Vanessa Van Edwards on Navigating the Virtual Workplace in Stressful Times

Vanessa Van Edwards
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The world has dramatically changed in just a few weeks. As companies around the world shift to remote work, how do we navigate this crisis? Distributed host Matt Mullenweg talks to Vanessa Van Edwards, bestselling author, speaker, and founder of Science of People, about how we communicate with our friends, family, and coworkers during a time when Zoom and Slack are our primary tools for understanding each other.

To learn more about Vanessa’s work, visit

The full episode transcript is below.


(Intro Music)

MATT MULLENWEG:  Howdy, everyone. Welcome back to the Distributed Podcast. This is our first episode since, well, everything has changed for our lives, for our family and friends and for the way we work. A lot of folks have been using as a resource for remote work and best practices, so we wanted to do everything we can to help folks out in the weeks and months to come and look for lots of updates to the website that are already happening.

Today we are going to speak with Vanessa Van Edwards, an expert on public speaking who had to change the way she thought about her own work. And she also has some great tips for how we present ourselves in remote work as well. So without further ado, here is my chat with Vanessa.

Welcome, Vanessa Van Edwards.

VANESSA VAN EDWARDS:  Thank you so much for having me.

MATT:  I’m very excited. And also, thank you for..  you were one of our featured speakers at the Grand Meetup.

VANESSA:  [laughs]  Yes.

MATT:  So just to give some background to the listeners, once a year, Automattic would bring everyone together and we invite very few awesome speakers and Vanessa was one of them last year.

VANESSA:  It was such a lovely audience, too. I remember they actually gave me a standing ovation, which made me cry on stage.

MATT:  Well, thank you very much. And it was I think one of the earlier talks we had in the week so it ended up being fairly influential. Just to give a little bit of background for you though.. Now my understanding is you actually started off doing more online teaching?

VANESSA:  Yeah, I did. I actually stumbled into the online course arena before I even realized that was a thing. I was also on  YouTube back in 2007, if you can believe that, when people thought that YouTube was a joke and a fad.

And then online courses, I started my first online course in 2011-2012, and thank goodness, because at the time I was teaching a lot of engineers, programmers, accountants people skills. As you know, Matt, I like to joke, I’m a recovering awkward person. And so I was teaching soft skills in a very science-backed way. And so there was a platform called Udemy, where a lot of engineers were taking courses on programming and software, and so I thought well, let me put my “Charisma for Engineers” course on there and see what happens. And little did I know it would totally explode and change my life.

MATT:   Wow. So YouTube at the time was I guess pictures of dogs on skateboards. What were you putting on there at the time?

VANESSA:  [laughs]  Yes. You know what was really hot when I first got on there? Does anyone remember fingerboarding? Do you remember that craze?

MATT:  Ohh, miniature skateboards that you would do with your fingers?

VANESSA:  Yes! Yes, so I remember –

MATT:  Wow, I haven’t thought about that in a long time.

VANESSA: Okay, so I remember I was competing with fingerboarding videos. That was a thing that I was competing against. And in the beginning I was just doing very casual, on-my-phone communication tips, conversation tricks. And the funny part is because it was so casual, YouTube in the beginning was very, very casual, I was doing them from my bedroom and in a weird way that actually endeared me to people and I think got me to really make long-time students.

MATT:  It probably felt a lot more authentic, which people now do on purpose. And you, I guess you grew through this and published a book in 2017 called Captivate. Can you just give us a quick rundown so people can check that out?

VANESSA:  Yes, for sure. So I always would walk into rooms in college and interviews and I always felt like everyone had this written rulebook of social interaction that I was just missing. And I quickly picked up every book I could find on social skills and relationships and friendships, Dale Carnegie and Cialdini, everything I could find.

And one thing I figured out very early was that most social-skills books were written by extroverts. And I am an ambivert, so I am somewhere in between. I lean towards introversion and I also have a lot of social anxiety and awkwardness. And if you are trying to learn people skills from an extrovert who is naturally very good with people, they say very well-meaning things to you, like just be yourself, or be more authentic, or smile more, or be more outgoing. Telling an introvert or an awkward person to be more outgoing is like telling them to not be themselves. So I really wanted to —

MATT:  Hmm. It reminds me of that advice where sometimes people are freaking out and you’re like, “just relax,” which is probably the least helpful thing to say to someone.

VANESSA:  Amen. I’m also a high neurotic, I mean, I feel bad sharing all my dirty laundry already, it’s only the first five minutes, but never in the history of “calm down” has “calm down” ever calmed anyone down. It’s exactly the same thing with ambiverts and introverts.

