Imaging USA 2020 Closing Keynote Vanessa Van Edwards Science of Charisma | Mac Sources

9 min readJan 22, 2020

The only difference between anxiety and excitement is mindset.

We have come to the third and final day of Imaging USA 2020. There are no more classes to attend, the Tradeshow floor has closed, and the attendees were herded into the Presidental Ballroom C for the closing keynote. Introduced by David Trust CEO PPA, whose arching focus was on the copyright issue CASE act, Vanessa Van Edwards presented the Science of Charisma. Authoress of “Captivate: The Science of Succeeding with People,” and lead investigator at the science of people human research lab, she has taught/trained several members of fortune 500 companies, has a popular TED talk, and has worked with several members of sports teams. Her goal is to use the science of psychology and behavior to improve human interaction/communication. She noted that photographers had a unique job, to capture life’s highlights/best moments. The issue, however, was the photographer paradox. You can create an exceptionally creative/expressive body of work that speaks and sells itself. But, many of them lack the people skills to speak and sell themselves.

Ms. Van Edwards started her presentation with a story about Albert Einstein, genius Physicist, and Nobel Prize Laureate. Many people may be aware of his contributions to science, but they may not realize that in 1952 he was asked to be president of Israel. He responded with the following quote: “I lack both the natural aptitude and experience to deal properly with people.” Ms. Van Edwards noted that exceptional intelligence/talent did not always pair with exceptional people skills. Furthermore, some of the most talented people have trouble sharing their worth, negotiating prices, networking, and making first impressions. She wanted the attendees to “Be as confident in yourself as you are in your work.”

Using several scientific studies, Ms. Van Edwards attempted to define “Charisma.” She asked several people to name the most charismatic person that they knew. As a follow-up question, she asked them to define charisma. Through this process, she found that charisma was difficult to define, difficult to answer, and difficult to grasp. Interestingly, she found that it was relatively easy for people to identify others with charisma, but it took nearly twice as long to define the word. The overall summary suggested that “we know it when we see it but have difficulty defining it.” Similar to the sliders on Adobe/Lightroom, she created a charisma slider/continuum. During the experience, they contacted the people listed and they tested them. They found two main trait differences (Harvard Business School). Very charismatic people have a perfect balance between warmth and competence. Warm people are seen as sweet, great team players, caring, compassionate, but are viewed as less competent, relatable, less impressive, and not that powerful. If someone associated more with competence, they were seen as smart, dependable, important, trustworthy but lacked approachability, were seen as non-collaborative, not kind, hard to approach, and Cold. The major goal was to recognize your position on the slider and to attempt to move closer to the center.

Shape the experience to be more open-minded. Example: instead of yes/no choices, consider adding absolutely and possibly. Priming is used regularly for donations. Would you be willing to help by giving a donation versus adding “every penny will help.” By adding that small sentence, she noted an increase from 28% vs 50% donation. Simply by using more in-group pronouns, this increased one’s positive feelings (Journal of Experimental Social Psychology). Feeling like part of a group makes them more likely to work with you. Every interaction is an opportunity. How can we prime more? Emails, invites, calls, canned responses and everything that is part of your brand. The more important/advanced aspect is to set people up for success. To showcase this concept, she relayed a study on room service waiters. The First group walked up to a door, knocked, said “hello,” and handed them the breakfast tray. The Second completed the same steps as group one but also added: “what nice weather we are having.” Users that used the word nice got a 27% higher tip. The word nice primed people to be more giving/nice. Can we start conversations with something different? Easy getting here, great weather, the food is wonderful, end to a great day, interesting venue, lovely group of people. Think about how you are priming people to think about the good things in their lives. Every time you use the word good it primes people to think about more good that they could do. Rave about the persons you work with. Set them up for success.

Ms. Van Edwars noted that once primed, we need to snap people out of autopilot. When we stay on autopilot, we miss dopamine (chemical of pleasure), the interaction hormone. If you can trigger this in an interaction, it physiologically makes you more memorable. It creates a “sticky note” about you in their brain. Add something to snap the brain out of autopilot. The brain looks for hits not misses. When we think about our questions we are either priming the brain or leaving them on autopilot. How can we change the brain to pull up hits for good? Ask people if anything good happened today? Anything exciting coming up today? Any vacations on the books? We often fail to appropriately use openers in our client interaction process: Tell me about your event, how did you find me? These do not leave openings for dopamine. Rephrase these. What excites you the most about your event? What would make this really successful? Similar questions but phrased slightly differently will demand that the other person’s brain think differently. The primary, overarching, goal is to leave people better than you found them.

