in their own lives. And I think hearing how you’ve kind of navigated that space could be really interesting for folks.

Vanessa

Oh, my. Yes. And so funny. Never in a million years did I think that I would be teaching people skills as an awkward person. And actually, oddly, that was actually the spark that made our first video go viral. So in the very beginning of my career, I always loved writing, and I always knew I’d be a writer. And so what I was doing at the beginning of my career was just writing articles about everything I could think of. And I have a very unique interest, which is I love dry academic papers. I love reading dry academic papers. I don’t know what it is about my brain, but I just love them. The more jargon you got in there and I can parse it out, the better it is. So I was like, okay, well, I like reading science. I like reading research papers. Maybe I could take a paper that recently came out and then write about it for a popular blog. Back in the day, this was Huffington Post was kind of the big journalistic place for writers to submit articles. So I would take an article, I take a paper, I would submit an article, and then I would get paid to write it.

Vanessa

That was great. It was working really well. And I noticed that if I added a little bit of my own journey into the article, like a little self experimenting, it did really well. It did better. So I would take an article that was about and of course, because I was scratching my own itch. My favorite papers were the ones that were about interpersonal skills. So I loved the journals that were about social psychology, behavioral science. I was always looking for those articles. And so, for example, I think that one of the early experiments I tried was if you use different words, it will change behavior. Let’s try. Interesting. So I think it was a very simple idea where they basically said, I think this is from 2009. They said, if we add achievement oriented words to directions, people do better. So in other words, they have people come into the lab, take a little math or intelligence test, and they had two sets of directions. The first set of directions was, please complete the following questions. You will be graded on a scale for your right and wrong answers. The second set of directions was almost exactly the same, except they swapped in achievement oriented words.

Vanessa

Achievement oriented words are words like win, master, and succeed. So those directions said see if you can master the questions below. Every winning answer will give you a point in the right direction. Right? So same kind of feeling. But what they found was just swapping in a few achievement oriented words doubled participants desire to keep working, so they spent double the amount of time, and they also got more answers. Right. This is insane. Right? Just reading over, like, when could make you do better in intelligence test?

Dan

It’s wild.

Vanessa

So I took that study, and by the way, that was like a 15 page, very long paper that was behind a paywall so no one could even read it. I thought to myself, this is a great study and no one’s going to read it. These researchers spent three years, probably if they’re alive, out on auction, how long researching, we should share it. So I was like, okay, I’m going to try this myself. I think at the time, social media was just starting, so I swapped out a couple of words on my profile to see if I would get more pokes. I think back in the days when people were poking people from the days early dating myself. Now I wanted to see if I could get more poke back, poke back from strangers if I added more warm and fuzzy words to my profile. And this is a silly experiment. Yes. When I added more woman fuzzy words to my profile, I got more polls back from strangers. That article was extremely well. It was, like, trending on the website because of this little addition. I thought, wow, maybe if I start testing my own things, it will help that morphed over the course that I’ve been doing this work for 17 years, if you can believe it, into, wow, there’s other awkward people out there and they really want the systems, but I have to try them first.

Vanessa

And so that was sort of the Genesis of how I started doing this for a living and hiding my awkwardness.

Dan

Yes. Thank you for that story. It’s really fun to hear. And it’s kind of scratching your own. Itch one part scratching your own. Itch one part kind of leaning into, like, this kind of, I don’t know, smart your secret smarts. And translating that to the general public, which seems like a perfect segue into what you do now and what you’re doing with this book, which is just so great, so much in here. Just to begin to talk a little bit more directly about the book that I’ve already applied to my own life, specifically the competence and warmth. If you could just share that concept, then we can kind of dig in there. I can talk about how that’s impacting me and my life. But yeah, tell me a little bit about the balance between those two areas.

Vanessa

I would love to hear how it impacts you. This was one of those studies that I remember getting tingles when I was reading it. I know. That’s a very weird thing. Again, I love reading academic papers. So I got the tingles when I read this study. So this is a huge study. And by the way, it’s been backed up many times. It’s been replicated. So it’s a great study for us to sort of serve as our foundation, which is I always wondered what makes charismatic people charismatic? Right. That was the fundamental question. It’s like, I am not charismatic. I am awkward. How can I authentically be charismatic? What does Oprah’s head Lasso and Steve Jobs have? What is it that they’re using? They look different. They sound different, but somehow they’re all charismatic. So researcher Dr. Susan Fisk headed up this research. What she found was that highly charismatic people people were drawn to very quickly answered two questions, can I trust you and can I rely on you? That very highly charismatic people. What makes them charismatic is they rank off the charts in two specific traits, warmth and competence, that we love to be around people who at the very same time signal warmth, friendliness, openness, trust, like ability.

