Vanessa Van Edwards is a speaker, researcher, and nationally bestselling author. More than 36 million people have seen her on YouTube and in her viral TEDxLondon talk. Her behavior research lab, Science of People, has been featured in media outlets such as Fast Company, Inc., USA Today, CNN, and CBS. For more than a decade, she has been leading corporate trainings and workshops to audiences around the world, including at companies including Google, Microsoft, and Comcast.
Below, Vanessa shares 5 key insights from her new book, Cues: Master the Secret Language of Charismatic Communication. Listen to the audio version—read by Vanessa herself—in the Next Big Idea App.
1. Highly charismatic people use specific signals called “cues” to communicate with the world.
My research started with this 17 years ago, when I noticed that highly charismatic people all use the same set of cues—and it didn’t matter if they were athletes, politicians, celebrities, or even business leaders. Cues are the social signals that humans send to each other. We are constantly communicating with these cues, almost like a hidden language that is being spoken all around us.
I identified 96 specific cues that highly charismatic people use. I also noticed that there were specific cues used by not-so-charismatic people: duping athletes, lying politicians, and business leaders in trouble. These folks, out of shame, guilt, and fear, also showed strikingly similar cues.
I remember watching a 2005 interview on Larry King Live in which Lance Armstrong insisted he wasn’t doping. Right after he told the big whopper that he never doped, he showed a specific cue called a “lip purse.” It’s a cue of withholding or being tight-lipped. Once I learned this cue, I started seeing it everywhere. This made me wonder if there was a way to code or catalog all of our cues into a glossary that we could all use—and the answer is yes.
Learning cues is like finally being able to speak the foreign language that’s spoken all around you. Cues unlock our communication, and every single cue you add to your toolbox makes it easier to communicate and signal to the world.
“Learning cues is like finally being able to speak the foreign language that’s spoken all around you.”
2. Charisma cues can be cultivated.
I used to believe that charisma was an innate trait—you were either born with it or not. But luckily, research shows that charisma can be learned. And you don’t have to be an extrovert to be charismatic—in fact, there are different flavors of charisma. There is the bubbly, extroverted, “life of the party” charisma, but there’s also the quiet, contemplative, introverted type of charisma. Or the compassionate, empathetic healer type. My goal with this book is to help each person find their unique flavor of charisma, and then signal with the right cues.
3. Our cues are contagious.
One study completely changed my mind about cues. Researchers found that when participants spotted a cue of social rejection—an eye roll, a scoff, or a dismissive tone of voice—their field of vision increased. In other words, when we feel that our social survival is threatened, our eyes change so we can see more of our environment. We can see potential escape routes, see if anyone else is sending us a cue of social rejection, and decide what to do next. In this way, cues create cycles: we spot a cue, it changes our physiology, and we change our cues back to the world.
We have to be aware of the cues we send and receive because they’re triggering all kinds of loops, both positive and negative. Charismatic people are positively contagious—they show up as their best, most confident self, and this infects others to be their best, most confident selves. In this way, learning to use charisma cues is not just good for you, but also good for others.
“We have to be aware of the cues we send and receive because they’re triggering all kinds of loops, both positive and negative.”
4. There are four different channels of cues.
The first is non-verbal: our body language, posture, gestures, and facial expressions all signal things to the world. The second is vocal: our volume, pace, cadence, and the way we say our words all shape how people perceive them. Third, of course, is verbal: the words and syntax we use. And lastly, imagery: the colors we wear, the props we hold in our profile pictures, and what’s behind us in our video calls.
Charismatic people are aligned—they are congruent with all four channels of cues. For example, I might say the words “I’m fine,” but if I use a negative vocal tone, you know I am definitely not fine. Charismatic people are often called “authentic” because they align; all their channels of cues match.
The biggest mistake that smart people make is to focus on one channel: words. They have the best idea or the perfect pitch or script, but they forget about the delivery. The best idea in the world can’t be heard if it doesn’t have the right cues. I like to use this metaphor: if your idea is a car, the cues are the gas. We need cues to move our ideas and get them to the right places.
5. There is a formula for charismatic cues.
Research out of Princeton found that highly charismatic people rank high in two specific traits: warmth and competence. This formula is a powerful blueprint for every interaction, and it can completely change the way you communicate—if you know how to use it. According to the research, warmth and competence cues account for 82 percent of our impression of others. 82 percent! Highly charismatic people consistently signal trust and credibility. We see them as friendly, smart, impressive, and collaborative.
“Highly charismatic people rank high in two specific traits: warmth and competence.”
Here’s the problem: most of us have an imbalance between these two traits. If you are highly warm, you have a strong desire to be liked. This can be good; you strive to be friendly and personable, but it can also be challenging. Highly warm folks are often people-pleasers, and struggle to say no and set boundaries. In other words, your desire to be liked can get in the way of your need to be respected. You might be seen as trustworthy, but not always powerful. Compassionate, but not always competent. Friendly, but not always impressive.
If this is you, you likely have good relationships with your colleagues, but you may find it hard to pitch yourself or your ideas. You might even get interrupted in meetings, or feel underappreciated for all the hard work you do. In social or casual settings, people enjoy talking to you, but might not always ask for your business card.
On the other hand, if you are highly competent, you have a strong desire to be seen as capable and impressive. People take you and your ideas seriously, but you might have a harder time building rapport. You could be seen as smart, but not always approachable. Dependable, but not always collaborative. Important, but not always kind. People might even be intimidated by you. They may tell you that you’re hard to talk to, or come across as cold.
In business settings, this can be a double-edged sword. You’re taken seriously as a leader, but you might have a harder time working with teams. Clients, customers, or colleagues may find you credible, but might not feel comfortable telling you all their needs. Researcher Susan Fiske found that competence without warmth is likely to leave us feeling suspicious. In social settings, this means you’re often perceived as important, but it might take you longer to build deeper connections and make friends.
My mission with this book is to help you hit the perfect balance of warmth and competence with your cues so that you’re both respected and admired.
To listen to the audio version read by author Vanessa Van Edwards, download the Next Big Idea App today: