in: People, Podcast, Social Skills

Podcast #837: The Cues That Make You Charismatic

Note: This is a rebroadcast.

Charisma can make everything smoother, easier, and more exciting in life. It’s a quality that makes people want to listen to you, to adopt your ideas, to be with you.

While what creates charisma can seem like a mystery, my guest today, communications expert Vanessa Van Edwards, says it comes down to possessing an optimal balance of two qualities: warmth and competence.

The problem is, even if you have warmth and competence, you may not be good at signaling these qualities to others. In Vanessa’s work, she’s created a research-backed encyclopedia of these influential signals, and she shares how to offer them in her book
Cues: Master the Secret Language of Charismatic Communication. Today on the show, Vanessa and I discuss some of the verbal and nonverbal social cues that make you attractive to others, and keep you out of what she calls the “danger zone.” She explains what the distance between your earlobes and shoulders has to do with looking competent, how using uptalk and vocal fry sabotages your ability to convey power, how to put more warmth in your voice, how to trigger the right response with a dating profile picture, and more.

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. Charisma, can make everything smoother, easier, and more exciting in life. It’s a quality that makes people wanna listen to you, to adopt your ideas, to be with you. While what creates charisma can seem like a mystery, my guest today, communications expert Vanessa Van Edwards, says it comes down to possessing an optimal balance of two qualities: Warmth and competence.

The problem is, even if you have warmth and competence, you may not be good at signaling these qualities to others. In Vanessa’s work, she’s created a research-backed encyclopedia of these influential signals, and she shares how to offer them in her book, Cues: Master the Secret Language of Charismatic Communication.

Today on the show, Vanessa and I discuss some of these verbal and nonverbal social cues that make you attractive to others and keep you out of what she calls the danger zone. She explains what the distance between your earlobes and shoulders has to do with looking competent, how using uptalk and vocal fry sabotages your ability to convey power. How to put more warmth in your voice. How to trigger the right response with a dating profile picture, and more. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at

Vanessa Van Edwards, welcome to the show.

Vanessa Van Edwards: Oh, thanks so much for having me.

Brett McKay: So you have made a career researching, writing about, teaching how to be effective communicators, how to be more charismatic. And a book I just recently read, I really enjoyed, it’s called Cues: Master the Secret Language of Charismatic Communication. So let’s start off with definitions. How do you… As a researcher, how do you define charisma?

Vanessa Van Edwards: So the good news is, is that charisma can be learned. So we can define it, and we can learn it. So that’s a good thing. And I always was perplexed by charisma, because one thing we found in our lab… Many, many years ago, we were doing a little experiment, and we were surprised because we asked two questions in our experiment. The first one was, “Who is the most charismatic person you know?”

You’re listening to this, just think about that person for a second. We timed people on their answers. People could immediately tell us the most charismatic person they knew… It took about three seconds. The next question we asked was, “What is charisma?” Trying to get them to define it.

So interesting. We had just had them define or think about the most charismatic person. This question completely stumped people. It took an average of about 15 seconds for people to answer. And typically, they could not come up with a good answer. And we realized, charisma is one of these few traits that we know the moment we see it. We know when we see someone walk into a room who has high charisma, or a pop-on video. We’re drawn to them, yet we have a very hard time defining it.

So when we go to the research, we find that very highly charismatic people, the reason that they are so magnetic and so unique is they have a perfect blend of two specific traits. And the key here is they have to have these traits in equal measure. They are warmth and competence. So highly charismatic people, what they do is they’re signaling warmth, trust, likeability, collaboration, but at the very same time, they’re signaling competence, capability, power, efficiency. And so we love charismatic people because they’re both likeable and respectable. You know, warm and credible. So that’s the actual definition is warmth plus competence.

Brett McKay: Okay, so you can be exceedingly warm and not be charismatic, correct?

Vanessa Van Edwards: Yes, so that’s the key is… What most people have… And this research comes from Dr. Susan Fiske… Is most of us have an imbalance. Most of us have a little bit too high of warmth or a little bit too high of competence. Or we’re signaling too high warmth or signaling too high competence. And what happens with this is, you can be very likeable, friendly, collaborative, but if you have too much warmth, people don’t respect you. People don’t take you seriously. People interrupt you.

If you have too high competence without enough warmth, people see you as a very credible, very powerful, but without the warmth, they see you as intimidating or hard to talk to. Or the one that we hear a lot is cold or stoic. And so the key is, why that blend is so important is you have to have a balance, that I’m approachable, but I’m also credible.

Brett McKay: And are there people who have neither warmth nor competence?

Vanessa Van Edwards: Oh, yes, that’s… That I call the danger zone. And by the way, this is where I was in purgatory for many, many, many years. So I’m a recovering awkward person. The reason that I’m obsessed with charisma is I don’t have it naturally. I was that kid in school who sat in the corner of the cafeteria and looked and watched all the cool kids with their amazing charisma, and I was always amazed by how they’re able to bottle it.

