Vanessa Van Edwards (@vvanedwards) rejoins us to further discuss components of nonverbal communication. She is the lead investigator at human behavior research lab Science of People and author of Captivate: The Science of Succeeding with People.

What We Discuss with Vanessa Van Edwards:

  • What Albert Mehrabian’s commonly misinterpreted 7-38-55 Rule of Personal Communication is — and isn’t — telling us about nonverbal communication.
  • The components of nonverbal communication including body language, facial expressions, and vocal tone, along with ornaments, proxemics, and haptics.
  • The dangers of focusing so fully on expressing yourself with one component of communication that you neglect the others.
  • The two metrics of essential nonverbal communication: confidence and engagement.
  • Power posing and movement, and how to use our hands and eyes to engage.
  • And much more…
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When you interact with others, mere words only convey part of the message. Nonverbal communication goes beyond simple body language and accounts for a significant part of the signal — whether you’re sitting across the table from someone or talking to them on the telephone.

At nine months pregnant, Captivate: The Science of Succeeding with People author Vanessa Van Edwards and her baby-to-be joined us to dig further than we ever have before into the mysterious world of nonverbal communication, how we can decode what others are trying to tell us, and effortlessly make our own intentions clear to others. Listen, learn, and enjoy!

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The components of nonverbal communication can be a tricky bunch to master, but having at least a basic understanding of how they work will get you far in picking up what others are trying to tell you beyond the words they’re speaking and reduce the likelihood that your own messages will be misinterpreted.

Luckily, Science of People body language expert and Captivate: The Science of Succeeding with People author Vanessa Van Edwards was able to rejoin us to drop another round of nonverbal communication knowledge on us. Make sure to check out her first appearance on the show here for practical understanding of the role that social cues play in our interactions with others.

Nonverbal First Impressions and the 7-38-55 Rule

Dr. Albert Mehrabian’s famous, but often misinterpreted 7-38-55 rule seems to imply that only seven percent of any communication is verbal, 38 percent is through vocal tone, and 55 percent is with body language. But if you’ve ever tried to watch a movie in a language you don’t speak without relying on subtitles, you know you’re missing more than seven percent of what’s going on. So what gives?

Vanessa clarifies that subjects in Mahabrian’s study recorded their first impression when just one word was spoken to them: “Hello” — so of course verbal is only going to account for seven percent of the communication in that particular study. So while the results don’t hold true for all communication, they do support the idea that the first few words of a conversation are not as important as their nonverbal components.

Communication Is a Balancing Act

Sometimes we focus so fully on one aspect of communication that we completely neglect the others at play — and this even happens to the experts. While being interviewed for a podcast, Vanessa channeled all of her vocal power and charisma into the microphone, but didn’t make much eye contact with the host or provide him with much feedback in the way of facial expressions.

“I’m kind of watching his cues, but I’m really trying to focus on my message,” says Vanessa. “And about 15 minutes into this interview, he says, ‘Am I boring you?’ I wasn’t giving him a ton of facial expressiveness, my voice tone was there, but I wasn’t giving him eye contact. I wasn’t doing a lot of gesturing; I was focusing on my vocal power. And so what I said to him is, ‘First of all, people can’t see me, and I have resting bitch face! So I also look angry even though I’m not angry. And I realized in that moment that the channels are totally overlapping.

“You can be putting all of your emphasis in that tonality, into your vocal power, into your resonance, trying to get that up, but it is so tied with facial expressions and body language that he could not hear the vocal and keep it by itself. He was watching me and he wasn’t getting the nonverbal feedback that he wanted and therefore he felt snubbed.”

Facial Punctuators

When people are completely focused on something, they tend to emphasize their words with their face in what is called a facial punctuator. These facial punctuators vary from person to person; Vanessa’s happens to be what some might read as surprise — eyebrows up, accompanied by vertical lines — and this can be misread by some as a sign of gullibility or naivete. Others might punctuate with an expression more closely associated with anger, and it’s easy to see how this could lead to someone being unfairly categorized as overly negative.

So we all have facial punctuators that may not even match our emotional state at the time, which throws confusion into the mix at best and gives people a contrary opinion of us at worst. The good news is you can become aware of yours and consciously course correct so it doesn’t get you in trouble.

“It’s really important to know what subtle message you’re sending across even if it’s not real,” says Vanessa, “and using either nonverbal or verbal to correct it. If I know that I come across as prudish or unknowing and surprised — which by the way is terrible for my brand — I have to really work to overcompensate…to fight that verbally. And also watch out for it in other people and know that if someone’s punctuating their words with an expression, it doesn’t necessarily mean they feel [as they appear].”

Vanessa recommends making a video recording of yourself during a conversation and pay attention to what your face is doing by default to emphasize your words. It may be uncomfortable at first, but the payoff is it will probably help you avoid even more uncomfortable misunderstandings down the line.

Listen to this episode in its entirety to learn more about how similar facial punctuators might be perceived differently when they’re expressed by women versus men; what ornaments, proxemics, and haptics are and how they contribute to the communication process; what eye patterns relay about confidence; how to be more aware of the personal brand we — knowingly or not — broadcast to the world; the power of gestures; encoding versus decoding; confidence and engagement, and much more.

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