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Emily   //   October 28,2016

The Tyranny of WIIFM

For the last 20 years, I have been teaching, as part of my executive communications coaching, a central tenet of being an effective leader — how to appeal to your audience’s core needs. The shortcut to that objective is WIIFM, or “What’s In It For Me?” Answer that question, hopefully in the first 30 seconds of your presentation, and you can consider yourself an effective communicator.

The problem is that it’s not that simple. Many of my clients work in technology and science and, frankly, tend to be literal. They sometimes struggle to answer that WIIFM question, which over the years has come to mean, “How am I impacted, in a concrete way, from what you’re telling me?” If it doesn’t impact the audience financially, or to life and limb, they wrestle with how to communicate the value of the information.

WIIFM is, in fact, a short-cut for one of the modes of persuasion outlined by the philosopher Aristotle — ethos, pathos and logos. Ethos appeals to ethics, or the credibility of the persuader. Logos uses logic and reason to persuade the audience. Pathos, what many consider to be the most persuasive, appeals to emotion.

Pathos is the Greek word for both “suffering” and “experience.” The words empathy and pathetic are derived from pathos. Effective persuaders can invoke sympathy, or anger, or fear, or hope in an audience. It’s not always about defining the direct benefit to the audience, but creating a sense of empathy for others.

People are generally self-interested. They gravitate toward content that directly impacts them. But they also have interests that may not necessarily impact them immediately and directly but still can capture their attention. News stories about war in foreign countries, for example, can generate a great amount of interest even if it doesn’t directly or concretely impact the reader. Those stories can invoke empathy or emotion for people in places halfway around the globe.

Executive leaders can appeal to a sense of community or mission within the organization by telling a story about patient who has been helped by a drug, a device, or a service. They can motivate a team to rally around a solution to a problem, even if there is no direct or concrete benefit to them.

Don’t let WIIFM paralyze your communications. Yes, we still need to focus on the needs of our audience — rather than just our own needs as speakers. But the WIIFM question can be answered much more broadly than you think.

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