And so, the danger zone is when you’re not signaling enough warmth nor competence. And what research has found is folks who are overly stoic… And by the way, this doesn’t mean you don’t have warmth and competence. It means you’re not signaling warmth and competence. And this is, I think, the mistake that most of us face is, the reason I wasn’t signaling anything is ’cause I was afraid. I was terrified of being rejected or disliked. So what did I do? I shut down. I shut down all my cues. I tried to be invisible.

And so what research finds is if we don’t signal enough, humans don’t know what to do with us. Our cues tell others how to treat us. And so people who don’t have enough of either signal, they’re pitied. They’re dismissed. They’re ignored. And mostly, they’re underestimated. And this is, I think, a big problem for very smart people. Is very smart people, they rely so much on their technical skills, their book smarts. They think, “I’m prepared. I have knowledge. I have expertise. I don’t need to worry about these cues or signals. I don’t have to worry about warmth and competence. My knowledge will speak for itself.”

And so what happens is they show up with all those technical skills in their head, but what the research found very clearly is if you don’t have enough cues, specifically, you don’t have enough warmth cues, people do not believe your competence. Competence without warmth leaves people feeling suspicious. And that’s why you have such smart people… Most of our students are high-achieving professionals, and they cannot get enough credibility. They cannot get people to believe their competence.

Brett McKay: So another way I’ve heard this idea, the danger zone, described is as a way to describe somebody who’s contemptible, right? I think all of us have someone in our life who we think about and we think, “Oh my gosh, that guy, he’s just really contemptible.” And if you ever wonder why that is, it’s because they lack warmth and they lack… They’re not competent.

So you know, you don’t enjoy being around them. They’re just not likable. But then also, they can’t do anything really well. They don’t… They’re not competent, right? They’re not good at anything. And that’s why we find them contemptible, like, we just… We find them really annoying, and that’s the danger zone.

Vanessa Van Edwards: So annoying is a good one. I… So… Also, people don’t wanna catch it, right? We’re very, very contagious, emotionally contagious as humans. So if you have someone who is not signaling enough… If that contemptuous person… We don’t wanna catch that kind of anxiety, that kind of lack of warmth or competence. And so the reason we’re drawn to charismatic people, but not drawn to danger zone folks is because we wanna be around people who are positively contagious. We wanna catch what they have.

Brett McKay: Okay. So this is important stuff… Like learning… Thinking about being charismatic a lot of people may think, “Well, that’s just superficial. That’s what shallow people do.” But you’re making the case that this can help you get ahead in your career and in your personal life as well.

Vanessa Van Edwards: And luckily… I was shocked by this research. So I was in that first category where I doubled down on my test scores and my GPA and my resume… That was what I thought was really important. And I was failing at life. I could not communicate well with people. I was forgotten. I was dismissed. And the research actually has found very, very clearly that when we are more charismatic, people are more likely to take us seriously.

We like to listen to ideas from very charismatic people. So the way that I think about this is you’ve spent a lot of years likely… People who are listening, investing in your expertise, whatever that is. Whether you’re a creative or you’re a technical person, you have developed this skill set. Charisma is like the social lubricant that you need for people to adopt it. It makes everything smoother.

Brett McKay: So the book’s called cues. And the idea is that there are these social cues that we give off. And usually we do this unconsciously. Like we don’t even think about it. But in the book you’re making the case that we can be more intentional and thoughtful about these social cues that we display so that we can influence how people think about us in a more positive way. So what are social cues and how much do they influence how people see us?

Vanessa Van Edwards: Yeah. So cues are the social signals that we send to each other. And what most people don’t realize is actually, there’s two sides of cues. There’s decoding. And this is the thing that most people think of. So you spot a cue on someone else, maybe an eye roll or a smile. Those are all different cues. They tell us what the other person thinks. They tell us how they wanna be treated, but there’s also encoding. Those are the social signals we send to others.

So a lot of the times we only focus on one aspect. We think about decoding cues are being sent, but actually there’s a loop happening. Not only are our emotions contagious, our cues are contagious. So research on this is so interesting. It finds that we tend to subconsciously mirror the people we’re with. Another reason why we wanna be around people with great cues is ’cause we catch them.

Confident people make us look more confident because we tend to copy things. What I really was fascinated by is there… We’re sending hundreds of cues to each other every day. We do it on video. We do it on the phone. We do it in our emails. There are actually four different categories of cues. It’s not just our body language. There’s our non-verbal. So our body language, our facial expressions, our gestures, our posture. That’s one big bucket.

Research finds that’s at a minimum about 60% of how we communicate our message, which is a massive amount of… It affects us in a massive way. The second one is our verbal. So the words we use, right? Even the cues that we send in our emails and our texts and our profiles tell people how to treat us. And we can talk about, how that works specifically, if you want. I find that research fascinating.

The third one is voice tone. So our volume, our pace, our cadence. And the last one is ornaments. The colors we wear, the jewelry we wear, the car we drive. So on… In this medium, the only cue channels I have are verbal and vocal, but that means I have to work really hard on making sure that I’m as contagious as I can through my verbal and my vocal cues, because they’re affecting not only how you think of me. That’s actually less important, more how you feel about yourself and how you take this advice.