Vanessa

But at the same time, competence, power, memorability, efficiency. And so that balance is actually what makes us drawn to people we like to be around people who are both trustworthy and can get it done. And so if that’s the foundation, what we can then learn is okay. If we know that very highly transient people are warm and competent, how do we learn the cues of warmth and competence? What are the nonverbal verbal, vocal, and imagery cues that help us show warmth and competence?

Dan

I love it. It’s fantastic. Am I right in understanding that sometimes they’re a little bit in opposition? Right, that there’s like a balance that you have to strike between the two. So just to get some how this has impacted me personally, I tend to be very warm, and I think very much lean into that. Specifically in my written communication. My emails, my text messages all have exclamation points, sometimes too many.

Vanessa

Oh, yes.

Dan

Lots of emojis.

Vanessa

Lots of emojis. Emojis and exclamation points are warm.

Dan

Yes. My wife, on the other hand, it’s periods and very straightforward and just straight to the point that she’s extraordinarily competent. She gets it done. Everyone who knows her just knows that she’s the kind of woman that when you have a problem, she can solve it. She solves that problem.

Vanessa

It’s a great partnership, by the way.

Dan

Oh, yeah, absolutely. Our partnership. We bounce each other out really nicely, but then often it probably goes more you add a little bit of warmth into her communication. When she has especially a delicate issue she needs to communicate around, she’s like, hey, how does this sound? I was like, how about put an exclamation point here and a smiley face there? Something like that, but I don’t know, I guess maybe. I think my question was just about the balance, the balancing piece, and maybe even for listeners. How do you know if you’re going too far in one direction or the other? Because people, I think, will have their own natural tendency towards one direction or the other.

Vanessa

Yes, this is the key is that we have to think of our work and competence like a dial, right? It’s like it’s like a thermostat in your home. If you have cool and warm, literally, that’s how you can think of it. And very highly charismatic people are in control of when they want to be higher in warmth and when they want to be higher in competence. You always want to have a baseline of a little bit of both. But we can dial up in different needs. A very quick test, by the way, to know if you’re warmer competent is if it’s physically painful for you to add exclamation points, you’re probably higher in competence. If you have to remove exclamation points after every sentence, you’re probably higher in warmth. That’s a very quick, perfect little liquid test for you.

Dan

Checks out for my marriage.

Vanessa

There you go. And also, by the way, we have a free little quiz on our website. You’re welcome to [email protected] charisma. If you want to actually take the formal test, it’s up for free. You can take it as many times you want so that you can actually identify where you fall. It’s also helpful if you do it with a partner or a colleague and have them take it as you, because sometimes how we perceive ourselves is differently than how people we work with perceive us. So that can be a helpful check. Again, take it as many times you want, except for free, for that reason. So the balance is the key here. And most of us have an Imbalance, a big Imbalance. That’s why charismatic people are so rare. They’re the rare creatures because, wow, they have that perfect sweet spot. So it’s important is to know, where do you default. So if you are higher in warmth, you need to work on purposely dialing up or sprinkling in competence to your recipes. Right. Especially if you’re in a negotiation, in an interview, you want to be taken seriously. That’s less important if you’re with your kids or with your friends or with your partner.

Vanessa

If you’re high in competence, you need to specifically use warmth cues. And that’s important for social interactions when you’re trying to be collaborative, when you’re trying to get someone to open up. We can literally use these like a dial in our interactions. And it also helps us be much more in control and purposeful. A way to also test this is you can do a little email audit and look at your last five most important emails and count the number of warm queues versus competent cues. It’s a little art, not science. But warm words are like the warm and fuzzy. So, like happy best, both together open. Whereas competent words as well as dollar signs, percents charts, graphs, numbers. Also efficient, productive brainstorm, ready. Onwards. All those words are more competent words. You can kind of very quickly see how you’re coming across to others. Maybe in a little email audit.

Dan

I love it. And that’s another place where although I tend to be warm in most especially my informal communication, a lot of my work stuff, I just like I shoot that email off straight to the .3 sentences long. And I’ve been like, wait a minute, let’s just say, hey, happy Monday, how was your weekend? And then get to it. So even as a warm person, when I have a different hat on, I tend to just get straight to the point and maybe err. On the other end of the spectrum.

