READ ON TO DISCOVER:
- The two most powerful words for creating great relationships
- What we can all learn from Lucille Ball of I Love Lucy
- How to tell if someone is a “winner” or a “loser”—and why it matters
Vanessa Van Edwards is a professional people watcher—speaking, researching and cracking the code of interesting human behavior for audiences around the world—and the author of Captivate: The Science of Succeeding with People. She recently joined Ryan Hawk, host of The Learning Leader Show, to talk about the scientifically proven ways to develop your charisma, where to stand at cocktail hour, and foolproof tactics to avoid those awkward silences.
This conversation has been edited and condensed. To listen to Vanessa and Ryan’s full conversation, click here.
Ryan: As I was leading up to this [conversation], reading your book, I have to admit that I was a little bit nervous because of the way that you are so good at studying and understanding the science behind people.
Vanessa: You have no reason to be nervous—I’m a people reader, not a mind reader. [But] you’re not the first person to say that to me. I am trying to listen to you better than anyone has listened to you in a long time, listening to your vocal inflections and the words you’re using and the psychological patterns you’re bringing up.
Ryan: I like to study the art and science [of] leadership and the difference between good leaders and great leaders. If you look at leaders and people that you’ve been around who sustain excellence, and achieve and sustain success over an extended period of time, what are some of the common themes those people share?
Vanessa: That’s actually the question that leads my lab. What we’re trying to figure out is what sets apart the good and the great leaders, the people who walk into a room and you think, “I want to know that person,” versus the people who you’ve met three times before but keep forgetting their name. What is the difference?
I used to think they had really great interpersonal intelligence [and] I wanted to drill down into what that meant. As I worked with leaders across different industries, I realized we have to split interpersonal intelligence into three different skills. This is how you can predict if someone is going to skyrocket in their career, be an exceptional leader, be memorable or not.
The first two are non-verbal. The first one is decoding—leaders who are able to accurately read the social signals of others. They walk into a room and they’re quickly able to gauge the tone of the audience. A leader from a pharmaceutical [company] told me that he can walk into a doctor’s waiting room and guess the specialty of the doctor, based on the “pulse” of the waiting room. That is an incredible ability to decode social signals.
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The second one is encoding. Encoding is your ability to send accurate social signals to others. So, you show up and think, “I want to get people excited. What do I have to say, do, sound like, or look like to infect other people with excitement?” That could be excitement, fear, respect, [etc.] Whatever [signal you want to send], it’s the ability to turn that up if you want to.
The last one is self-regulation. With all these social signals—the ones being sent to us, the ones that we’re sending out—how do we process them internally to formulate them into a framework or an action plan?
Ryan: Interesting. What are some of the behavioral keys, specifically when it comes to encoding and working to excite, motivate, or inspire other people?
“As humans, when we first meet someone, we are trying to decide if someone is a winner or a loser. We’re trying to decode, “Does this person feel more pride or more shame on a daily, hourly, minute-by-minute basis?”
Vanessa: This is going to sound terrible and I don’t mean it in a terrible way, but hopefully you’ll get what I mean. As humans, when we first meet someone, we are trying to decide if someone is a winner or a loser. We’re trying to decode, “Does this person feel more pride or more shame on a daily, hourly, minute-by-minute basis?”
University of British Columbia researchers found that athletes do the same body language when they win or lose a race—it’s actually encoded in us. Proud people take up a lot of space. They roll their shoulders back, they tilt their face towards the sky, they expand their arms so there’s space between their torso and their arms, they might even jump up. The more pride we feel, the more space in this world we want to take up. Whereas shame is a very crippling [posture.] It makes us want to take up as little space as possible, we roll our shoulders in, cross our arms over our chest or hold something in front of us, hang our head lower, and our shoulders kind of creep up towards our ears, almost like a standing fetal position. Losing athletes will often crumple towards the ground in an actual fetal position.
And so, when we first see someone, we’re trying to see if they’re encoding any of those signals. When you’re sitting outside of a conference checking your phone, you’re accidentally going into very low-power, “shame” body language because you’re hunched over your phone, taking up very little space. Then, even if we instantly pop up and smile and shake someone’s hand, that first second already happened where we’ve encoded signals of shame or defeat.
