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Small word, big impact: Three letters that should drive you

Golden CircleWhen business leaders talk to prospects, clients and employees about their companies, they often focus on the least compelling elements without even realizing it.

It’s second nature to describe our businesses in terms of “what” we do and “how” we do it. The problem is there is no magic in “what” and “how.” They do not capture the motivations of our people, the deep-down reasons we started our companies and continue to pour into them our hearts, minds, and souls, the core beliefs that drive us every day.

Those reasons are “why” and that’s what makes people listen to what we have to say.

Simon Sinek, the author of “Start With Why,” has a great concept called the Golden Circle. The outermost ring is “what,” the middle ring is “how” and “why” is at the center. After studying the communication styles of great motivators — think Apple and Martin Luther King Jr. — Sinek learned something: The most inspiring people communicate differently than the rest of us.

Most of us cling to the Golden Circle’s outer ring; we explain “what.” Some of us communicate “how.” But very few of us communicate from the center, conveying “why.” Consider the drive to innovate, to change the way we interact with technology that inspired Steve Jobs. Those who convey their “why” effectively have the power to inspire.

I believe these three elements are interrelated: “Why” drives “what” and “how.” I envision the Golden Circle as a set of interlocking gears, each working off the other.

When people and organizations communicate “why,” that creates the kind of emotion that inspires action and influences behavior. It’s easy to shrug off “what” or “how.” That’s everyday stuff, nothing special. It’s much harder to ignore a unique, honest and powerful “why.”

There are many ways to get to the “why,” but the most effective way is through what we, at eQ, call the “25 Reasons Why” exercise. Back in 2000, when I first started b4Students, a foundation designed to increase graduation rates by linking high school kids with local businesses, I experienced a young man figure out his “why” and saw firsthand how emotional and eye-opening this exercise can be for everyone involved.

This young man told us he wanted to be a chef. Simply graduating high school would have been a major coup for this kid; becoming a professional chef would have been remarkable. To help him understand himself and his goal better, we took him through the “25 Reasons Why” exercise. We sat him down with a piece of paper and a pencil and told him to come up with 25 reasons why he wanted to be a professional chef. You can imagine what the first few reasons were.

“I want money,” he said with a grin. “I want a car and new clothes and shoes and jewelry and a big house and a vacation house by the beach. I want to travel and see the world and go to concerts. And I want lots and lots of ladies!”

The kid was having a ball until we got to around the tenth reason. Then he stopped. He couldn’t come up with any more reasons why becoming a chef was so important to him.

Suddenly, he blurted out, “Oh, here’s another one—I love serving people! I didn’t grow up with a lot of food, so feeding people makes me really happy.

“I love being creative and making something from nothing,” he continued. “I love trying new things and giving people an experience they’ve never had. I love the fact that I would be setting a good example for my younger brothers and sisters.”

Now the list was becoming more personal, more connected to a higher purpose. But the exercise is not called “25 Reasons Why” for nothing, so we pushed him to continue. He got stuck at 18, and it probably took a half-hour before he thought of another reason. A few minutes later he got to 20, then 23. He begged us to let him stop, but we made him keep going. He slouched over the table, pounding it with his fists and groaning.

Suddenly, he sat up straight.

“All right, you know why I’m really doing this? I’m doing it because someone’s got to thank our grandmother who raised me and my brothers and sisters,” he said with conviction. “Someone’s got to pay her back and thank her for all the sacrifices she’s made. Someone’s got to take care of her when she gets older, because she took care of us. It’s going to be my job to take care of her.”

Now that, my friends, is a “why.”

When you want to engage, make your message a compelling one. Think about your heartfelt “why,” and tell that story.