A couple of weeks ago, a dozen or so of us gathered in a cosy room next to Whitehall, to meet with Evernote CEO, Phil Libin, and some of the team. It was great to hear the inside story of Evernote and news of upcoming features (if you haven’t tried Evernote, download it and give it a go), but I’ll say more about those in another post. For now, safe to say, Evernote continues to go from strength to strength, with over 30 million users around the world, and counting.

There were quite a few things that Phil Libin talked about that caught my attention, but I was particularly caught by his descriptions for the way that things happen in their business, and the concept of the 100 year start up. He said that one of his key goals was that everyone in the business should know WHY they are doing what they do. Scroll forward a few days, and Farhan shared this video of Simon Sinek’s TED talk about “How great leaders inspire action.”  Simon’s premise, which bridges to his book, Start With Why, is that leaders in great organisations communicate the same way: Why? How? What?

  • What – What you do. What needs to happen.
  • How – How you do that, for example, your unique value proposition.
  • Why – The REASON that you do it.

Simon says that 100% of businesses know what they do. As a side note, I’d actually dispute that, as I frequently come across employees who don’t know what the business they work in does, and others where even the leaders don’t seem! Back to the point: Very few businesses communicate ‘how’, and only a very very few communicate ‘why’. When we get to ‘why’ we often make use of “we believe” statements. Many researchers have pointed out the effectiveness of communicating at an emotional, rather than just at the level of facts. Communicating at the level of ‘why’ instead of functionally (what and how), achieves that. Simon points to companies like Apple as an example of how this works. By way of an update, have a look at how they market the new MacBook Pro, it’s not about its features (the Retina display) or how they built it, “it’s a whole new vision for the notebook” – apparently!

“People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.”

Simon makes what he claims is a biological, not a psychological, defence of his argument. Sadly he does it using a very questionable model of the brain, and some murky pseudo-psychology. Please, in the name of good science, disregard that part of the talk, he goes to the back of the class for that one. Similarly for the section on the ‘law’ of diffusion of innovation, read this post on Everett Roger’s book, Diffusion of Innovations.

There is a defensible set of arguments for the observation that our decision-making happens predominantly at an emotional level. We communicate and connect not with facts, but at the level of values and beliefs. If I understand just a few of someone’s core values, I will be able to predict their behaviour more accurately than if I am in possession of box loads of facts about their previous behaviours. It’s why you should hire people for their fit with the values of your business, not for the lines on their CV. Consistent values build a cohesive culture, and make communication significantly more efficient and effective. Shared values, as with as shared experiences, reduce misunderstandings, and improve the quality of communication.

Back to “Why?”

In communicating the “why” of something, we are more likely to convey something of our values and beliefs. In doing that, we are much more likely to pull the levers of personal persuasion. If you want to change behaviours,which most leaders do, then you need to change attitudes, and if you want to change attitudes, then look to the research, things like the Yale Attitude Change Approach, and the body of research that has taken place since then. Attitudes have been a core topic of study for psychology for decades, and while it is a complicated and often problematic area, it is has shown that influence is shaped by a number of factors, including something psychologists call “source characteristics” – the things that we know about the speaker and their message, specifically:

  • Source credibility – Is the source authoritative? What attitude do they suggest? Are they credible? Expertise is key: The novice and the beginner will communicate facts, the master will communicate principles.
  • Liking / attractiveness – This isn’t just about looks, it’s about how we feel towards them – including winning humour, admiration, or believing they are like us.
  • Affect – their mood. It’s not just about shiny happy people, it’s about how we think we will end up feeling. It the knowledge of the source has taken them to a ‘happy place’ people will tag along.

What’s in the message?

The next set of pieces are the ‘message characteristics’, which covers a number of factors, but mainly relates to the strength of the argument. Strong arguments are more persuasive, that might seem unsurprising, but you’d be surprised, it isn’t always the case! Think about the characteristics of strong arguments: They are usually specific, complete and credible. At the very least, they are coherent. In communicating the ‘why’ we instantly add credibility to our message. If I explain why I am doing something, it reduces the opportunity to doubt my motivation (source credibility) and greatly enhances the compliance. Try these two requests: “Please will you get me a glass of water?” or “Please will you get me a glass of water? I’ve pulled my back and I can’t move – I’ve had nothing to drink all day.”

Lastly, for now, is the impact of something called the ‘elaboration likelihood’ model. If I communicate at the level of “why” you are more likely to have to pay detailed attention, you have to give more thought to what I am saying. Look at the two sentences in the last paragraph, the second is more complex to process. Explaining ‘why’ causes people to stop and think, and if they have to think about what you have asked, they are significantly more likely to remember the request and carry it out.

Try adding the ‘why‘ to all of your communication. It’s worked rather well for Evernote, and I am very sure it will work well for your business, for even more reasons that the 1,000+ words here have outlined. Have you tried it? Have you seen it done? Do share your experiences with others in the comments.