Brett McKay: So let’s talk about some of these cues that… This encyclopedia of cues that you developed with your team. Let’s talk about some nonverbal stuff first. What are some powerful charisma cues that ’cause people to pay attention to us when we’re talking?

Vanessa Van Edwards: All right. So I’m gonna start with the ones that I think are the quickest. And the reason for this is because I like to start off with the beginner stuff then move to more advanced. My favorite charisma cue is actually the lean. And this is a really, really simple one. And the reason for this is because it actually creates a very interesting brain activation.

So research found that when participants in their lab, leaned forward slightly… So I’m gonna lean forward right now. If you’re listening to this, I’d love if you just lean forward for me like an inch or two, whether you’re seated or standing or running… When you lean forward, they found that it activates a very specific part of your brain, that is pre-action. The reason for this is because when we’re about to activate one of our five senses, we lean in. We wanna see something better, we lean in.

We wanna smell something, we lean in. We wanna touch something, we lean in. And so interestingly, this is also a nonverbal cue of activation. So when someone is really into something, they’ll lean into it. When someone really agrees with you, they’ll lean into it. Very highly charismatic people cue you to lean into their very most important points or a deep thought by leaning in themselves.

And so if you watch Ted speakers, you’ll notice that when they’re at the most important point, they give a little lean and it actually makes you wanna lean in too. So leaning is a really easy one. You can do it on video. You can do it in person. You can even do it I think over audio to like give that, we’re inside something. We’re talking about something really good. It’s a really simple one, but it’s so effective.

Brett McKay: Another one you talk about that I thought was ingenious, is fronting. What is fronting?

Vanessa Van Edwards: Yes. Okay. So when you think about space… So with non-verbal, we’re constantly trying to interact with other humans in space. And so fronting is when we angle our body, our entire body, toes, torso, and head towards the person we’re speaking with. Ideally… And this is a interesting one. When we are on parallel lines with someone else… So if you imagine like railroad tracks, we like in the perfect scenario to be on the same track as someone else. Our feet are aligned, our hips are aligned, our head is aligned.

And when we do this, our body and our brain think, “Ah, we’re aligned. There’s something in between us. I’m gonna speak more. I’m gonna speak in longer sentences.” We’re more likely to say yes, if we’re fronting with someone. The reason why this is important is because I notice we accidentally don’t front when we are on our computer, we’re taking notes, we kinda call over our shoulder. I even noticed of how people with their Zoom set-ups will have their camera off to the side or over one shoulder while they’re typing on their computer.

It is physically hard for someone to open up, collaborate, or connect when you are not being fronted with. And so one of the doctors we interviewed for the book, he found that when he angles his… He swivels his entire stool towards someone, he can actually get the patient to talk more, open up more. So this is a very simple one, that always try to make a point of angling your entire body towards someone.

Brett McKay: Well, I think we intuitively know this, right? If you don’t wanna talk to somebody or if you’re on the subway or a bus, you’re sitting next to somebody you wanna show, “I don’t wanna talk to you,” you kinda shift the other way away from the person.

Vanessa Van Edwards: Yeah. And decoding is a great point here is all of these cues have both encoding and decoding. We can send the signal. We can also decode the signal. If you’re looking for who should I approach in a bar, who should I go up to at this networking event, you wanna look for people who are more open to fronting. I jokingly call it croissant feet. Any reference to a croissant is a good reference for me.

So what I mean by this is if someone doesn’t want you to interrupt their group, like you’re in a networking event or you’re at a bar, they will be fully fronting with the person they’re talking with. They have no opening. If someone is in croissant feet, in other words, their foot is angled out, their torso is angled out, they are literally saying, “I am physically open to being approached.” And so you can also decode who wants to talk to me and who doesn’t wanna talk to me based on fronting.

Brett McKay: Okay, so two things there, if you wanna seem more charismatic, signal that you’re charismatic, lean in, and you can do that via audio as well. And then the fronting, just turn towards people, and that will… People… I think one of the things I’ve heard about charisma is that charisma is making someone feel like they’re the most important person in the room, and fronting does that.

Vanessa Van Edwards: Yes, exactly, because you’re literally saying, “I respect you so much. I’m going to give you my full non-verbal attention.” Very rare thing to think about, and that’s how we think about it as humans.

Brett McKay: Well, a point you make, I think we should talk about this. This warmth, competence, dichotomy, you point out that if you wanna be charismatic, you have to understand that some situations might require more warmth and some situations might require more competence signals. It’s not like in every situation, you wanna be perfectly aligned with warmth and balance. In order to get that balance, it’s gonna depend on the situation, correct?

Vanessa Van Edwards: Yeah. The metaphor I like to think of is like a thermostat, right? So if you think about a thermostat in your home, you probably have an ideal range that you like… Let’s say between 68 and 72. So 68 might a little on the cooler side, it’s a hot summer day, 72 might be in the winter. Above 72, you’re hot. That’s too warm. Below 68, you’re cold. That’s competent. Too competent. In the 40s, it’s a danger zone.

