David Wendland David Wendland 

Communications has a special power: it can inspire people to act. We’ve all surely felt this in some capacity over the course of our lives: in moving speeches, influential causes and masterfully crafted narratives. The list goes on. In these instances, we’re compelled to do something based on messages that resonate with us.

It seems simple, but it isn’t.

O'Dwyer's Mar. '17 Food & Beverage PR MagazineThis article is featured in O'Dwyer's Mar .'17 Food & Beverage PR Magazine

At the same time, however, it comes as no surprise that communications falls well short of the mark far more often than it actually delivers. Why is this the case? How can something that possesses such a compelling force have it simultaneously be rivaled in potential by its ability to be so ineffective?

Clearly something is breaking down in the process. We as communicators need to do a better job of not only identifying where exactly it’s happening, but of understanding how to fix it.

Everyday symptoms to watch for

In thinking about our ability to connect and resonate with our audiences, what separates winners from losers? In short, it’s a tale of two roads that head in completely opposite directions.

First, prominent researchers such as Simon Sinek have found that communications is ineffective when it’s used in an outside-in approach. Allow me to explain.

In this strategy — which, unfortunately, is used all too frequently today — we attempt to form meaningful connections with audiences by leading with the dissemination of facts, features and benefits. On paper, it doesn’t sound like the world’s worst idea. Parts of the approach (e.g. presenting a case based on facts) even seem sensible. So what’s the deal?

As Sinek discovered, the problem has to do with biology, not psychology. The critical flaw of the outside-in approach is that it resonates only with the outer section of the brain, which is in charge of interpreting this type of detailed information.

The issue, though, is that this outer section — the one that controls rational, analytical thought and interprets language — isn’t the one that drives us to behave in any way, shape or form.

Focusing on the wrong target

The result of leading with the “what,” in effect, is a non-result. As audiences, we’re able to comprehend, but we aren’t compelled into action. For instance, have you ever heard someone — perhaps yourself — say something along the lines of, “I understand, but it just doesn’t feel right.” It turns out this commonplace phrase is actually rooted in science.

On the other end of this impossible exchange, communicators are left scratching their heads, wondering why they aren’t able to impose their will on their audiences.

One doesn’t have to look very far to find examples of this running rampant in the wild. Think of the latest tech gadgets and service offerings with spokespeople spouting off about new features and functionality to prove how theirs is far superior to the rest of the competition available on the market. As the audience, we understand it all, but it ends there. We feel nothing more and it’s a non-starter.

Let’s look at where the opportunity lies, then, for maximizing the effectiveness of communications and for influencing actual behavior and outcomes.

Developing effective strategies

What lessons can be learned for communicating in more meaningful and impactful ways?

To start, it requires a different strategy from the onset. In stark contrast with the aforementioned outside-in approach of mediocrity, establishing a connection of meaning and substance works from the inside out.

What does this mean and what does it entail? To bring biology back into the fold, it requires speaking to the innermost parts of the brain that are actually behind the wheel of controlling decision-making, behavior, trust, loyalty and more.

Equally important to understand is that this core has no capacity for language. Therefore, all of the finer facts and figures we’re casting in the lead role of our communications strategy are by default incapable of triggering a reaction within our audiences and of inspiring an action by them on the outside world.

It’s true that by nature the inner parts of the brain are laser-focused on feelings, but the art form lies within the inciting of those feelings.

Putting it into practice

From the perspective of turning theory into practice and developing viable communications strategies that can actually be executed upon, it’s easy to see why research-based approaches of starting with the why have earned worldwide acclaim.

In a nutshell, it’s all about cutting to the core of the matter right away. In a communications strategy this can be accomplished by addressing the “why” first because it encompasses the brand’s identity, its purpose, its cause and its beliefs. As communicators, we need to have compelling answers to heavy questions such as “why does your company exist?” and “why should anyone care?”

Leaders are able to differentiate themselves among the crowd and separate themselves from the pack by ensuring the most-difficult and mission-critical messages are not only communicated right out of the gate, but readily understood and interpreted as intended upon first shot. No small feat.

Once this is accomplished, the effective communications strategy then works backward toward the “what,” but not before addressing the next step in the value chain, which is communicating the “how.”

Think of the “how” as the unique value proposition and the way the brand is going about solving a particular problem. What specifically makes it unique? Identify and own those key differentiators.

“What” is saved for last. As described above, once the central connection is made at the core of the brain, the outer area helps justify the decision in the mind of the receiver via analysis of the facts and figures.

Bringing it all back home

From a business perspective, why does all of this ultimately matter?

Sinek is famous for saying, “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” By leading with the “why” and conveying what we as communicators believe, we stand a much better chance of attracting first believers who share the sentiment of our brand.

Research has shown that these two audiences, known as innovators and early adopters, are absolutely paramount in determining mass-market success. They precede the tipping point of broader scale adoption, after which follows groups such as the early majority, the late majority and the laggards.

It’s a beautiful chain reaction that begs the question, “why?”


David Wendland is a vice president at Finn Partners.