Ryan: We all can picture those people who, the instant they walk in a room, they seem to have this charisma about them. Charisma can certainly be learned and developed, but there are others who also seem to naturally have it. What are some ways that we can develop more charisma, so that when we walk in a room, we’re the ones who are instantly irresistible?
Vanessa: Charisma is a funny beast. We were doing a personality study and asked everyone in the study two of the questions [that] were indirectly about charisma. The first question was, “Who is the most charismatic person you know?” Almost always in this study, people could instantly tell us, “My dad, my brother, my sister, my old boss.” They knew exactly who it was. And the very next question we asked them was, “What is charisma?” [and] people had a really hard time answering us directly and would inevitably mention the person they originally brought up.
You know it when you see it, but it’s extremely hard to define. We actually asked people, “Oh, your dad? Is he in town, by the way? Would he come into our lab so we could test him?” And we got a lot of these charismatic people to come into our lab and tested them on a variety of different traits.
We found that the most charismatic people are very, very high in two specific traits, warmth [and] competence. If you wavered a little bit on one more than the other, your charisma disappeared. In other words, if you were just very warm without equal competence, you were seen as a pushover, as sweet and friendly, but not dependable. Or if you were too high on the competence side, you were seen as very smart, very powerful, but intimidating, hard to talk to, not relatable, and not a good team player. Charisma is this perfect balance of these two traits.
“Charisma is a funny beast.”
Ryan: When you think of charisma, who’s the first person that comes to mind?
Vanessa: For me, it’s Lucille Ball, the star of I Love Lucy, but also a maverick in the entertainment industry. She was one of the first female leading characters. She was also the first person to develop a multi-camera technique for sitcoms, she had one of the longest-running shows in history, and she was very, very competent. She was also obviously very warm, very funny, and very approachable.
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Ryan: Do you think you need a high level of charisma to be an effective leader?
Vanessa: I think there are different brands of charisma. Yes, there is the booming, presidential extroverted personality, but there are also these amazing leaders that are quiet, contemplative introverts. They have a very beautiful leadership style. All of those leaders are high in warmth and competence, they just show it in different ways. You’re better off working with your strengths as long as they fit into the warmth and competence model.
“The most charismatic people are very, very high in two specific traits, warmth [and] competence.”
Ryan: Picture a large dinner party or a conference with 250 people. I personally do not look forward to those situations. I look forward to the one-on-one conversations I can have with people at the dinner party or conference, but the act of entering the room, the act of trying to mingle, is just not something I enjoy. What are some tips or ideas you would give to that person who doesn’t quite look forward to the big rooms but does look forward to one-on-one conversations and learning about interesting people?
Vanessa: If you know that you don’t like those events, you should own that. So, when you’re looking at this huge room and you’re like, “Oh my gosh, I do not want to tell a huge story in front of everyone,” your hack is to create a one-on-one environment within [the] room. For you, it would not serve you well to stand anywhere in the center of the room because that’s where big groups form. We did a giant speed-networking experiment and observed people’s natural flows throughout a room. If you don’t want to talk to more than three people, do not stand anywhere in the main flow of the room. Even if you’re talking to one other person, in that main flow, that’s where you’ll get pods starting to form. People will come up, they’ll go, “Oh, hey, so good to see you. It’s been forever,” or, “Hey, can I join you?” Slowly, your group will begin to grow. So, you want to avoid that whole middle area.
The best place for you to stand is likely at a high bar table, one of those high bar tables where you have one or two other seats. Those little alcoves then become your one-on-one, and that context is a very helpful way to keep your group small and also make it a little bit quieter so you can actually have deep conversations.
One of the things about humans, and we can’t help it, is if there’s low lighting or if it’s very loud, we feel scared. Again, this is not conscious. We don’t like low lighting because we can’t see everything, we don’t have a good sense of our bearings, and when it’s very loud, we feel like we can’t express ourselves. So, the other option is to think about the best-lit, quieter place. I personally love the kitchen at parties for that reason.