So this range… You actually have quite a bit of flexibility. Very highly charismatic people, you leverage this range. So if they’re going into a meeting where they’re negotiating, they need to be taken seriously, they’re selling, they don’t want any push back, they will dial up their competence cues. They’ll use more power gazing. They’ll use more purposeful hand gestures. They’ll be more still in their body posture. Those are all competence cues.

On the other hand, let’s say that you’re going to a happy hour, you are with colleagues, you’re in a creative brainstorm session, and you want everyone to be open. You want everyone to feel welcome. It’s not about your ideas, it’s about the team’s ideas. Well, in that situation, you’ll be best served just to show more warmth cues, more nodding, more smiling, more social gazing. Those cues are literally sending signals of warmth.

Again, we’re still in that 68-72 range. You don’t wanna have too much of one, but that’s what really highly charismatic people do. And you… And the example I give in the book is Jeff Bezos. There’s two different interviews of him. One in 60 minutes and one with a Business Insider interview, and it’s the same person, but he looks completely different.

On the 60 Minutes interview, he’s clearly going for warmth, being relatable, being kind of friendly, it’s a more casual interview. In the Business Insider interview, he’s super high in competence. He’s trying to really talk about his business, be taken more seriously, talk about his growth. And he uses cues differently to come across as slightly higher in warmth versus competence, but depending on his goals.

Brett McKay: Okay, so we just talked about some cues of charisma that you found that these just show charisma, the lean in and the fronting. But let’s say you’re in a situation… You kind of… You briefly touched on some… I’d like to flush some of this stuff out. Let’s say you’re in a situation that requires more warmth. Like you gave an example of a doctor who is trying to develop a rapport with a patient, that needs more warmth. What are some cues that you can use to display more warmth?

Vanessa Van Edwards: Yes. So warmth is all about encouraging collaboration. So my favorite warmth cue that I like to start off with… Most people start off with smiling. That’s actually not my favourite warmth cue, and the reason for this is because in a lot of professional settings, it would be weird to maniacally hold a smile on your face. So I actually don’t recommend smiling first, especially because smiling can also be a submissive gesture.

So my favorite warmth cue is a triple nod or any kind of nod. And the reason for this… And this is in Western cultures, and I should make a cultural note. I always try to make a cultural note if there’s anything different. A lot of these cues are universal, but nodding in Bulgaria, India, and Pakistan can be different. So if you’re not in Bulgaria, India, or Pakistan, these tips are for you.

So nodding, a vertical nod, up and down nod means yes, and a horizontal nod means no. And we recognize this, in these cultures as encouragements, agreement, and so what they’ve found is that when someone does a slow triple nod, “Mm-hmm, mm-hmm, mm-hmm,” the other person speaks 67% longer. It’s kind of like a non-verbal dot, dot, dot, that’s actually how you can think about it, and this is super helpful. If you’re on video, even on the phone, by the way, even national hotline callers are trained to nod. It literally is telling someone, “Please, tell me more. I’m here. I’m listening. And that is a very subtle way to encourage more warmth. So nodding is one… Another kind of head one that you can try is a tilt. So this comes from an evolutionary. So this is across cultures, that when we try to hear something better, like if I were to say, “Do you hear that dog barking?

Usually, we tilt our head over to the side and expose our ear. That’s a universal response. And so we recognize if we’re in conversation with someone and they tilt their head, they are deeply trying to listen, which is also another warmth cue. So I love those, because if you’re on video call or you’re in-person, you’re trying to offer someone encouragement, make them feel the warm and fuzzies, a tilt and nod are super non-verbal subtle ways to be like, I’m here, I’m listening. Really good interviewers, Oprah Winfrey does this really well. That’s, I think, how she gets people to open up so much.

Brett McKay: So that’s interesting about the head nod, the slow triple head nod. There was this guy at my church a couple years ago, where you would talk to him and then he would just sit there in silence. And it would be so intimidating, I was like, Oh my gosh. And you start nervously filling in the space. But one thing he did too, now that you mention it, he would do the slow three nods while being in silence. It was not just me. It was other people too. It’s like, Man, whenever I talk to this guy, I just blabber incessantly and I feel dumb. And I don’t know if he intentionally did this or he just kinda picked up on it, but it was effective. So those are the slow three nod and just being silent, that can get people just to spill the beans about anything.

Vanessa Van Edwards: I know we’re not talking about vocal yet, but there is some really funny research on vocalizations along with some of these nonverbal cues. So I know exactly the type you’re talking about, that strong silent type, and you just wanna divulge your deepest secrets. I call that a verbal vomit, where they just… You just wanna tell them everything. And a lot of it is because we’re being cued to do so. The other thing that research found is that this is the difference between men and women. Women find men more attractive if they vocalize… Oh, mm-hmm, ah.

Along with a nod or a tilt. So if you want to be more attractive, this is one study specifically for women to men in heterosexual relationships, you might also add in a, Mm-hmm, oh, ah.

And women just love it.

