Why communicators should always start with ‘why’

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Working with a series of groups last week, I suddenly understood that the essence of my communication skills training can be summed up in one word – WHY.

When I am preparing people to communicate with media or other stakeholders about a product, a service or a function they nearly always want to start by talking about what the product is for, who the service serves, how the function works.

But all this is meaningless unless you start with why. To take one typical example, a journalist cannot hope to grasp the significance of a new drug for a hard-to-treat disease unless they are first confronted with the unmet need – the suffering that drug is designed to alleviate or remove.

Equally, the launch of a new or improved service only makes sense in the light of the problem it is designed to ameliorate or solve, or the gap it is designed to fill.

Business people scarcely know how to talk without slide decks

The same is true of presentations. These days they are the default mode for a broad range of communications scenarios, from team meetings to boardroom briefings, from job interviews to negotiations. Business people scarcely know how to talk to each other anymore without a slide deck to support them.

But the first question I ask my trainees is this: Is a presentation the most appropriate vehicle for what you are trying to communicate? Why are planning to stand up in front of a screen and talk through a set of slides instead of sending out a written document – usually better for absorbing detailed and complex information – or even having a good old-fashioned conversation?

Once they have satisfied me on that score, I encourage them to establish the ‘why’ of the presentation – an overt statement about their purpose in giving it and why that is relevant to their intended audience. Unless you can convince an audience that they will benefit hugely from listening to you and lose out big time if they don’t, you are very unlikely to hold their attention for long.

The genius of Simon Sinek

My guiding light on the ‘why’ issue is Simon Sinek, whose endlessly fascinating TED talk on How great leaders inspire action is one of the most popular of all time, viewed nearly 44 million times since it was first presented in 2009.

Sinek’s argument, supported by a number of compelling examples, is that ‘people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it’; and that companies who work from the inside out – starting with why (their ultimate purpose) and then moving on to what they do and how they do it – are more inspirational and successful than those who focus on the what and the how, and rarely consider the why.

Starting with why works with internal as well as external stakeholders. How else do you galvanise staff and keep them motivated when the going gets tough except by constantly reminding them of the higher purpose behind the daily grind.

The need to engage hearts and minds

There are deeper reasons, too, for working from the inside out. When people talk about what they do and how they do it, they are usually operating at head level – appealing to our logical minds.

But when they talk about why they do what they do – the deeper purpose that inspires them every day – they are operating at heart level: appealing to our emotions, our capacity for empathy, our sense of justice.

The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle didn’t know much about PowerPoint, but he knew that effective persuasion relied on engaging hearts as well as minds. And his argument is as relevant now as it was 2,300 years ago when he wrote his famous book On Rhetoric.

With the benefits of neuroscience and molecular biology, we now understand what Aristotle couldn’t possibly have known – that emotions have a direct effect on the functions of memory and decision-making. Communications and events with an emotional content are intrinsically more memorable than those without. And our emotions play a greater role than logic in decision-making, however much we may flatter ourselves to the contrary.

It seems reasonable to suggest that a core aim of most communicators is to have people remember what they have said and act on it subsequently. And that makes an even more compelling case for starting with why.

Can we help you?

Clearsay Communications works with business and thought leaders in all sectors to develop and improve their spoken communication skills for use in presentations, media interviews and meetings of all kinds. To find out how we could help you, go back to the Home Page.