So I thought what if there was a way for me to study people like you study for chemistry or math with formulas and vocabulary words and maps of networking events and specific tips on what to do with your hands? And that is what Captivate ended up being. But I had no idea that this book would reach as many people as it did. It’s in 16 languages now, which is shocking, and I had no idea there were so many people who were also struggling with awkwardness.

MATT:  How did that turn into a speaking career? Did the speaking come first or did the book come first?

VANESSA:  The speaking came first actually. Speaking came even before online courses. I started doing group speaking. And in the beginning, because I was, in the beginning I had a niche. In a business they always say niche, niche, niche.

And I had taken a weekend passive income course when I was 17 years old — thank you, Mom — my mom is a lawyer and she said, I never want you to be paid for your hours, I want you to create this thing, this  magical thing, called passive income. So she sent me to a seminar in a big ballroom in Los Angeles and I learned about this concept called passive income. And one of the things on there was creating a website or a blog, writing books and then doing speaking. Now speaking is active income, but it, quote/unquote, “can sell books.”

So in the beginning I was told to pick a niche and at the time I was 17, so I picked parenting and teens. And so I was speaking to —

MATT:  [laughs]

VANESSA:  I know, I know. It’s just funny how my business has grown out of that. But I was speaking to PTAs, I was speaking to student groups, I was speaking to some companies, parents, lunch-and-learns. And that is what got my feet wet in the corporate world, realizing “oh, you can reach a lot of people at the same time.” And so slowly I started to grow my corporate speaking and I have been doing that probably since 2008.

MATT:  And so just to set the stage a little bit, we’re recording this at the beginning of April, everyone is affected by this COVID-19 pandemic, where in the world are you located?

VANESSA:  I’m in Austin, Texas.

MATT:  And as a fellow Texan, I’m glad you’re here, but things… We’re probably a little bit behind other places but it will probably get bad here this month.


MATT:  What have you found so far in your own work as you’ve had to shift in this self-isolation world?

VANESSA:  Yes. We saw massive shifts almost from day one. And I think on the personal side, this crisis is having everyone face their personal demons — people’s fear of being alone, people’s fear of being out of control, people’s fear of germs.

And one of my fears, definitely, is being out of control. And so in our business we have grown very, very organically specifically on keywords. I bet you didn’t expect me to go to that answer with that question. [laughter] But let me try to explain how this goes.

So I didn’t realize this literally until three or four weeks ago — so we have never had to buy traffic or buy ads or pay for traffic. Our first ad campaign was last May, so less than a year ago, everything has grown organically. And I live, our entire business feeds off of keywords. So even down to communication speaker, keynote speaker, conference speaker, Austin, and then all of our blog content. So we track… Every morning I would say I wake up and I look at my keywords, and they are quite predictable. And predictability, I didn’t notice until this pandemic, is incredibly important for my sense of calm, my well-being.

And so the first day they announced social distancing in the U.S., I saw all of our keywords, which have been very predictable for the last ten years, immediately decline because our top keywords are things like conferences, networking events, keynote speaker, conversation starters, ice breakers, body language.

MATT:  Wow.

VANESSA:  It was like my business became immediately irrelevant. My life’s work became immediately irrelevant in a day. And that was — is — terrifying.

Now, [laughs] I think it has taken me a couple weeks to realize there’s opportunity there because, while our top 50 keywords dropped to no traffic, very significantly lowered, keywords I didn’t ever pay attention to have started to climb back up. For example, and this warms my heart, the number-one performing post right now, which is by the way paying the bills with ad revenue, is our post on 36 deep questions to ask your partner.

MATT:  Wow.

VANESSA:  And that makes me so hopeful, because it means that in this crisis people are still connecting, they are still wanting deep conversations, and thank goodness we have some content to be able to help them. And so from that day we pivoted, we started pivoting all of our content.

MATT:  Wow. A lot of things you just said really resonated with me. [laughs] Do you feel like some of your background in online teaching is coming back?

VANESSA:  Yes and thank goodness. So interestingly I think there are different kinds of online courses — there are online courses, there are online programs. And I had created a lot of them — from 2012 to 2017 was course-creation time. In 2017, Captivate came out, totally changed my business because wow, it was working and it was a book and I had never done that before and it was driving so much corporate speaking and so I stopped making courses.

Now we have one big course, it’s our flagship course, it’s called “People School,” and that was selling great. So I took down all of my courses, literally, I took all of my courses off my website. We were also seeing, when we did split testing on the website, that too many choices made no purchases at all. Classic choice paralysis. So I was like okay, we’re going to sell one course, take down all of our other courses, and the book, and I’ll speak.

