Why a ‘why’ beats a ‘what’ and a ‘who’ for building engagement

Pic by Evan Dennis

Why are you here?

When it comes to public communication, it’s one of the most fundamental questions we can ask ourselves. And I don’t mean in the biological or spiritual sense. I mean, why have you shown up in the first place?

It’s a question your audience is probably asking itself as well – why have you shown up? And why should they listen?

But it’s a question that seems to get forgotten in the rush to talk about the ‘what’ and ‘who’. Knowing why you have shown up is the central thread that sews everything else together – it is the landmark you use to navigate through your communication. When you offer up something that doesn’t help you achieve your goal, you risk wasting time – yours and the audiences. Hence always knowing why you are there becomes critical.

There is another ‘why’ that should take primacy however in all communication – and that is the ‘why’ that the audience is asking. Why should they give up their time to listen to you in the first place?

Quite often, your ‘why’ and their ‘why’ won’t immediately match up. I see this frequently in the technology sector, where the ‘why’ of the communicator might be to sell more products, but there is a good chance that the audience doesn’t want more products – they have plenty already.

They might want is a solution to a problem. Or an insight into a desirable future outcome. Or something else that that will make their lives better.

The gaps between ‘what’ and ‘why’ can be summed up in the difference between two words – ‘want’ and ‘need’. Because there are a lot of things in this world that are needed rather than wanted.

Take accounting for example. It’s quite likely that there aren’t that many business owners who really ‘want’ an accountant. What they want is to stay compliant with tax law, or to better manage their cashflow, or to invest wisely for the future. But in most instances, they need assistance with that, and hence an accountant is ‘needed’.

The same thinking applies in the technology sector. When a technology provider focuses on what they do, rather than why anyone would want it, a disconnect opens up.

Take cloud computing for instance. It is likely that there aren’t that many business owners who really want cloud computing (it’s equally likely that many of them also don’t want to be running computers on-premises). What they want is a powerful, reliable and flexible computing environment that enables them to better perform that tasks that are essential for running their business. They want a means of ensuring their technology does not prevent them from responding swiftly to changing market conditions or hold them back from new opportunities.

The ‘why’ – business flexibility – is much more meaningful than the ‘what’ that delivers it.

Hence when someone commences communicating by only considering their ‘why’ – to sell more of something – they immediately disconnect from the audience. But when they take into account the needs of the audience, magical things happen.

By articulating that you understand the problems, challenges and concerns of those listening to you, you immediately build rapport. You demonstrate concern and understanding and cease to be someone who is selling down to them, but rather appear as someone who stands alongside them and knows their pain.

It is a fairly basic concept, but one that is frequently forgotten in the rush to talk about the latest new thing (the ‘what’) and the organisation or person that will make it possible (the ‘who’). What you are offering and who you are should always be secondary to the ‘why’ of the audience.

Considering the ‘why’ of the audience and what they really want earns permission to talk about the ‘what’ and ‘who’. It also creates a means of aligning your ‘why’ (build brand awareness, change behaviour, sell more stuff, etc) and placing it into a context that the audience will respond to.