Brett McKay: They love it. Alright. So those are some warmth cues, tilting, nodding, the slow triple nod. But there’s other things you mentioned too. You can do a smile, but you don’t want it to be like a crazy smile. You call it a savor smile, so it’s just like you’re really enjoying what you’re seeing and interacting with, it’s just not like the fake smile thing.

Vanessa Van Edwards: Yeah. And the researchers actually looked at types of smiles. I love this research. They found that a slow, what I call savor smile, a smile that spreads across your face is actually the best kind of smile. So it’s not holding the smile, and that is the worst. And this is important ’cause I think that we can get really serious, especially in our professional settings, or even with our partner, we’re talking about logistics and the kids and pick-up times, and we forget that there’s some joy there. And so it’s looking for opportunities to have either mutual laughter, oh, my goodness, there is nothing happier for the brain that two people laughing at once, or showing a savor smile. So especially in the beginning of a call or beginning of an interaction, if someone’s like, Oh, it’s so great to see you, I try to think of what is one thing I could say verbally that will give me warmth, so… A warm word, Happy to see you, so great to be here, oh my goodness, it’s so nice to finally give you a hug in-person, whatever those words are, and pairing it with a slow savor smile. That is like a bonus points in the charisma scale, because it aligns our verbal and our nonverbal, and we love it.

Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break for a word from our sponsors. And now back to the show. Alright. Let’s talk about situations that require more power or competent social cues. And you… I love this. You use the JFK, Richard Nixon debate as a way to a highlight the power of power cues. So what can we learn from that debate on how to utilize power cues?

Vanessa Van Edwards: So that debate… So Nixon versus Kennedy was a very interesting point in our history. And from a nonverbal perspective, it was the first time where people realized there was something happening with our cues. During this time, part of the population watched the debate on television, part of the population listened to the debate on the radio. What was fascinating is this was the first time in US history where there was a discrepancy between the winners or in the perceived winners. So everyone who watched the debate was sure that Kennedy won. Everyone who listened to the debate was sure that Nixon won. And when you analyze just the first 30 seconds of this debate, and I highly recommend, go on YouTube, search it, it’s up for free, if you watch the first 30 seconds of the debate, you will see Nixon gives away non-verbally all of his power.

First, he immediately looks over at Kennedy and the moderator. And as humans, we are very attuned to gaze cues. We want to follow other people’s gaze. They’re telling us what’s interesting. So I think that while Nixon was trying to be polite, he actually gave away all of his power in the first three seconds of the debate by looking over at Kennedy. It literally told the audience, Don’t look at me. Look at Kennedy. He also was not fronting. So he took away that… So fronting is our toes, our torso and our head, he took away fronting from us, which suddenly makes the audience feel disrespected. The second thing that he immediately does, he grips the side of his chair. You could actually see he’s white-knuckling. I don’t know if he did this ’cause he was nervous or he was trying to still himself, but when we see that white knuckle grip, it makes us think, They’re closed. They’re nervous. The first evolutionary… From an evolutionary perspective is our most protective gesture. When we’re angry, we tend to clench our fists because it’s our most powerful weapon against someone else. So that white knuckle made him look angry, it made him look closed.

And interestingly, if you watch the very first few seconds, he’s in what’s called a runner’s stance. He has his knee pulled back. And some interesting historical fact is he had injured his knee on the campaign trail a week earlier. So I think he was actually nursing his injured me. But what happened was, is because if you think about a runner about to take off on a race on the starting block, they have one leg back. This is a universal readiness position. When someone is about to run away or flee, they instinctively go into this position. Well, we don’t like leaders who are about to run away from us. And so in this one little snapshot, we see a clenched fist, someone not fronting with us, and literally looking like they’re about to run for their lives.

Brett McKay: And then Kennedy is like pretty the opposite. He was looking at the camera, looking at the audience, he just looked cool, calm and collected, like he was in charge.

Vanessa Van Edwards: He was not only calm, he was broad. So I think there’s a little bit of a myth I would love to bust, if we can.

Power posing had a moment in 2010 where it was in like every show, everyone was power posing. I love a power pose. It’s very high power, high competence, but it’s also socially aggressive. So you’re not gonna walk into your meetings with your hands above your head. What power really looks like, is what Kennedy looked like in the first second of this debate, nice and relaxed shoulders, a maximized distance. This is the weirdest distance, but it’s incredibly important for perceived confidence. The distance between your earlobe and your shoulder, really highly confident people. They maximize this distance because their shoulders are down and relaxed and their head is held high. When people are not confident, you see this distance shrink, they turtle their head down. They pull their ears up, their shoulders up towards their ears. They hunch their shoulders in. And so he had that distance maximized. He was nice and relaxed and it made us want to catch that calm confidence. Oh, he also did a nod in the first 30 seconds when he was introduced, he gives a very subtle calm nod. So he balanced out that competence with the perfect warmth cue.

Brett McKay: So you mention some power cues there. Don’t be scrunched up. Be relaxed. Be big. Be open. Doesn’t mean you have to put your hands up in the air and do the power pose, but just powerful people take up space and they’re comfortable taking up space around them. And some other interesting ones that you talked about in the book that I thought were interesting was the steeple fingers. And I think on the cover of your book you’re doing the steeple fingers, correct?