Well, now people want all those old courses again and they want new courses and different courses. And so for the first time I’m thinking you know what, maybe it’s time to dust off the old camera and the old teleprompter and get to it.

MATT:  I will say one thing we have observed is that people are looking for online education more than ever. I think people just have a lot more time and so they are very open. And we’re also, all over the country and the world, being thrust into new work situations.

So the same way that maybe I was going to a conference and nervous about meeting people before, I might google things that ended up on your website, now I’ve actually been thinking a ton about just how do I show up better for my colleagues that I’m not going to probably see at all this year. Because although Automattic is fully distributed, we were really, a big part of our culture was these meetups. So we would build a lot of the trust and bonding in those in-person times and then kind of draw on it the rest of the year.

A question I’m also getting a ton is: how do you build culture when you’re not physically together? So I’m curious. Why don’t you start there — how do you build culture if you’re not physically together? How do you build that trust with each other?

VANESSA: Yeah, so one of my favorite things to do is to look at the psychology of change and exactly what we’re talking about here is we already had a lot of companies who were remote, who were virtual, who were working from home, but right now we are looking at people who are being forced into that situation and trying to create culture and connection.

And when I think about connection, I go to the chemicals. And I don’t know if this is a weird way to look at it but it helps me break it down into something we can actually produce. So when you’re looking at connection there are —

MATT:  And do I remember..? I think I saw one of your videos. Do you actually have some of the chemicals behind you in a video?

VANESSA:  [laughs] Yes! Right now I do. I’m gazing lovingly at them. I have literally my three favorite chemicals on my wall, yes.

MATT:  Which are?

VANESSA: Which are.. okay. So these are the three chemicals that are essential for connection. They are serotonin — and by the way, this is a little bit of a simplified explanation of these chemicals but it gives you a basic idea. Serotonin is the first one. Serotonin is the sense of calm and belonging. It has never been more important than it is right now. It is that feeling that you get when you’re on a video call and everyone laughs together and you go, ah, these are my people. That is serotonin that’s coursing through everyone’s bloodstream at the same time.

The next one is oxytocin. Oxytocin, again, a little simplified, is the connection hormone. It’s nicknamed the cuddle hormone because it happens when we touch. Well, what happens when we can’t touch, when we can’t shake hands or high five or fist bump? Well, the good news is they are finding that there are lots of ways we produce oxytocin, because oxytocin is the feeling of the warm and fuzzies. This is when you are on a phone call with someone and they share a vulnerability, like they’re scared or they are not sleeping at night, and you say, [sigh] yeah, me too, and you feel like wow, we are in the same place. That’s oxytocin, that’s the warm and fuzzies.

And the last one is really important for how we combat dread. And this is what I’ve been thinking a lot about in the last few weeks is how do we stay productive on these video calls where we are having family members that are sick, where we are worried about making ends meet? And dopamine is actually a critical part of that. Dopamine is the pleasure chemical, it helps us feel excited, it helps us feel motivated, it is an active chemical, it makes us want to take action and it is how we fight dread, malaise, feeling listless. So in a really exciting interaction, you have dopamine.

So what I’ve been thinking about, and I’m so excited, I’m going to be doing a webinar for Automattic in the next few weeks, which I’m so excited about, is how do we create those three chemicals in a virtual workplace for our self in self-care and as shared rituals?

MATT:  There’s something that we talked about a lot at the GM. You said when hands are visible we’re more trusting and if it’s in pockets, we’re less so. So maybe share that really quickly and then we’ll talk about that.

VANESSA: Oh yes, this is one of my favorite pieces of science. The best part about this science is it seems to be very sticky. Whenever I teach it in a webinar or from stage it seems like it infiltrates culture so much so that.. Automattic has been helping with my website, I have my entire company built on WordPress… and on our video calls, they always start with a big wave and they always have their hands visible even months and months later.

And the reason for this is because when we first meet someone the very first place we think we look is eyes or face, but actually when you look at eye tracking studies they find that the very, very first place we look is someone’s hands. And they think that this is a leftover survival mechanism that somehow, back in our caveman days, if we were approached by a stranger caveman the very first place we looked was their hands to see if they were carrying a rock or a spear.

We also look to hands to see is someone going to touch us, are they going to hand shake with us. And so we are always a little bit aware of the hands. And this is such an easy scientific tip to bring into our real life because it’s basically leading hands-first. The moment your video call turns on, having that waving hello to everyone, can immediately subconsciously take down anxiety when they see it.

