Book [Rave]iew: Start with Why

Why is it that the answers to some of the most obvious questions people ask are the hardest to put to words?   

We like to think that most of our decisions are rational, but in fact most of our decisions are guided by emotion and intuition. The limbic brain—the deepest and most primitive part of our brain—is what drives behavior. It’s not capable of generating words, which is why we often struggle to explain the basis for our decisions or our feelings toward certain people.    

It’s difficult, for instance, to explain why we love our spouses and children. When asked why you chose a particular brand or consider someone a friend the answer can be elusive. The real answer, of course, is that “It just feels right.”   

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The real basis for decision-making in business

… is much like the basis for decisions we make in our personal lives. In both contexts, rationalizations tend to come after a decision has been made, after you’ve formulated an opinion about a person or issue.  

Because we believe we’re more rational than we are, we try to appeal to people on a rational level.

In business, that may involve talking about your experience, credentials, product features and testimonials. Nobody disputes that these are important, but are they the key things driving business decisions?

Nope, says Simon Sinek in Start With Why. This book was so insightful and useful that it’s impossible to condense into a single discussion, but I’ll try to entice you to think a little differently about your own business.  

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The premise of Start With Why is simple:  

“People don’t buy WHAT you do; they buy WHY you do it.”  

There are 328 million people in the U.S. Someone out there is almost certainly doing whatever you do just as well as you do it at a comparable price. What makes you compelling?   

You get people to listen by talking about your WHY.  

One thing that struck my about this book was how much of it applies, not only to business, but to our personal lives. For instance, consider one of the statements Sinek makes:  

“When an organization defines itself by WHAT it does, that’s all it will ever be able to do.” (45)   

If you tweak this a bit to apply to your personal life, it’s every bit as true: When you define yourself by what you do, that’s all you’ll ever be able to do.  

We want to surround ourselves with capable, confident people. We all want to do things we’re good at, that are an expression of our abilities and interests. But I think we forget the importance of having a clearly-defined purpose.  

This book was so insightful and useful that it’s impossible to condense into a single discussion.

We forget how important intangibles are to such an extent that we don’t look within ourselves for the answers to important questions in life and business.   

After all, which is more compelling—someone’s skills and experience or the way he communicates his values and purpose?  

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Hearts and Minds—and Guts  

Sinek devotes a whole chapter to the biology of decision-making in the brain. As I’ve noted, we overrate how rational we are. And rather than scorning ourselves and others for the tendency to make irrational decisions, we should simply be aware of it and, to some extent, we should honor it. Consider this:  

“If we were all rational, there would be no small businesses, there would be no exploration, there would be very little innovation and there would be no great leaders to inspire all those things.” (Sinek, p. 62)  

Most of your decisions are driven by emotion and instinct rather than reason. While we use the beautiful analogies of our “heart” (for emotional council) and “gut” (for instinct), these systems really reside in the limbic brain.

Sinek Golden Circle
Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle

“Our limbic brains are smart and often know the right thing to do,” says Sinek. “It is our inability to verbalize the reasons that may cause us to doubt ourselves or trust the empirical evidence when our gut tells us not to.”  

It’s important to communicate the tangible benefits of your products and services effectively. Just understand that while tangibles may influence behavior, it’s the intangibles that drive behavior.

“Most companies are quite adept at winning minds; all that requires is a comparison of all the features and benefits. Winning hearts, however, takes more work.”  

Manipulation vs. Inspiration  

Does anyone really want to compete on price? Hell no. If you’re competing on price, incentives, rebates and other manipulations, you’re going to wind up in survival mode pretty soon. That’s why it’s so important to really communicate what drives you and understand why your customers are your customers.  

Sinek makes the point brilliantly:  

“There’s barely a product or service on the market today that customers can’t buy from somewhere else for about the same price, about the same quality, about the same level of service and about the same features. …  

“But if you ask most businesses why their customers are their customers, most will tell you it’s because of superior quality, features, price or service. In other words, most companies have no clue why their customers are their customers.”  

Why do you get out of bed every morning? What keeps you up at night? If you have a clear answer to these questions you’ll be a lot better at what you do, and you’ll have happier customers who stick with you through thick and thin.  

If you have a clear sense of why your customers are your customers you don’t have to   

  • resort to manipulations to attract and retain business,
  • compete on price,
  • offer an overly-generous referral policy,
  • Etc.  

If you have a clear sense of your WHY, you don’t have to do things that weaken your margins to get new business or do things that weaken your business in order to survive.

Sounds sensible.

Trust, loyalty, inspiration. Where do they come from?  

“When you start with WHY, those who believe what you believe are drawn to you for very personal reasons. It is those who share your values and beliefs, not the quality of your products, that will cause the system to tip. Your role in the process is to be crystal clear about what purpose, cause or belief you exist to champion, and to show how [you] help advance that cause.” (126)   

I’ve often spoken about why I write—and more broadly, why language is so important to me. I was always a good writer, but when I got a real handle on WHY it was important to me, the quality of my work (and the trajectory of my business) improved significantly. It also opened me up to new possibilities for expanding my business by offering more storified marketing and content marketing services such as videography and strategic content promotion.  

My Why  

Case in Point  

I recently wrote a proposal to a civic organization that advocates for clean energy and conservation. I’m sharing this because it provides a good example of how I’ve applied these ideas. Here’s the introductory paragraph:  

“I think Colorado is the greatest place in the world. Since moving here 11 years ago I’ve been completely spoiled by the state’s natural beauty, access to outdoor recreation, the quality of the people, the culture, cool August evenings and sunny January afternoons. Part of why [your] mission is important to me is a profound desire that the environmental health of Colorado’s mountains, plateaus, deserts and plains will be undiminished 100 years from now. That’s why I support you.”  

I could have just as easily lead in with this:  

“I’ve been published in over three dozen business and lifestyle magazines, company blogs and other publications. I have several content marketing certifications, I’m fluent in sustainability-related topics and have an MBA.   

“… By the way, I think your work is cool.”  

Anyway, I got the assignment because I described my inspiration to build trust.

Where does trust come from? It comes from shared values, authenticity, stories and a clear sense of purpose.   

“People don’t buy WHAT you do, they buy WHY you do it.”   

Start with why.

I help purpose-driven entrepreneurs elevate their marketing through storytelling, humor, and clear strategic messaging.

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Posted on: November 5, 2018