Vanessa Van Edwards: [laughter] that cover was, we argued a lot about that cover. We ended up with me doing a steeple. Yes. A steeple is if you wanna try this with me, actually there’s an interesting loop here. I’m curious. So if you’re listening, put the tips of your fingers together into like a little church steeple, don’t press your palms together, leave space within your hands and just hold it for a second. This position should actually make you feel quite calm and collected. It’s kind of like a power pose for your hands. The reason for this is because when our hands are open and relaxed, especially if our palms are open and showing, right, you can still see our palms when we steeple and our fingers are together, it’s as if we’re thinking, oh, I am calm, cool, and collected. And so that steeple gesture is you’ll notice it on Shark Tank, Kevin O’Leary loves to do it.

Political leaders have been taught to do it. Now I always say with cues, you have to try them on. Not, there’s 96 cues in the book, right? Some cues are going to feel great. You’re gonna be like, oh, I already do that. Yes. Amazing. You already do one of those cues. Fantastic. Some cues you might have to try a couple times and be like, oh, you know what? This one works for me. And there’s gonna be some cues that you’ll feel absolutely ridiculous. The steeple is one of those cues. You have to try it on in a couple different situations either you’re gonna love it and it’ll be part of your hand gesture repertoire, or you’re gonna be like, I feel so silly. Do not do it. If you feel silly, I want only, you’d only use cues that make you feel authentic.

Brett McKay: So, well you mentioned charisma cues, so the leaning and the fronting, warmth cues, the head tilt, the head nodding, competence cues, power posture, so that distance between ears and shoulders, the steeple pose, what are some nonverbal cues that people should just avoid? So they don’t go in that danger and contemptible zone.

Vanessa Van Edwards: Oh yes. This was one of my favorite chapters to write. It was actually the longest chapter. I called these the danger zone cues. And what’s interesting about them is they are the nonverbal cues that you both don’t wanna show, but you also want to watch out for, because if you see them, they can be signals especially of more negative emotions. So fear, shame, anger disgust. And so not only do you wanna avoid showing these, but you also wanna make sure that you are on the lookout to make sure if you see them. That means, okay, I gotta dig deeper. Someone might be hiding something. And I’m always careful to say that they’re bad. And the reason for this is ’cause there’s also times where you do wanna show danger zone cues to shut down a connection. So if someone’s challenging you or you don’t wanna build rapport. You can even save these danger zone cues for I’m out. I wanna set up boundaries, and I don’t wanna talk to you. So very, very powerful cues.

Brett McKay: So what are some examples of ones that you focus a lot on in the book?

Vanessa Van Edwards: So one that I love is called the lip purse. This is a universal gesture. So when we press our lips together, so if you just wanna mash your lips together, like make them into a hard line, can we kinda make that mmmh, uh, sound that is a universal withholding gesture. It’s as if as humans, when we’re trying to keep something in or keep it together or hold back our mouth presses in to say, don’t say that, stop that. And we do this when we’re trying to withhold, this could be something that we’re ashamed of, something we’re embarrassed of. It could be even a lie or a deception. So one of the things we did in our lab, I love this experiment. We played two truths and a lie, You know that game where you say two true statements about yourself and one lie with hundreds of our participants.

And what we had participants do is we had them submit videos of themselves sharing two truths and a lie. And the lip purse was the most common cue that we saw right before, or right after a lying statement. The reason for this is because we know as humans, that lying gets us into trouble, right? It, we don’t like to lie. It makes us feel sort of dirty. And so we noticed that people would say, their true statement, true statement, and then, mm, quick lip purse and the lie. There’s like their body going. Don’t say it, don’t say it or don’t give anything away. And so a lip purse is a great cue because it lets you know, I have to give this person permission to tell me more. So when I see a lip purse, I’ll say, hey are we all good? Do you have any questions for me? Anything I’m not hitting? Does this all make sense? So that’s the way that I think when we see a danger zone cue, it gives us an opportunity just to open up the communication more.

Brett McKay: Okay. So that’s a great example of being on the lookout for a cue and someone else that is, that’s the decoding part, right?

Vanessa Van Edwards: Yes. Yes.

Brett McKay: Okay. So we talked about non-verbal cues, let’s shift over to verbal cues and you talk about in the book, our voice can convey social cues. How can we use our voice to sound more confident, more warm?

Vanessa Van Edwards: So we have so much that we’re conveying in our voice and that’s because when we’re listening to someone, we are listening for their confidence, we’re listening to how open they are. And what research has found is actually we decide how confident someone is within the first a hundred milliseconds of hearing them speak. And so one thing that we noticed right away is there’s two different cues that we should listen out for vocal power. The first one is uptalk or the question inflection. So when we are speaking, and we’re confident in our words, we use a neutral inflection or a downward inflection. So right now I’m speaking in a neutral inflection. If I’m really powerful about something, I’ll sling my words down at the end. So I’ll go down in my inflection. Uptalk is when we go up in our inflection, it’s when we’re asking a question. So we’ll say my name is Vanessa.