MATT:  Okay. Now I have been on a lot of video calls in my life and recently. I have started noticing that most webcams are not positioned to have your hands in there.

VANESSA:  Yes. So I have two tips for video calls. One is make sure that you scoot the camera or your screen back or get an external camera so that they can see the tops of your hands, basically your upper torso and your head. It does so many things. One, it allows you to see hands easier, two it also allows you to gauge someone’s confidence easier.

A really easy confidence cue is the distance between someone’s earlobe and the top of their shoulder. And this makes sense if you think about it logically. If you are tense or anxious, you tense your shoulders up toward  your ears. I’m doing it right now, you might even be able to hear it in my voice. When I tense my shoulders up and then I turtle my mouth down, it really decreases the amount of oxygen I can take in because I am tense. And then the moment I put my shoulders down, it gives me more oxygen, it gives me more space, and I hit my what’s called a maximum resonance point. So to be able to see hands and shoulders, it’s extremely helpful.

MATT: Hmm. It’s tough because to me the most important thing on these calls  is the audio quality and sometimes the further people get away from their – if they don’t have some sort of microphone – the further they get away from the computer, which is their camera, the harder it is to hear them or the more background noise that comes in. And I heard you talk a lot about body language, what is the vocal or aural input that influences our trust and acceptance in those three chemicals?

VANESSA:  Yes, okay. And by the way, I totally agree with you that the further away your computer is, the worse it is. So you can easily.. if you get earbuds your microphone is as close to your mouth as possible and the camera can be farther away. So that’s a little easy tip, it also helps with background noise and kids playing and all kinds of background things. So that’s my go-to with my teams.

Okay vocal power, Matt, this is my favorite topic. We don’t realize that we are constantly making vocal impressions and that a lot of our charisma is being signaled through our vocal power. And this is one of the most interesting studies that I have ever read. It was done with doctors and what they did is they had doctors record ten second voice tone clips. And in these clips they had them say their name, their specialty and where they worked.

So it sounded something like this, “Hi, my name is Dr. Edwards, I specialize in oncology and I work at Children’s Presbyterian Hospital.” Something very basic like that. They took these clips and they warbled the words. They made it so you could hear the volume, the pace, the cadence, but not the actual words being said. So it sounded something like this. [warbling, nonsense words]

MATT:  Wow, that was a really good warbling impression.

VANESSA: Well, thank you, thank you very much. Thank you. And they asked participants to rate these clips on things like competence and warmth. So imagine this for a second, you’re given a clip of gobbledygook and you’re asked how smart is this person, how friendly is this person?

And so participants did it and they found that the doctors who had the lowest rating in warmth and competence had the highest rate of malpractice lawsuits. That is an incredible finding because it indicates that we don’t just sue doctors based on their skills, we sue doctors based on our perception of their skills.

And so in voice tone, and they looked at patterns, why some doctors across the board rated as highly warm, highly competent, whereas other doctors were seen over and over again as not dependable, not smart. And they found all kinds of patterns. And these are very tied to our body language. Our body affects our voice and our emotion affects our body. So it is this one big circle.

And so I’ll give just one easy example here. We know that confidence is contagious. So if someone feels calm and competent and confident in what they are presenting in a meeting, that means they are high in serotonin and that means we feel calmer, confident and more capable in their message, so then we get more serotonin.

So the way that we do that is the more space that we have in our body, the better our voice, the closer our voice is to our maximum resonance point. So when you think about voice, we all have a range. Right now I am working very hard to stay in the lowest end of my natural range. When I get excited or I’m talking to my daughter, I talk a little bit higher, like this, [demonstrating] and when I’m like oh hey baby, how are you, it’s so good to see you, I miss you, I love you.

Now if I did the entire podcast like that, it would drive you crazy. You couldn’t listen to it. [laughs] And that is because those are both natural to me but one of them shows less space, it’s higher up, versus now, I’m hitting the lower end of my range. Now we know that people who are relaxed, they have low shoulders, high head, space between their torso and their arms, in other words they are using hand gestures, that actually translates into lower, more resonant voices.

MATT:  If I were going to put up a post-it note by my webcam of some things to think of and do before I go on a meeting with colleagues, what would you put on that post-it note?

VANESSA:  Lower your shoulders. [laughs] And that’s, I know that sounds really weird. My second choice would maybe be “breathe,” but that’s… We always breathe so that one is not as good.

