Vanessa Van Edwards is a human behavior researcher and author who teaches a popular series of online courses on Udemy. She's also a self-described recovering awkward person. I had the opportunity recently to talk with the not-at-all-awkward-now Van Edwards about her interest in people, her passion for teaching, and how she combined these two to create a business she loves.

To start, Van Edwards said, "People skills never came naturally to me. I had a hard time making friends and enjoying myself in social situations." Determined to get more comfortable socially, she started looking at people from an academic perspective and methodically documenting her findings in a blog.

Through this blog, she found groups of highly intelligent people -- graphic designers, developers, and engineers - who excelled in their technical work but were struggling socially around the office. She noticed that they liked the same hard-skilled approach to developing soft skills and, like Van Edwards herself, wanted to get better. Together, they became a community with a deep, shared interest in the science behind why we think and behave the way we do, both at work and in our social lives.

Over time, she found that teaching what she was learning was difficult to do through writing alone. When it dawned on her that video was the answer, she went looking for an outlet to share her courses. Udemy was a natural choice because the built-in audience precisely matched the interests of the community she'd created online through her blog.

Today, Van Edwards' work has expanded and she and her team form the Science of People. They're intensely focused on finding those hidden forces that drive our behavior. To do that, they often start by looking for behavior studies done by academic institutions. They then try to replicate the findings in their lab by polling, testing, surveying, and observing more than 100,000 volunteers. Based on their findings, her team develops tips, tricks, recommendations, and ways to think about problems that work with our natural human behaviors and not against them.

For example, one of the questions that Van Edwards gets the most is about how to make a good first impression--especially during a job interview. What Van Edwards says is that too often, people are overly focused on what they want to say. Many people try to anticipate questions and rehearse specific answers that they believe will resonate with their target audience. What people are missing is an awareness of the importance of their non-verbal communications. Research shows that interviewers form their first impression within the first few seconds of interaction. The rest of the conversion, they're subconsciously confirming that first impression. 

As our time together came to a close, she shared a thought about online learning that hit home: skills are currency.  We typically think of our college or post-graduate degrees as the key to opening doors but completing online courses can be both useful on a resume and as a great jumping off point in a conversation. Further, online training today is "not your mama's school." It is educational, practical, and entertaining in a way that enables viewers to take learning seamlessly into adulthood.

Van Edwards believes that taking online courses is a more educational alternative to watching Netflix. One of the best New Year's resolutions you can make for yourself to increase your competitive edge and your happiness would be to take one hour per week away from your favorite shows and devote it to online learning.

Van Edwards is committed to continuing to get the word out through courses and a book entitled Captivate scheduled for release in May 2017 about what she and her team are finding in their research. She plans to continue to focus on solving her problems - which are really all of our problems-- as a former awkward person in a way that applies to others.

Published on: Aug 9, 2016