Nonverbal engagement: Body language is also an incredibly powerful communication tool. What part of the body do you notice first? You would think it was eyes/face but it is actually the hands. When hands are put behind your body, it tricks your brain. It wants to know what the hands are doing. When you cannot see the hands, the amygdala lights up. Your body enters the fight/flight response and fear becomes a real feeling. When the hands come out, it screams “I am a friend” and you feel much better. People are on edge when they cannot see your hands. Hands need to be above your desk, visible, friendly. She recommended to avoid pockets and placing your hands behind your back. Visible hands are great for building trust, and a sense of safety. Furthermore, she noted that hand gestures carry 12.5% more weight than our words. Similar to charisma, you can overdo hand conversation. She provided another slider detailing a low to high hand gestures range from stiff to jazzy. Expressive hand gestures, like charisma, can be found in the center of the slider. A study on Hand Gestures by Dr. Paul Zack studied oxytocin, the chemical of bonding. Touch can help you to feel calm, and to provide a warm-fuzzy feeling after meeting someone. The moment of touch leads to oxytocin and notes “ahh we are friends.” We often forget handshakes with people we already know. Prevent the awkward meeting moment and shake someone’s hand. It will make you more memorable. A Smile-nod is okay but does not kindle the oxytocin connection. So, when in doubt, give a handshake.

She also recommended focusing on the strength of Vocal power. Ms. Van Edwards noted that her second favorite study focused on vocal power. The study took doctors and recorded them speaking their name, specialty, and where they worked. They took those clips and warbled the words. You could hear the tone, pitch, intonation, inflection but not the words. They then asked people to listen and to rate the doctor on warmth versus competence. Doctors with the lowest rating had the highest rates of malpractice. We do not sue them based on skill but our perception of the skill. Our opinion happens within the first few seconds of hearing someone talk. The most important part of the phone call is the sound/tone. The biggest pattern they found was that every single one of us has a natural range. Most competent sounding individuals used the lowest points within their natural range. Lower tones signal something to the brain. When nervous, vocal cords tense, creating less space in the neck/mouth, causing the jaw to clench and each creates different sounds. We hear anxiety. The biggest mistake is that they answer the phone in the highest range of their natural voice and it makes you sound nervous/anxious and untrustworthy. Train yourself to use the lowest range of your voice. We like to listen to confidence. An easy way to get to your lowest resonance point is to work on breathing and to speak on the out-breath. Every time you get nervous, speak on the out-breath, as it causes your vocal cords to relax. She noted that question inflection is a killer of vocal charisma. When you inflect at the end, it says I do not believe in myself and I am asking you for your opinion or I am asking for your price. When you ask for the price you are opening yourself to allowing them to negotiate with you. Avoid question inflection. Practice delivering the pricing on the out-breath, which will keep vocal chords relaxed. She recommended to record the end of your next client conversation and then listen back to it. Listen to every time you get a vocal fry/inflection. Practice the delivery of giving bad news. Downward deflection inspires confidence.

Lastly, she focused on emotions and microexpressions: a very brief involuntary facial expression made during an intense emotional feeling. Interestingly, a study found blind children made the same facial expressions, at the same time, as sighted children. Facial expressions are innate, we make the same faces. If you see the whites of someone’s eyes pause rewind, and, improve rapport as they are afraid. If they show you their upper teeth, they may be disgusted. Once someone’s fear is active, the amygdala is active, and people literally cannot hear you. The moment you see someone’s whites of their eyes, pause, rewind see what the fear is about and fix the situation. That is how you close. Contempt is easiest of the micro facial expressions and actually the most likely indicator of marriage success (93.6% accuracy). Contempt micro-expression is the only one that does not go away. Look for true happiness in the eyes/upper cheeks. Make the environment pleasant and watch for the facial cues that the person cannot hide.

To summarize the event, Ms. Van Edwards hoped that we avoid focusing on impressing people and have them focus on impressing us. Never waste a calendar invite again. Never open a conversation on autopilot. See every emotion to get to truth. Use oxytocin and dopamine to build stronger relationships. Take every opportunity to infect good/positive feelings.

If you want to learn more about the Science of People, you can purchase her book or navigate to her website.

Captivate Vanessa Van Edwards
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Originally published at on January 22, 2020.




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