But I’ll give you an example. So a lot of the times people answer the phone or get on a video call or start their speech or their presentation on the highest end of their breath. So they take in a deep breath and they go [inhale, in a high-pitched voice] hello? And they are at the very highest end of their breath. That sounds tense. Your shoulders also go up when you do that.

When you speak on the out breath.. So that sounds like [demonstrating] hello, your voice immediately goes down, your shoulders immediately go down and then it’s a much lower resonance point. So if your shoulders are down it’s not only that you are probably breathing, but it’s probably that you are [out breath] speaking on the out breath.

MATT:  Anything else on the post-it, number three? So we’ve got lower your shoulders, breathe, and maybe room for one or two more.

VANESSA:  Hand gestures. So there’s two aspects of hand gestures here. First, visible hands, yay, bonus points, love when your hands are visible, wave hello, keep them visible when you’re talking. The second aspect is competence. And that is that we tend to look for hands for further or deeper comprehension.

And this also touches very closely to honesty. And the reason for that is because it’s very easy for a liar to lie with their words, it’s very hard for them to lie with their hands. And so we look to gestures to look for congruence. We are looking to see if someone’s hands match their words.

And we did a huge TED Talk experiment in our lab where we looked at the most popular TED speakers based on view count and we saw there was a clear, clear difference between the most viewed TED Talks and the least viewed TED Talks. The most viewed TED talkers use very explanatory gestures. When they are talking about three things, they hold up tree fingers. When they are talking about a small idea, they hold it small, like a little tiny jewelry box. When they’re talking about a big idea, they literally act like they are holding a beach ball.

This is incredibly important even if you’re on the phone, even if you’re not on video. Researcher Susan Goldwin Meadow found that our hand gestures contribute to our vocal charisma. So right now I’m using tons of hand gestures. You can’t see but they are just moving and moving and moving. If I were to sit on my hands that would actually translate into two things.

One, we recall less and are less vocally fluent without hand gestures. So hand gestures actually help you be more interesting. By the way, I’m sitting on my hands and I couldn’t even think of the word. Your hand gestures help you be more charismatic. I’m bringing them back out. And they help add depth, personality to your voice, even if you’re just on the phone.

MATT:  I have heard that when you’re virtual versus when you’re in person, you should try to amp up your energy a bit more. Do you find yourself doing that when you’re doing online courses versus in person?

VANESSA:  Ooh. Okay. So I do not believe in fake it till you make it. I do not believe in faking energy if you don’t have it. I also think that there is something naturally human and beautiful that happens when you  match the energy of the person you’re with as much as that feels good to you.

So if you have a lot of energy because you’re passionate about your topic, yes, keep it as high as it feels good for you. If you don’t feel energetic — you’ve gotten bad news, you’ve had a long day — the worst thing you can do is be forced happy. And we all know what this sounds like, right? It sounds like this. [demonstrates] Hi everyone, it’s soooo good to see you, so today..  Ugh. Like, ugh. I just.. We just can’t do it. So what I would say is first, try to honor where you naturally are.

The other thing I would say is, Matt, you have a very calm, peaceful way of speaking. When I met you in person, you have a very calm, peaceful presence as well. What I like to do is actually try to match and mirror your energy as much as possible. So I’m actually speaking at a lower volume, at a lower energy than maybe I would with someone who is a fast talker and super high energy and pelting me with questions, because I actually want to be on the same energetic page as you.

MATT:  Interesting. I always think about trying to get folks who are a little more amped up to compensate for my more normally dulcet tones. [laughter] One thing I’ve noticed as well is group dynamics. I recently blogged about this, that I don’t love Zoom calls where everyone is muted. Have you ever run into that where it’s like you’re not getting any auditory feedback on things you say?

VANESSA: Oh, yes. Actually it’s really a subtle thing that you picked up on that’s really important. So, oh my goodness, if I could remember this research… I’m going to paraphrase this research because I haven’t read it recently but I believe it was by a researcher, Monica Moore. And she found that in a conversation when a man says more mmm, ahh, ohh, in a conversation, when they’re listening, just when they’re listening, the woman finds them more attractive.

MATT:  Hmm.

VANESSA:  And that when women say mmm, ahh, ohh, the woman also likes the conversation more and the man feels like he’s being better listened to. So there is something very important about that feedback loop.

So a couple of things here — one, if you have a small enough group I do highly recommend keeping people off of mute unless they have a cat sitting next to them and they’re typing on the keyboard or kids in the background. But two, if it’s too big of a group, give time where you want people to come off of mute. So, for example, if someone is presenting and you want to say, “oh let’s give them some feedback, everyone unmute themselves, give them a round of applause” —

MATT:  Ahh.

