In 2009 Simon Sinek gave a TEDx talk to a small audience of 50 people.
He told them that, if they wanted to inspire others, they should stop harping on what they did, and instead tell people all about why they did it.
For instance: Dr. Muhammad Yunnus works in micro-credit. That’s his “what”, and it’s not very inspiring. But why is he into micro-credit? Well, because he wants to wipe poverty off the face of this earth, by giving all poor people access to credit.
Now THAT is inspiring. Dr. Yunnus went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006.
Sinek argued that the power of “why” extended to business: “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.”
Sinek’s TED talk has since become the 3rd most-watched TED talk ever, and millions of people live by his powerful three-word advice: start with why.
If you haven't seen the talk yet, here it is:
Pretty magnificent, ain't it?
I’d even argue that this is one of the most powerful persuasion tools we know of.
But here’s the thing: starting with why is not enough.
Because you might be starting the WRONG why. Let me give you an real life example:
I recently saw an interview with a charismatic presentation/storytelling coach here in Taiwan. He’d just come out with his first book, and he was asked: “Why did you write this book?"
This was the perfect moment to zero in on the why and inspire people (and drive sales).
But then the coach said, matter-of-fact fashion:
“Well… my friends encouraged me to, and I got to know many authors, and my students kept telling me that I should write a book, so that people who can’t take my classes can get to know me and my expertise and abilities, and then find a direction, a way to more confidently express themselves."
Did this answer inspire you? Was it compelling? I’m betting on NO.
But why not? I mean, he directly addressed why he was publishing a book!
So why wasn’t it compelling?
It’s simple: because his why was all about him.
He wrote a book because he was hearing that he should write a book, and because he wanted people to get to know him and his skills.
It’s all centered around him.
Sure, he tucked in a few words about helping others to express themselves, but that was crushed beneath 95% of stuff all about HIM.
Now contrast that with the people Sinek used in his TED talk:
- The Wright brothers wanted to change the world.
- Steve Jobs built products that allowed people to create amazing things.
- TiVO helped customers regain control over their lives.
Do you see the pattern here? These individuals and companies inspired people because their whys were fundamentally about serving others.
So that’s the paradox. “Why do you do what you do?” may sound like a personal question.
“They’re asking about me! ME!!!” You might want to say, indignantly.
And sure, you can focus the answer entirely on yourself, that’s fine. It just won’t inspire anybody.
IF your aim is to inspire, then “why do you do what you do?” isn’t a question about you at all. It’s about the people you serve.
And the “why" that you should focus on is their why, not yours.
In other words, the "why" is not "Why am I writing this book?"
It's "Why should anybody care?"
Just imagine if the presentation/storytelling coach had given this answer:
“Why did I write this book? Well, because people keep telling me that my classes changed their lives. Before, they didn't know how to tell their stories and get their point across. In my classes, they gained the confidence and skills to express themselves, and they're now thriving at work and in their personal lives. So with this book, I want to help everyone to tell their stories and express themselves compellingly."
Different, isn’t it?
By focusing on those he serve, he also makes himself look better.
So remember: if you hope to inspire others, don’t start with your why.
Start with theirs.
You might be wondering... is our own personal why always so uninspiring?
Well, not necessarily. There ARE indeed ways to talk about your personal why, and yet have it resonate with people - and even inspire them!
And this will be the subject of a future post.
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