Ryan: You mentioned that all conversations can be hacked, meaning that there are certain words that will generate dopamine in the people that you meet, and I find this fascinating. How do we do this?
Vanessa: The brain looks for hits and not misses. A lot of entrepreneurs will do this for customer validation [when] they go up to a prospective customer and ask them a very specific question. If they wanted to design a new mop, they would go up to a customer and say, “Do you hate using your mop?” Commercials do this. The brain immediately begins to look for examples or evidence or “hits” in response to that question.
So, your prospective customer thinks, “The last time I used a mop might have been three years ago, but yeah, I did hate it.” So, they say, “Yes, I do hate using my mop.” The entrepreneur then spends five years designing a new mop. They come out and say, “You said you hated your mop. Here’s a new one.” Then the customer goes, “Well, I don’t actually use my mop,” because their brain starts looking for all these ideas of when they use it. It was once in three years, so they don’t buy it.
The same thing happens when you are talking to someone. If you say, “Anything good happen today?” you are actually triggering their brain to flip into optimism, which I think is our greatest gift to another human. If we can have a conversation where we can flip someone from a cranky mood into optimism, we immediately begin to think, “What did happen today that was good?” [Another great one is], “Working on anything exciting recently?” Immediately, your brain begins to look for all the hits of anything that’s excited you in your life.
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You’re priming the brain to think more positively, to think in more exciting ways, and then you have better conversations. That makes you a lot more memorable as well.
“If you say, “Anything good happen today?” you are actually triggering their brain to flip into optimism, which I think is our greatest gift to another human.”
Ryan: The few examples you used were yes/no questions. Wouldn’t you prefer open-ended questions, something along the lines of, “What are you passionate about?” as opposed to, “Anything good happen today?” What are your thoughts when it comes to open versus closed questions?
Vanessa: My questions are subtle little triggers. Think about the difference here for an introvert and an extrovert. An extrovert is happy to brainstorm with you out loud to answer, “What are you passionate about?” But for your introverts, they are going to be totally overwhelmed and taken aback by that question. That’s where you get into awkward silences.
We started off this interview talking about these three different skills. A really, really skilled decoder is listening much deeper than anyone else listens. They are not only listening to the obvious answer; they’re also listening to what wasn’t answered. They’re listening to what didn’t come up or what wasn’t brought up. They’re watching for facial expressions, they’re listening for voice tone inflection, they’re thinking about how long did that person pause before that answer? That’s going to dictate, if you’re a really good decoder, what signals you want to encode to them.
So, if I’m with an introvert and I ask a question like, “Have you worked on anything exciting recently?” and there’s a little bit longer of a pause, and they start off with a qualifier or an apology—“I’m working on this silly photography project,”—I want to signal to them warmth, confidence, and acceptance because I know that they probably haven’t talked about this before. They probably haven’t thought about it much before, and with those qualifiers and words like “silly,” they’re feeling like it could be shot down. I want them to know, “I am so excited to hear about this project.”
When you see highly charismatic people and break it down into a formula, that is actually what’s happening. That’s how we hack conversation.
“Great leaders create ties quickly. They get up to a podium and the entire first five minutes of their speech is a bunch of “me too’s.” It’s saying, “You want this, I want this. We believe in this, I believe in that, too.”
Ryan: What do you think about the importance of relatability and being authentic? When you’re the new guy or the new girl, the new leader, how do you develop trust [and] build the culture that you want to build quickly?
Vanessa: Vulnerability is incredibly important. I have a whole section [in my book] called “Vulnerability is Sexy.” If you want to be attractive, vulnerability is way better than any physical attribute, and there’s actually science to prove that. Relatability comes down to ties—this is something that I call “thread theory,” or how many ties we have connecting to each other, [accounting for] every single time you either non-verbally or verbally say to someone, “Oh, me too.”
Great leaders create ties quickly. They get up to a podium and the entire first five minutes of their speech is a bunch of “me too’s.” It’s saying, “You want this, I want this. We believe in this, I believe in that, too.” The more “me too’s” you can create in your conversations and your speeches, in your interactions with your customers, the more you’re going to have that relatability because people feel tied to you.