VANESSA:  — Or, okay everyone, we’re going to do a little intro here, everyone unmute themselves, say  hi. Unmute. Hi, hi, hi, hi, hi, hi. Thank you. You can actually have group, even with Zoom calls of 50+ people, his, applause, byes, thank yous, it’s really the next best thing.

MATT:  That is a really interesting tip. We have started to do more jazz hands instead of applause as a visual way to applaud and I guess I actually learned it’s the American Sign Language for clapping.


MATT:  But I’ll try the unmute thing. We do a monthly town hall, which is where generally anyone can ask anyone any questions and I try to answer them or other people jump in to answer them. But it is typically only one or two people unmuted and then many, many hundreds watching.

Have you picked up anything else on Zoom that we should be leveraging that the software might help make things a little friendlier or a little better?

VANESSA:  Well, you know I love a good filter. So if you have not discovered the filter yet on Zoom it really  lightens you up, makes you look like you’re sleeping really great. Do you use the filter, Matt?

MATT:  Oh this is the one that smooths you out, right?


MATT:  Yes, let me see exactly what it’s called. That one is kind of neat. It’s under Video and it says “Touch up my appearance.” And I do not have it on right now but maybe I should turn it on.

VANESSA: I’m going to change your life, Matt. You’re going to look so young and so well-rested, it’s going to be amazing.

MATT:  Have you tried the Snap camera yet?

VANESSA:  I have not tried it yet, what is it?

MATT:  So Snap, as in Snapchat, released a computer utility that lets you do Snapchat-like filters, so more fun ones or irreverent ones, in real time through your web cam.

VANESSA:  What..?

MATT:   I know.

VANESSA:  Oh that’s real cool. Okay so that’s really cool. So filters, Snaps. I was just talking to your team about this, most people also don’t realize that you can have multiple co-hosts. So if you’re running a meeting, like a smaller meeting, and you need help with muting people or posting things in chat or recording, I always recommend double- or if not triple-recording. You can make as many people as you want co-host and they have controls to help you. Because as a meeting manager it can be a lot to do it all yourself.

MATT: I’m also going to throw in one of my favorites and cheapest improvements is just a lamp or positioning yourself where you’re facing a window rather than being backlit. The lighting can make such a huge difference, especially as the days start to get shorter or you’re on meetings at odd hours. You don’t want to look like you’re in a horror movie or badly lit otherwise.

VANESSA: Oh my goodness, lighting from the front, game changer, probably even better than that filter I just told you about. I’ll also give you one more. So it’s really helpful if you look…

The tendency for the eye is to look at the person speaking, which is actually underneath the camera, or to the side of the camera, depending on where your camera is. What I do is I actually shrink my Zoom screen down into a very small video and put it right below where my camera is so that when I’m looking at the camera, I am also looking at people’s faces and it doesn’t feel like it’s that different.

MATT:  That is so cool, I do the exact same thing. [laughs] It’s neat that we both independently arrived at that. And my dream is for the camera to be able to be on this screen a little better.

VANESSA: Oh  yes. Yes, exactly. I do try when I’m speaking to speak directly to the dot.

MATT:  Yeah, that is really hard. I also sometimes make the Zoom full screen so I don’t have any distractions but then I end up turning my head, because I have a really wide monitor, when different people are speaking. I don’t know if that looks like I’m looking at something else or whether they have some sense that maybe I’m turning to look at their face.

VANESSA:  I say that to people. Like if I know that I have… I have a couple of external screens, I will literally say hey, I’m actually looking at you on the other screen even though you don’t realize it, just because you don’t want people to assume that you’re checking email or something.

I also have a master-level tip. If you really want to get good at video call, if you really want to get good at video call, I would highly recommend learning the seven universal facial expressions. Dr. Paul Ekman is an amazing researcher, he’s where I got my training, and he discovered something called the micro expression, which is a universal facial expression. It’s a very quick one, it’s less than a second, and it’s our natural reaction to emotions. And he has discovered across cultures and genders and races there are seven universal facial expressions.

I will tell you, learning those facial expressions was like suddenly seeing the world in HD. I was seeing emotions behind words, I was seeing how my words were being heard. And so I would highly recommend, and I have these all for free on my website, I think this is a universal skill, I think everyone should have it, so just go ahead, you can look at it all for free. We have video demos and photos on there.

