By Betsy Hammond
The Oregonian, Portland, Ore.
Vanessa Van Edwards is in her Northwest Portland studio, preparing to lead a 60-minute live class that will be transmitted via computer to students around the globe.
The 30-year-old will have to look good, speak articulately, convey a lot of content, stay within two half-hour time limits, match songs to her topics, spur students to share personal details from their lives — and make the experience feel so worthwhile that students will keep paying to learn from her.
So what’s her stress level right now? Nil. She’s smiling, joking and sipping tea.
“This is low pressure,” she says. “This is fun. It’s just like having a conversation.”
Her confidence stems from experience — and from knowing she is very good at what she does.
Van Edwards teaches online courses about body language, facial expression, nonverbal communication and lie detection, all grounded in scientific research.
She’s also her own star student, having harnessed what she’s learned about interpersonal connection to become, in just a few years, a breakthrough talent in the new field of mass online instruction.
She filmed her first course, “The Science of Body Language,” in her Portland kitchen, using her iPhone. When she put it online in early 2013 and asked students to pay $49 to take it, she hoped to get 30 takers.
Instead, she drew 400 — on just the first day.
Three years and six courses later, she has taught more than 60,000 paying students, mostly on Udemy, an online learning platform that caters to people who want to build their skills, not earn college credit. Her courses attract more five-star ratings and over-the-top compliments nearly every day.
Much of her popularity stems from her unusual and appealing persona: She comes across mainly as a very pretty, popular young woman who genuinely wants to be your friend, but with a studious, even nerdy undertone. She clearly reads scientific journals and can spout the latest findings from Berkeley and MIT, diagram molecules and explain with authority which hormones do what.
Students note it in their course evaluations: She draws you in with her long flowing hair, almond eyes and cover-girl smile, but she dishes out solid, science-based material with no fluff.
Not taught at any university
Van Edwards is also buoyed by her choice of subject matter.
She promotes herself as an expert on topics that are key to success yet taught at almost no university: how to be well-liked, how to be influential, how to spot a liar, how to be happy. And she has customized her courses to help people do better closing a sale, making it as an entrepreneur or succeeding on a date.
The secrets to decoding facial expressions There are seven universal micro-expressions that give clues to our emotions.
Behavioral investigator, Vanessa Van Edwards, discusses each facial expression and how to detect the hidden emotions underneath words.
Many people who take her courses assume she has an academic background in body language and nonverbal communication. But in fact, there are no graduate programs in the field and her undergraduate degree, from Emory University in Atlanta, is in Chinese.
So Van Edwards is largely self-taught. She’s read reams of books and studies, and follows the work of experts, including the one who discovered microexpressions. She also employs two researchers who ferret out and screen studies for her.
And she’ll share her expert knowledge with you, for $49, $149 or whatever cut-rate price Udemy will offer you. (The puzzling name is meant to convey “The academy of you,” company officials say.) She also offers courses on a competing platform, CreativeLive, and on her own website.
How much of that money she receives varies: almost all if she gets you to sign up for the course, about half if Udemy does, even less if another party gets the credit.
But for a young woman who graduated college in 2007, as the recession kicked in, and scraped together work as a tutor, blogger and whatever else she could find, this is big money. After living in apartments for years, this spring she was able to make the down payment on a $600,000 home in Northwest Portland.
Creating each of the courses takes a tremendous amount of work, she says. A single course may have as many as 25 lessons, and most have clever visuals and a related sound track as well as fresh content that’s skillfully organized. Her big value-added touch, she says, isn’t that she’s read all the studies — although that’s essential. It’s that she takes academic findings and translates them so people can instantly use them in real life, whether to help raise a child, score a date, get a promotion or feel more joy at work.
Once a course is made available, however, her work is largely over. Students primarily pay to watch the videos, use materials and complete exercises that she’s already designed. All she has to do is check in with students on electronic message boards and answer their questions there or during live chats — interactions she says she genuinely enjoys and draws energy from.
Gregory Boutte, Udemy’s vice president of content, says Van Edwards has everything it takes to ascend in the new world of online teaching: terrific content, energetic delivery, sound technical mastery and a willingness to personally engage online.
“Vanessa is definitely a very successful instructor, and we are very happy to have her,” he says.
From socially awkward, a lesson learned
Van Edwards grew up in the Los Angeles area, the daughter of two attorneys. She found the academic part of school easy and rewarding — but the social aspects awkward and stressful. She got along well with teachers and other adults, but couldn’t talk to other kids and dreaded recess, she says.
Even in college, she was extremely anxious in social situations and avoided parties and even the college cafeteria.
One of her Emory professors gave her a gift, she said, after she told him she would much rather write a long research paper on her own than do a lighter assignment that required her to work with others. He advised her to approach getting along with people the same way she would approach a chemistry test.
“That viewpoint was such a relief for me because it gave me a very black and white way to look at people. Instead of hearing ‘be nice’ or ‘smile more,’ I got to learn things like the science of the smiling microexpression and what it does in the brain,” she said.
While studying abroad in China her junior year of college, she fell in love with fellow student Scott Edwards. After college, both developed online businesses, giving them the ability to work from anywhere.
After they got engaged, Van Edwards brought the research-based approach she’d used to learn people skills to decide where they’d live.
The couple spent more than a year living in cities all over the globe, including Buenos Aires, New York, Shanghai, San Diego and Austin. Mid-way through, she says, they decided with gusto that Portland was the place for them. “You can live fast and slow here,” with a lively restaurant and cultural scene but a small-town friendliness and the quiet open space of Forest Park readily at hand, she explained.
They settled in Portland in 2011 and married in 2012. Edwards has worked for a series of tech startups, while Van Edwards has capitalized on the huge market share of people who want to learn the same things about getting along and making a good impression that she did.
“My courses teach people ‘what’ to do, but they also explain ‘why.’ I have no idea why someone didn’t beat me to it,” she said. “It still baffles me.”
Another course: Be happy
Van Edwards has spent the last year creating and fine-tuning a seventh class, “School of Happiness.” It should debut this spring.
The contents of this latest course are based more heavily than previous ones on research she conducted herself via her mostly online Science of People research lab. Routinely, she gets 5,000 or even 10,000 people to complete online surveys she designs.
Currently, she’s recruiting teachers willing to test the idea that having students pose in a power position before they take an exam may actually raise their scores.
In her happiness course, Van Edwards will teach people that, among other things, happy people are grateful, have healthy bedtime routines that help them get more sleep, and are as forgiving of themselves as they are of their friends. And, as always, she will offer specific, practical ways that people can do just that.
She expects to find a big market for that course, just as she has for the others. “Everyone wants to be happy,” she says.
Van Edwards clearly is.