What research has found is that when we accidentally use uptalk on a statement, it literally triggers the other person to think they’re questioning themselves. Should I question them? So we do tons of sales analysis for companies, and we found that when people get the most pushback or negotiation on their numbers, especially their prices, it’s ’cause they deliver their number in uptalk, they’ll say, We’d love to have your business.

We’d love to work with you. And the price of our service is $5000. When we ask, you are begging someone to question you, you’re begging someone to negotiate with you, so the first thing is making sure on your video calls in person in your voicemail, that you are using a neutral or downward inflection, especially on the important statements, your name, your price, advice, timelines, it’s critical that that actually triggers confidence ’cause it shows… I feel confident. I’m not questioning it and neither should you.

Brett McKay: All right, so avoid the uptalk. Another one, you talk about is vocal fry as well, right?

Vanessa Van Edwards: So vocal fry typically affects women more than men. They’ve actually found this in the research that because women wanna be perceived as more likeable, typically are seen as higher in warmth, they will use more question inflection as if to say, Do you like the statement? So it’s actually questioning in their statement, and they also tend to have vocal fry, Vocal Fry is when our voice goes into a kind of wavery. So you hear it’s sizzling bacon in a pan, that kind of wavery, if I were to talk like this in my entire interview, it would drive you crazy. The reason for that is because as humans, we know that if someone’s in vocal fry, they are likely vocally anxious, vocal fry happens we don’t have enough volume, we don’t have enough breath and our vocal cords tense. So right now, I’m working very hard to keep my vocal power in the lowest end of my range with consistent volume, but right now what I’ll do for you just so you can hear the difference is I’m gonna tighten my vocal cords, so you can hear what anxiety sounds like, so when I’m a little bit anxious, I tend to go a little bit higher in my range and I also lose volume, and you can hear that I have a lot more vocal fry, and that is because when we are tense, we lose breath and it’s hard for our vocal chords to rub together.

Now, the moment I relax the vocal cords, ah, it sounds so much better. So we have to be really aware of is the moment you hear yourself go into vocal fry… Speak louder. The fastest way to fix Vocal Fry is to speak up the moment we have volume, we add more breath, if you’re with someone and they hear using vocal fry, ask them, Can you speak up? I can’t hear you. It is the fastest way to fix a vocal fry and also take a deep breath, use the lower end of your voice, and it makes you feel better. And I now I felt terrible by just doing that little five-second demo. It actually makes me feel more anxious, even just doing the vocal fry.

Brett McKay: You mentioned Vocal Fry is more common with women, but I’ve been hearing a lot of, a lot more dudes with vocal fries, I think it’s becoming more common with men, so I think it’s something everyone should be aware of and avoid if you wanna sound more powerful. Same thing with uptalk, avoid that. Another thing we already mentioned is the guy who uses… Let’s call them power pauses right. That’s another thing you do to sound more powerful. It’s you take up space, conversationally by being silent.

Vanessa Van Edwards: And a pause doesn’t have to be long, actually the perfect pause they measured it is about a half of a second, so it’s just enough time to take a breath in and this works, right? We think, Okay, if someone is willing to take a breath, they feel confident that I’m not gonna interrupt them, and it also keeps our vocal power low. So a mistake that can happen is when we’re anxious, we speak faster, which makes us not to pause, which makes us sound less conversationally confident, it makes us run out of breath, and so you’ll notice that people hit vocal fry at the end of their sentence and that’s because they’re trying to get it all in. So they speak really fast. They don’t pause it all. And then by the end of their sentence they don’t have any of the breath left and so they are in vocal fry. So pausing is like a double punch where it allows you to take in a deep breath, and also it makes it prevents vocal fry at the end. Really, really charismatic people we coded TED Talks in our lab, and we found that the most charismatic people use pausing to create drama in their sentences, so they’ll say, today I have a really big idea.

I’m gonna share it with three different ways that are gonna change your life, right? That’s that TED talk speak. There’s a reason we like it is because it’s actually… The pausing is creating drama in a really good way.

Brett McKay: What could we do with our voice to sound more warm.

Vanessa Van Edwards: So warmth is the… This is actually… You always wanna pair a vocal warmth with verbal warmth, what I mean by this is it’s really easy to add vocal warmth when you’re talking about things that make you feel warm. So specially the first 10 seconds of interaction. Are you happy to be there? Are you happy to collaborate? Is it a good morning for the team? I think the biggest enemy of vocal warmth is we go accidentally negative, so we’re starting a call or we’re hopping into a meeting and we say, Oh, I’m so sorry, I’m late. The traffic was terrible. Oh my gosh. It’s so hot. It’s so cold. It’s been so busy, right? When you do that, you can hear my vocal tone also goes more negative and we don’t like hearing negativity. So what you’re better off doing is, What is something positive you can say in the first 10 seconds, that you can match with vocal warmth, your voice can smile, and that sounds crazy, but I’ll do two demos for you, so I’ll do a hello, just one word, this is your vocal first impression, we found in our lab that people could hear the happy hello.

So which one sounds happier to you? Hello. Hello.

Brett McKay: Second one.

