Home Christian News Vanessa Van Edwards: The Best Way to Communicate When You’re a Leader

Vanessa Van Edwards: The Best Way to Communicate When You’re a Leader

Vanessa Van Edwards

Behavioral researcher and self-described “recovering awkward person” Vanessa Van Edwards assured Global Leadership Summit attendees that leaders can be made, not just born. One way that happens is through priming, or using your words to shape behaviors, expectations, and thoughts—other people’s as well as your own.

Van Edwards, author of Captivate, began her talk Thursday by describing a scale on which leaders are judged. “Warmth” is at one end, signifying trust and respect, and “Competence” is at the other, signifying collaboration. In the middle is a sweet spot to which leaders should aspire, and priming is a key way to get there. 

Be Intentional and Positive

Before every communication task, Van Edwards recommends that leaders first ask: “How do I want someone to think, feel, and act before, during, and after the interaction?” By intentionally balancing warmth and competence, leaders can actually change people’s brain patterns.

Most video meetings, for example, tend to begin with negative talk, about topics such as bad weather, stress, or busyness. But “priming” a meeting (or even an email about a meeting) through positive words can make other people think positively.

Hand gestures are another source of priming—one that people’s brains pay much more attention to than words. Used frequently and expressively, gestures convey trust and demonstrate our concepts.

Even calendar terms provide priming, Van Edwards notes. Calling a block of time a “creative session” or a “goals session” is likely to build excitement and positive energy.

When leaders use priming and expect the best in others, people are set up for success and usually rise to the occasion. Just a few changes in word choice can go a long way in inspiring people to do good, says Van Edwards.

Tips for Communicating During a Pandemic

For pastors, word choice and speaking style are always important, but that’s never been more true than during this year’s move to online church. Van Edwards tells speakers not to turn statements into questions by raising your voice at the end of a sentence. She also recommends using the lowest natural end of your voice tone and avoiding tension, which causes “vocal fry.”

Other best practices include speaking on an “out breath,” making the most of appropriate pauses, and matching the pace of your speech to how your audience tends to talk. Regarding the best way to deliver bad news, Van Edwards suggests using a warm, compassionate tone rather than trying to remain neutral and ambivalent.

To convey warmth online, Van Edwards recommends using a profile picture that shows your hands as well as a smile, adding positive words to your email signature, and “auditing” some recent communications to see whether your words balance projections of warmth and competence.

Face masks, says Van Edwards, don’t inhibit people’s ability to interpret the seven universal microexpressions, which are expressed and recognizable in the top half of a human face. A genuine smile, for example, comes from upper facial muscles, and expressions such as anger and disgust also are obvious even when someone’s lower face is covered by a mask.


Check out our other coverage on GLS 2020:

Nona Jones: The Conversation on Race You Haven’t Heard Yet

Craig Groeschel: How to Lead Through the Dip

Marcus Buckingham: How to Build Resilience (in Yourself and Your Team)

Lysa Terkeurst: Failing to Forgive Will Stifle Your Innovation

Amy Edmondson: How to Tell If Your Workplace Is Psychologically Safe

Michael Todd: Are You Leading at the Right Pace?

The Top 100 Quotes From This Year’s Global Leadership Summit

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Stephanie Martin, a freelance journalist, has worked in Christian publishing for 27 years. She’s active at her church in Lakewood, Colorado, where she lives with her husband and two teenage daughters.