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  • Jim Shupe

Focus on Your Purpose

Simon Sinek is a well-known public speaker. His 2009 TED Talk explained how he linked the way the human brain operates with how the most effective speakers and organizations communicate to inspire people. He’s written a book on the topic which is called Start with Why.

He had two key observations. The first was that if you examine the human brain, you’ll see two primary areas which each have their own functions. The newest structures form an outer layer called the neocortex. It is responsible for language and understanding facts. The central structures form the limbic brain. This section is responsible for feeling and decision-making but has no capacity for language.

The second observation is that when people and companies communicate, there are three key underlying questions to be addressed What, How, and Why. Sinek said "Every single person, every single organization on the planet knows what they do, 100%. Some know how they do it... But very very few people or organizations know why they do what they do." He also explained that most people and organizations communicate from the outside in, starting with What. The inspiring ones operate completely the opposite, starting with Why.

The reason that addressing the Why is so important is that the limbic brain corresponds to the How and Why aspects of making decisions, but is not capable of rationality or language. It operates on feelings or “gut instinct”. Everyone’s limbic brain maintains a model of the world based on the beliefs they have formed from their experience. Then it makes decisions consistent with how they think the world works or should work. This means that decisions are made to reinforce or align to a person’s existing view of the world. Any facts or data that are also presented are used to confirm that decision.

This led Simon Sinek to the conclusion that, “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” Ultimately, people will want to buy to prove what they believe and how they want to be seen by others. The companies and individuals that communicate most effectively start the message with their belief, their Why. Starting with Why primes the listener’s limbic brain to decide whether they share that belief. The messages then describe How they go about making that belief a reality and end by describing What it is that they do as a result of the How. This gives people information they can use to rationalize a decision in their neocortex they've already made with their limbic brain.

Since our experience and expectations for the world are so varied, this explains why some people respond well to a product, service offering, or idea and others do not. In the end, we cannot satisfy everyone so our message needs to be targeted toward those who share our beliefs.

These concepts also apply outside business contexts. We want to be part of a group that shares our beliefs. These groups can be customers, but they can also be employees or people rallied around a cause. People who are working for a purpose are far more invested in what they do. Those are the people we want most on our teams. Therefore, being able to put your team’s core belief into words is critical both for explaining to customers why your team does what it does, but also for attracting the best talent to get the job done.

Engaging the listener’s limbic brain is critical to getting their support. Learning to frame your message to start with Why can have a large impact on your future successes.


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