Vanessa Van Edwards: Second one.

Brett McKay: Yeah.

Vanessa Van Edwards: Yeah and we can hear that happiness, so if you can pair it with a verbal happiness, it makes it more authentic.

Brett McKay: Okay, so that’s a weird… So smile when you say… Like when you answer the phone, smile, when you say hello.

Vanessa Van Edwards: Yes, and deliver whatever that good thing is that you are ready to give you know, oh I’m so happy to be here a while. It’s such a beautiful day. I’ve been looking forward to this all week. It’s so much easier to naturally smile and it actually changes the way your voice sounds.

Brett McKay: And I’m gonna let people in… Vanessa did this when we first got on. She did that, she was… You could tell she was smiling and she brought in that, that warm stuff and it worked. I was like, Man, I wanna talk to this person. I can’t wait to talk to her.

Vanessa Van Edwards: And I had thought about before our call, I was like, Oh my gosh, I have to tell him about my favorite art of manliness article. I can’t wait to tell him, and so I was waiting with that good piece of news, which made it super easy for me to smile.

Brett McKay: And your favorite articles are the generational cycles article, that you wrote a long time ago.

Vanessa Van Edwards: The cyclical history of men is the single best article on the internet, I literally send it out every two to three weeks, and if you have not read it, you must go read it it’s fascinating.

Brett McKay: Well, thank you so much for that, I really appreciate that. So let’s talk about imagery cues. Alright, so we talked about our voice, the words we can use can make us feel more warm, what are some ways that we can use our image to appear more competent or more warm?

Vanessa Van Edwards: So imagery cues are really important because they typically create neural maps, and what I mean by this is one single prop, color, image, pin can trigger all kinds of feelings, so I always like to use dating profiles, as an example. This is the easiest way to think about it. If you are skimming through dating profiles and someone is holding a snowboard, that might activate a whole series of other feelings for you. If you like snowboards, adventure, vacation, fun memories with your family. If you don’t like snowboarding, it triggers a whole different set of things cold, hurting, hauling. And so we use imagery already subconsciously, but I wanna make it more conscious, where in your profile pictures what you’re wearing, what’s on your desk, what’s in your zoom background, all of those things are triggering neural maps for people, you wanna make sure they’re triggering the right things.

Brett McKay: What are some things that guys can do in particular to think about how they dress, ’cause I think a lot of guys are, well, how you dress is so superficial, but in your research and your coaching, easy things that guys can think about in terms of dress that can up their competence or their warmth.

Vanessa Van Edwards: Yes, so for dress specifically, you always wanna think about where you fit in, so this can be with dating or even interviews, you wanna dress for the company you wanna work at. You wanna dress for how you wanna dress on your ideal date. For example, if your ideal date is hanging out with a picnic in the park, you don’t wanna be in a button-down, even though other people might like that, because that’s not actually your ideal date, you actually are better off being in a more casual or your favorite T-shirt, your favorite jeans, because it’s going to trigger the right neural maps to the right people. I do not believe in appealing to everyone, I believe in appealing to the right people. So if your ideal partner is the kind of person who would wanna do a picnic and dress more casually. I would rather you trigger a positive neural map for them. So what’s your ideal date? What’s your ideal meeting? Is it online? Is it casual? Is it a business suit? Is it a button down? Dress for your ideal. That’s going to turn on the right people and turn off the wrong people.

Brett McKay: That makes sense. Yeah, if you wear a suit, you might get somebody that they want like fancy stuff all the time, that’s actually not you, and you found yourself in like I’m in a conundrum here.

Vanessa Van Edwards: I’ll give you another very kind of… This happens in a lot of ways not just the basics of formal and not formal. Politicians in the United States are known to wear pins, flag pins. So a flag pin is a symbol for certain people that they love, it’s also an ornament or a symbol of certain sort of people they do not love, and so even when you think about those kinds of things like wearing a pin on your lapel or not, what does that pin say. I want you to think about what are the other pins in your life, they could be images in your profile, they could be things in your background, all of those things are going to either be allergies for people you don’t want, or attractors for people you do want.

Brett McKay: I like that. Well, Vanessa, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?

Vanessa Van Edwards: Oh my goodness, thank you so much. Cues is wherever books are sold, I also record the audible and that we have a lot of fun with that so if you prefer audio books. And then of course, my website is We have a ton of free videos of cues, non-verbal cues, I break down The Rock and so many fun people, Princess Diana, Justin Bieber, so if you wanna see some of the cues in action, you can also waste many, many hours on our website if you lik e.

Brett McKay: Great, well, Vanessa Van Edwards. Thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

Vanessa Van Edwards: Thank you so much for having me.

Brett McKay: Well, my guest is Vanessa Van Edwards. She’s the author of the book, Cues, it’s available on and book stores everywhere. You can find more information about her work at her website, Also check out our show notes at where you can find links to resources and we delve deeper into this topic. Well, that wraps up another edition of The AOM Podcast. Make sure to check out our website at, where you can find our podcast archives, as well as thousands of articles, written over the years about pretty much anything you would think of.

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