The Story Economy Blog

Four-and-a-half Reasons to Talk About Your WHY

I think the best hire any marketing department could make would be a four-and-a-half year old.

I mean, okay, there are some obvious problems. But let’s not focus on those.

Let’s just focus on this: no one is better at making you think about and explain why than a four-and-a-half year old. I happen to have one in my house, so I know firsthand that they will just keep pushing you deeper and deeper into the why of something, until there is something basic enough that they can understand.

I never position motherhood as a mythical, essential thing that automatically makes you a better person. (I find that whole genre super annoying.) But being a mom to a preschooler and living in his world has helped me see that the first layer of WHY is almost never good enough.

And it’s not just the prodding on WHY that kids specialize in. It’s that they don’t apologize for taking you on the journey. In fact, they have a way of giving you this look that says, “Why don’t you just know why?”

Why don’t we just know why?

It’s Officially a Thing

If you ask someone WHY they do what they do or WHY their company exists, they almost always answer with WHAT, with a mission statement (which is almost always a WHAT statement), or even a capabilities statement (a big old heap of WHAT).

We just default to it. It’s so easy. And expected.

A four-and-a-half year old would never let you get away with a WHAT answer. They’d call you out on your jargon-filled mission statement in a second.

And then they’d give you the look.

Before I make everyone feel like crap, let me say this: something good is going on right now. Since I’ve been writing about this and actively working with companies to tell stories around WHY, I’m noticing that people are listening. (Yes, I mean people like you.) I’m hearing people engage with me in the same language I’m using. You’ve been saying stuff like, “We need to figure out our WHY. We need to tell a story.”

It’s awesome.

Now, I’d like to think it’s all because of me. But of course, it’s Zeitgeist, and I’m only the messenger.

The spirit of the moment is to ask WHY, and to force an answer that is so basic, pure, and streamlined that anyone can understand it.

Even a four-and-a-half year old.

I’m seeing more and more businesses engage that inner kid—the one that relentlessly unsnaps the layers of answers until something makes sense. I decided to write this particular newsletter on this particular Wednesday, because I counted, and I’ve had six conversations with six different clients or potential clients in the last few weeks around finding the WHY. Some of these conversations have been heated and tough (in good ways), and all have been eye-opening. For them. And definitely for me.

When I first started writing about telling stories from your WHY, it just sounded like a good thing to say. I mean, honestly, that’s it. I was doing it, and I liked how it felt.

And now that I’ve been helping companies uncover their WHY and write about it in email campaigns, web pages, video scripts, and speeches, I see what boldly declaring your WHY and marketing around it actually does.

First, when you talk in simple terms from a powerful place of WHY, potential clients are just intrigued. They pay attention because you are doing something different. Something raw and a little bit weird, in the best possible way.

Now, it’s not magic: you have to take the intrigue somewhere. You have to have skills and products and good stuff for them. But if you do, you’re suddenly a magnet.

Also, it gives your existing people a thing to hold onto and a reason to keep coming back to you. I’ve been working with an association that represents organizations that serve people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The world these organizations live in right now is not easy for about 183 different reasons. They need a rallying cry. This association has realized that the best thing they can do right now is to reconnect their member organizations with WHY. It’s been great fun to watch them discuss and debate their WHY, and give it real importance.

I should also say that I’m evolving in how I understand articulating the WHY.

First, I thought it meant stripping it down to the fundamental: To _____. Fill in the blank. That is, the one word that sums it up, like teach or inspire or empower. One thing, simple.

As I’ve worked with companies on this, I’ve come to see that yes, it IS that one thing—plus another really crucial thing: the reason to care. You have to spell out why it’s a thing in the world we need. We can debate whether it should be obvious or not. But it isn’t, so just tell us so that we get to it faster. People are incredibly complex creatures, but we respond best to simple messages.

So, how do you know when you’ve found your WHY? It’s much the same as a conversation with a four-and-a-half year old. There is a little energy spark. And then a tangible piece of something you could swing on, suddenly floating right there in the atmosphere. And then you see that thing of beauty: the much-coveted, “Oh, okay, I get it” look.

You’ve also found it when you decide it’s what you want to be about, and it’s the place you want to be. Your WHY isn’t in the heavens above. You control it.

So find it. Now.

I’ll lend you a kid if you need some help.


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