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How Body Language Makes You Smarter, Stronger & More Attractive

This is a guest article by my close friend, Vanessa Van Edwards, who runs the Human Behavior Lab at Science of People.

She’s the smartest there is  in the world of “people skills” and she’s conducted a lot of original research on how to cultivate charisma and become more influential. I meet with Vanessa every other month or so, and she always sends me home with a new insight that helps me improve my connection skills.

This piece covers a few of the big picture skills as well as some simple tips you can use right away to improve your leadership skills. Her new book, Captivate, covers these topics (and many more) in great detail.

I’ll let her explain the rest…

You have a secret superpower.

If you’re like me, you went through school, attended job interviews and suffered through dates agonizing over the ‘right’ thing to say. Maybe you thought about what you wanted to tell a hiring manager or what anecdotes to share with your blind date.

You focused on what to say.

But here’s my big idea: I want you to focus on how you say something.

As humans, a minimum of 60% of our communication is nonverbal. That means the majority of our connection with the people around us comes through our body language, facial expressions and voice tone. However, we tend to put all of our eggs in the verbal basket—focusing on what we are going to say not how we want to say it.

When I discovered the power of nonverbal, it was like discovering I had a secret superpower. I didn’t realize that a lot of my micro-messages—or small nonverbal gestures—were undermining my presence and credibility. I also learned that I could use my hands, my voice and my stance to add to my verbal message.

Now, I want to teach you.

When I saw Tyler’s amazing Ted Talk “How adventure makes you smarter, stronger, and more attractive,”

I thought it would be fun to add on to his kickass ideas with a little nonverbal magic. I run a Human Behavior Research lab and test all kinds of experiments on people, body language and personality. I want to share my favorite body language tips to make you smarter, stronger and more attractive.

#1: Are you listening to me?

If you ask someone “Do you hear that knocking?” typically they will tilt their head to one side, cocking their ear up. This is because the head tilt is the best way to ‘hear’; it exposes our ear to the environment so we can hear ambient noises.

This means the ‘head tilt’ is the universal sign for ‘I’m listening.’ And as humans, we love being heard. It makes us feel wanted, cared for and special by the listener. In turn, this makes the listener seem more appreciative, caring and attractive.

When you are listening to someone (but you actually have to be listening, don’t ever fake it) you can show the other person nonverbal respect by head tilting just slightly as they open up to you.

This is especially good when you really feel like you are bonding and you want to show them, in addition to telling them, that you really care about what they have to say.

#2: Are you winning or losing your first impression?

I know this is a touch truth, but as humans we can’t help but judge people. And unfortunately this typically happens during the first impression. In my latest book, Captivate, I talk about one of the most powerful human behavior hacks we have—the power of our first impression.

Specifically, how do we make really great first impressions? I argue that the best first impressions pass through three levels. If you pass through all three of these levels with your first impression, you ‘level up’ with someone. A cold contact becomes a warm contact. A warm contact becomes a friend.

  • Level One: Are you friend or foe?
  • Level Two: Are you a winner or loser?
  • Level Three: Are you an ally?

Researchers at the University of British Columbia looked at winning and losing athletes. They found that there are universal expressions of pride and defeat. In other words, our body makes you look like a winner… or a loser. Since our first impression happens in the first few seconds, most of it is based on nonverbal communication. When you look like a winner, people want to be friends with you, they see you as a winner and want you to be their ally.

Bottom Line: Stand more like a winner and have a winning first impression.

So how do winners stand? They take up space—they use their hands, they roll their shoulders back, they claim their space with a broad stance. Now, don’t get me wrong. I do not want you walking around like a gorilla claiming its cage. But the most important thing to note is these three winner body language cues:

  1. Keep lots of distance between the bottom of your ears and the top of your shoulders. Sounds weird right? It’s actually because this shows you are not turtling your neck or tensing your shoulders in anxiety. It showcases confidence.
  2. Keep your arms loose so there’s space between your arms and your torso—this helps you use hand gestures and take up space easily.
  3. Always use the armrests—keeps you nice and broad. Try never to cross your arms in front of your chest.

#3: When I think about you, I touch myself.

Have you ever wondered what it means when a woman touches her neck or jewelry during a date? How about when a man rubs the back of his neck? Self-touch is an incredibly interesting nonverbal cue and can mean 2 different things:

1. Self-Soothing Behavior

When we’re highly uncomfortable, our body language shows it. Self-soothing is a behavior we engage in to calm our inner nerves.

This practice stems from our childhood—when we were babies, our mom or dad would pat our head, rub our back or provide another gesture to calm us. As adults, we self-soothe. Here are the most common types of comfort gestures:

  • Rubbing the backs of our arms
  • Wringing hands
  • Cracking knuckles
  • Biting the tongue or lips

While self-soothing gestures can in fact calm nerves, use them sparingly. Self-soothing can often lead to other low power behavior, which decreases our confidence levels and can make our nerves even worse.

2. Flirtation

Self-touch in the dating environment is generally perceived more positively, especially for women.

When a woman exposes and gently strokes her neck, this is a flirty type of touch. An exposed neck releases tantalizing pheromones—increasing attractiveness and overall sensuality. Women will often “preen” as a flirty gesture—touching their hair and jewelry or adjusting their clothes or bag.

Men engage in less self-touch when they are comfortable and attracted to a woman and tend to claim more territory. Splaying legs and arms (manspreading) is a territorial display of dominance and is a nonverbal cue of an instinctual protective nature. If a man displays self-touch, like rubbing the back of his neck, this most likely means he’s feeling a negative emotion like insecurity, nervousness or worry.

#4: Lean on me…

We don’t often think about leaning, but it is actually a very powerful nonverbal cue.

Leaning can be used for several purposes, including emphasis, agreement and partnership. At your next presentation or meeting, lean in toward your audience or team on your most important point.

This nonverbal cue will increase active listening and engagement. Using purposeful leans during conversations fosters camaraderie, encouragement and agreement.

#5: Show me your toes!

Imagine you just walked into a networking event or party and you know no one. You are trying to decide if you should approach a group or wait for someone to approach you. What do you do? Use the power of nonverbal!

Our body loves to move towards things we like—people, ideas, objects. And so our toes often show our intention. If you’re waiting to be approached, direct your toes towards the open room. This positioning shows that you are ready and available for a conversation.

If you want to join a group of people already in conversation, check out their feet. If one or several people have their toes pointed out of the circle, it either means that they will be leaving the group conversation (allowing a space for you to approach) or they are open to others joining.

The most important thing is to realize that you have great power in your nonverbal messages. Don’t miss them and don’t waste them! Pick one of these cues to work on each week for the next 5 weeks and see how your interactions change.


Vanessa Van Edwards is lead investigator at the Science of People—a human behavior research lab. As a published author and speaker, she runs original research experiments on body language and people skills at ScienceofPeople.com. Her latest book, Captivate, was chosen as one of Apple’s Most Anticipated Books of 2017.

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