Once you learn how to spot the universal expressions you no longer have miscommunications about emotion. You are able to skip a lot of the “what is she feeling, what is she thinking,” with knowing wow, that was sadness or hmm, that made her nervous, that was fear, or whoops, just saw some contempt, I better back up and explain again. If you really want to be a dynamic presenter or meeting coordinator, I highly recommend learning those seven.

MATT:  What should we google to find that on your site?

VANESSA:  Its and you’ll see lots of me making funny faces for your benefit.

MATT:  That is awesome. Did you have any acting in your background?

VANESSA: [laughs] No, no, not at all. I’m actually honored that you asked because it means I’m doing a decent job.

Although I will say I have always wanted to be funny and I used to think of myself as funny, now it’s just an accident when I’m funny and people are laughing. So I have tried to take improv. And when I was seven years old, I carried around a bunch of jokes in my pocket because I had no friends and so what I would do on the playground is when anyone sat next to me I would pull out my book and I would tell a joke. So I have tried it a little bit in comedy.

MATT:  I kind of love that. On these facial expressions, do they ever steer you wrong? Because sometimes I can see myself on the webcam and maybe the lunch I ate wasn’t sitting with me well and I feel like my face is not expressing my inner emotional state, or it’s expressing something that has nothing to do with what the person is saying.

VANESSA:  Yes. Yes, absolutely. I’ll give you a really real example. I was hiring a new person on the team and loved her resume, we had a great phone interview, brought her in to do an in-person interview and she kept making these really negative facial expressions, specifically she kept making contempt. And I thought my gosh, this is not what I expected. And it kept throwing me off.

And I was like god, that interview did not go well. And so I kept looking for more candidates, I didn’t find anyone as good as her, and I called her and I was really honest, I said, Listen, you were my first choice but when we met in person, I had the feeling that you were worried about something or something was wrong. And she said, You know, I wanted to wear a pair of heels to the interview and I borrowed my roommate’s pair of heels and they were too small. And I didn’t expect us to walk to coffee and as we were walking around and standing at the coffee bar, I was in a lot of pain.

MATT:  Ohh…

VANESSA:  And so it had absolutely nothing to do with me or the interview but it did steer me wrong. So since that experience, that was about four years ago, since that experience I have developed just a rule of thumb, which is the rule of three. If you see a negative or positive facial expression, before you do anything about it, before you take it seriously, you want to look for three other pieces of evidence. And this could be non-verbal or verbal.

So let’s say that you see contempt. Contempt I’ll teach you even though we’re audio, it’s the simplest of the micro expressions. It’s a one-sided mouth raise, so like a smirk. So if you try it with me, if you just smirk one side, you’ll kind of feel better than, like a little bit scornful. It’s like a hm, hm. Don’t do it for too long.

So contempt is a very powerful expression because it is very simple and people often mistake it for apathy or even half-happiness, like a smirk. So if I see contempt on someone’s face, like I did on her face that day, I should have been looking for two other cues that she actually felt contemptuous.

That could have been verbal, like a disparaging comment or a difficult question or a non-verbal cue like pulling away, distancing behavior, blocking behavior, a shame gesture. The universal shame gesture is when someone touches the side of their forehead with their hand. So I would be looking for two other cues to say okay, there really is something negative happening here.

MATT:  Huh. In trying to get my hands visible, even though my camera isn’t well positioned for it, I found myself trying to cross my hands a little bit. I’m trying to describe it, like if you crossed your fingers and then rested your elbows on the table, maybe you can imagine that.

VANESSA:  Yes, yes.

MATT:  So that my hands were visible. And I also find myself leaning, having one hand that my head leans on a little bit, which I also feel a little bad about because we’re not supposed to touch our faces, but I’m home so I do. Is there anything there that we should keep in mind, anything with those particular gestures which is good or bad?

VANESSA:  Yes, great, great point. Remember that there is kind of a hierarchy when it comes to non-verbal. So I would rather see your hands even if they’re touching your face. I would rather see your hands even if they’re in a blocking gesture, like in front of your body, because on video camera that’s pretty much the only place they can be. They can either be typing, they can be resting lightly in front of you or you can be holding your head. You’re not just going to hold your  hands up in the you’re arrested position, right?

So yes, I would say resting them lightly in front of you, as long as they’re not tightly gripped. Any kind of fist or tension in our hands typically signals tension in the body. So nice and loosely at rest, I love it. Lightly touching your face or keeping your hand on your face is better than picking at your face or playing with jewelry or playing with hair.

My personal favorite actually is I almost always have a pen in my hand and my Moleskin notebook next to my computer and so almost always I’ll be holding my pen, which keeps it visible and kind of poised. It’s more of an active response, and it’s also very authentic because I’m usually taking notes.