Vanessa

One of the things that I have a whole section on verbal content of like, yes, you can add more, which is always great, right? You can always add an opener and add a closer. You also could just do really clever word swaps. So same word count, same speed, but a little bit more purposeful in our titling. For example, I do a lot of sales training folks who have really great ideas but have trouble pitching themselves, which is like the cruelest place to be, right? When you know your idea is good. Entrepreneurs or sales folks who are like, oh, I hate answering the question, what do you do? Okay, so one thing you can think about it is let’s take a sales example is they’ll often use the word proposal or pitch. Well, that word doesn’t really mean anything to us, right? Like it’s sort of like, okay, great, I can’t wait for that proposal. What if we can change it to a different title, a title that works for us? So like if it’s an achievement oriented word because you’re trying to trigger achievement and getting it done, maybe you call it 2022 wins. Right?

Vanessa

I have a plan for your 2022 wins instead of proposal. Or I have that goal document we are talking about. So I think that even just being more creative with those word swaps, it doesn’t take many. It’s not about adding 15 more words, it’s about two or three write words. Remember that original study I talked about from 2009? That was a couple of words. They sprinkled into directions and so all these changes are really small but powerful. I know we are busy, we are burnt out. We don’t have time to write 100, 200 word count emails. Sometimes we just have two sentences. That’s it. The question is yes, exactly.

Dan

No one wants a long email. No, I love it.

Vanessa

No one does. Believe me, I really don’t either.

Dan

Tiny tweets, tiny tweaks. Well, just along those lines, folks that are listening and maybe they’re thinking about applying for a new job or just how they present themselves at work, maybe about going into an interview. What are some of the low hanging fruit in addition to what we’ve already discussed so far. What’s the low hanging fruit that we could just quickly offer? Folks, here’s a few things that you can do to make sure that you’re presenting yourself in the best way possible. In addition to reading your book, of.

Vanessa

Course, but like, really quick, easy ones I want you to use now before you even have to pick up the book, which is one your first impression matters. And the biggest mistake we make on video and in person is accidentally starting out in low power. So we’ll be waiting in the waiting room for interview, hunched over our phone and our house is tilted down, our chin is tucked in, our arms are tightly to our sides. That first impression, that little snapshot when I open the door, you look like you’re in shame. That is the universal sense of shame. We’re tough. So while you’re in the waiting room, before you hop on video, broad is the wrong word because I don’t want you to walk in Rocky, that would be bad. But maximizing your distance, like keeping your head up, having nice loose arms and your torso, not checking your phone in the first few seconds before the interview, that’s actually going to help you both mentally as well as that first impression, another little low hanging fruit thing is making sure that you are not too close to your camera, especially video calls. We often will start off with just our head, and that actually is incredibly jarring.

Vanessa

From interpersonal perspective, you want to be at least 18 inches away from your camera, so measure the distance between your nose and your camera and make sure it is at least 18 inches away. Really simple. That’s going to immediately increase your trust. So the closer we are, like a digital close talker. The last one I would say is the first ten words out of your mouth should be positive or engaging. In other words, I think that a mistake that we make is we go, oh, Hi, can you see me? Can you hear me? Which is okay, but I would rather you say, hey, it’s so good to see you. And then if they can’t see you, they’ll say something, right, negative thing in person, right? Like, we accidentally start with like, oh, I’m so sorry I’m late. The traffic was terrible. No, thank you so much for waiting. It’s so wonderful to be here.

Dan

I love it.

Vanessa

So those tiny swaps of just something positive. The first ten words that you say are like the directions and that research exercise. Can you make them just slightly positive?

Dan

I love that. That is so fantastic. Well, I know we’re coming up on our time here, and I feel like I could go on indefinitely with you because this is just such great stuff that you’re doing. So fun. It’s so fun. So thank you for writing this book. I’ll make sure to link up to it in the show notes. Is there anything else in particular that you’d like to invite people to they want to follow along with your work and learn more about what you’re up to?

Vanessa

Yes. Well, first of all, take the charisma quiz if you want to kind of see where you start. It’s a great starting off point and I read the audible book. So if you’re interested in audiobooks and you like my vocal power, I do all kinds of fun voices and also I just want to thank everyone for your time. I know you’re very busy and you gave us a big chunk of tons line today and I just want to thank you for being open minded and maybe even starting to think about some new cues because they are super powerful and I’m very grateful.

Dan

Thank you so much. It’s been so fun. Vanessa really appreciate you coming on the show.

Vanessa

Thank you.

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