Podcast Summary: “How To Captivate People”

Summaries don’t do these podcast justice, they’re rich conversations with subtleties that can’t easily be boiled down on paper. Nevertheless, I hope to solidify the podcast-knowledge for those who’ve listened to the episode, and provide a taste-test for those who haven’t yet.

Summary of The Self Made Man podcast, “How To Captivate People” with Vanessa Van Edwards.

Vanessa researches heads a human behavioral lab where she researches and experiments (hence the “lab” part) with human behavior. She started writing about the interesting parts of behavioral studies by other researchers and now does her own research. As part of that research, Vanessa studied why & how some TED talks fall into the ether while others blow up.

Patterns to successful human interactions

There are patterns to the most successful TED talkers. These patterns are the same whether you’re giving a talk, in a situation at work, or with someone in a coffee shop. Because these patterns seek to decode humans, they apply in any situation:

  • The most popular TED speakers use lots of purposeful hand gestures. This means that first, their hands are always visible. Visible hands signals trust, “No, I’m not holding a sword that could slice open your skull”. A person who hides their hands unconsciously triggers a fear response. Second, it means these talkers align their hand gestures with their ideas. “Three things you’ll get out of this talk” becomes three fingers on a hand. A powerful idea becomes a fist, and so on.
  • The most popular TED speakers have strong vocal power. They internalize their talk & topic rather than just “knowing it by heart”. A rehearsed presentation will sound controlled and rather boring, an internalized presentation will sound natural and fluid. They’ll SOUND different because their voice tones will be different. As an exercise, Vanessa suggests changing the way you answer a frequently asked question. For example, answer “What do you do ?” in a baby voice, in an overly excited tone, or in a I-have-a-hot-potato-in-my-mouth style.

The importance of feedback and appearing vulnerable

Build stronger relationship by asking for feedback and appearing vulnerable. First, feedback about your social performance is worth gold. We can’t control how others perceive us, that’s their decision, which means most of us underestimate or overestimate how we appear. Second, asking for feedback can build stronger relationship because of the Benjamin Franklin effect:

He that has once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another, than he whom you yourself have obliged.” — Benjamin Franklin

Humans prefer people they help and dislike people they harm. Benjamin Franklin and an enemy senator became friends after Franklin asked to borrow a rare book, and followed-up with a thank-you note. Enemies became friends after a request for help. One reason this works might be vulnerability: we drop the ego and open-up when we ask for help.

Vulnerability turns out to be hugely important in human interactions. Vanessa explains that in any interaction with someone you admire, owning and addressing your vulnerabilities at the start is better than hiding them, or briefly mentioning them at the end of the interaction. Owning your vulnerabilities creates trust, it appears to be a strength much more than a weakness.

Be specific and meet your heroes

You’re much more likely to get a positive answer to meet or collaborate with a person you look up to, if your request is specific. A meet-up to “pick someone’s brain” is a vague request. At best, it forces the VIP to do the mental heavy-lifting and figure out how the relationship could be favorable. At worst, it sounds like a grab for the VIP’s time with the potential of a possibly favorable outcome for them. Too much uncertainty!

“ I really like your work and followed your advice on X, it really helped me with Y. I believe your knowledge and skills would be a huge help to a project I’m currently working on, I’d love to collaborate with you! It involves A,B,C and probably requires D hours of your time, here’s how I believe it could help you ”

The key is being specific. Formulating a specific request and a specific offer have the highest probability to start a relationship. Again, it makes it much easier to say yes and prompts positive answers. Vanessa shares that most “No” answers will actually be “No, but I can do X for you”.


Patterns emerged after Vanessa studied the most successful TED speakers. Among them:

  • The most popular TED speakers use lots of purposeful hand gestures.
  • The most popular TED speakers have strong vocal power.

Casually asking for feedback after social interactions can be a great way to improve.

  • Honest feedback helps us understand how we appear to others. Most people under or over estimate how they are perceived.
  • An ask, such as an ask for help or feedback, plays into the Franklin effect. Humans grow to like people they help, and dislike people they harm.
  • An ask, such as for help or feedback, shows vulnerability. Appearing vulnerable creates trust and builds strong, authentic relationships.

If you want to develop a relationship with, or meet, a VIP, then be specific. Don’t make other people figure out how your relationship could be helpful, specific requests & offers make it easier to say “yes” and show consideration for the person’s time.

Thank you for reading! I’m starting out & vulnerable, drop a quick comment if you enjoyed the read or found it useful. Knowing that you liked reading, and letting me know what I can do differently would seriously make my day!