MATT:  There is one other thing which I wanted to bring up, which I think I got from some of my HR colleagues here at Automattic, is that there are so many ways to misinterpret things when you’re in lower-bandwidth communication, so when you’re not in person. We talk about API, or assuming positive intent. Is there anything in your teachings that goes around that?

VANESSA: I love that. I love that different definition of API. I think that there is something really interesting that directly ties into this and it’s the idea that we tend to think that our positive cues are overly obvious and our negative cues are not as obvious. And this is a really big aspect of likability.

We typically think that people know that we like them, but actually it takes far more for someone to be sure that we like them than we realize. And so not only do you have to assume positive intent, I think we also have to be incredibly clear with who we like and what we like.

You might assume that you have told a colleague or a teammate that they have done great work, but it takes three to four times — and I am making up that number because it very much varies based on romantic settings, professional settings, and friendship settings. But I think in a professional setting you can tell yourself that it takes three to four times of telling someone that you appreciate them, that you like their work, that they did great work, that you enjoy working with them on a team for them to actually believe that’s true.

Whereas one small what’s called a micro negative, one small negative gesture, like an eye roll or a [loud sigh] that they hear at the beginning of a video call, or one short, terse email that you sent because your kid was yelling and you had to get the email out as quickly as possible, that one email can negate three to four positive sentiments. So what I would say here is be absolutely sure the people on your team know what you enjoy about them — that you enjoy working with them, talking about them, talking to them, that they are productive, that you appreciate their skills, that they have helped you in some way.

There is something called the positive impact test and recently I have been doing this every night. So at the beginning of this crisis, I was having a really hard time sleeping. I was worried about business, worried about traffic, worried about family, and I just couldn’t fall asleep at night. And I realized it was because I was in these worry cycles where I was just worrying about the same things over and over again. And so I decided that every night I wanted to do the positive impact test. This was a test that was developed by Tom Rath and I just shortened it into three questions.

And this is what I ask myself every night at 9:00. And if the answers are not yes, I try to fix it. So they are, in the last 24 hours, have I helped someone? In the last 24 hours, have I praised someone? In the last 24 hours have I told someone that I cared about them or appreciated them? They are three questions that ground me on what matters. Revenue doesn’t matter, traffic doesn’t matter, but me feeling like I’m doing my very best in this crisis does matter.

And so what I would say is maybe you could invite yourself to ask yourself at the end of a workday or the end of a night that you should be able to very clearly answer those at least at the end of a week.

MATT:  I love that. So thank you for sharing.  We mentioned a few times that you’re going to be giving a talk at Automattic soon. I would highly encourage every person and every company listening to this. Do not stop your internal education and helping people get better just because everyone is working from home. If anything, it’s even more important now because people… I think it helps them feel agency if they are able to learn new skills or get better at what they’re doing, which is a very unusual and challenging work environment for all of us.

So Vanessa, where can people find out more about  you? Where can they reach you, where can they see you on YouTube, Twitter, etcetera?

VANESSA:  Yes, you’re so kind. So everything is at You’ll see all my resources. I am also on YouTube, Vanessa Van Edwards, and I would love to help in any way that I can.

MATT:  Vanessa, thank you again, you bring together so much great information, you synthesize so much, saving people a ton of time. They can listen to you for an hour instead of reading 20 different books. And I do really appreciate your wisdom and thought that you bring to this. So thanks for coming on and hopefully we can get you on again sometime in the future.

VANESSA:  Yes, I would love it. Thank you so much for having me. I hope everyone stays well.


  1. Enjoyed the episode a lot!

    Facial expressions are a pretty interesting subject for me. I completed my two-day “Micro Expressions Training & Body Language” in 2016 for my profession as a Recruiter and couldn`t tell how much did it help to improve my candidate assessment during face-face as well as video interviews since then.

    “FACS, Facial Action Coding System, discloses every one of the forty-three distinctive muscle movements in the face is assigned a number, called an “action unit”. People who are trained in them can then look at someone`s facial expressions and score them, just as a musician can listen to a piece of music and translate it into series of notes on the page”.
    It is such a sophisticated tool. However, there is also a controversial perspective to them as Malcolm Gladwell arguing in his recently published book “Talking to Strangers” that expressions are hardly universal and the rules of transparency hardly work for outliers as well as there could be sizable exceptions within different cultures.
    (For those who are interested: Part Three – Transparency, Chapter Six: The Friends Fallacy).

    Looking forward to the webinar!

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