When "What’s In It For Me?" Is The Wrong Question To Ask
This post contains the second of two questions to ask when seeking to close the divide between you and a skeptical audience. You can read the introduction and first question here; I recommend reading that post first.
Question Two: How do people like you act?
For decades, public speaking experts have instructed presenters to put themselves in the minds of their audiences by answering this question: “What is their WIIFM?”
WIIFM (or “What’s In It For Me?”) suggests that audiences will only act on your ideas if they see a direct benefit to their own lives. If your talk will help them advance in their careers, make more money, have more free time, develop meaningful relationships, engage in edifying hobbies, or become safer and healthier, you’ve successfully addressed their WIIFM.
Many talks appeal to direct self-interest in such a manner, which makes their relevance to the audience immediately clear. Examples include:
- Ten Ways to Improve Your Relationship
- Protecting Yourself Against Neighborhood Burglars
- How to Get a Better Night’s Sleep
But for some talks, appealing to narrow self-interest—the WIIFM—isn’t enough. Take the example of a vegan. If a shoe retailer encourages a vegan to buy a certain pair of shoes because they “look cool,” the appeal might fall flat—even though “looking more fashionable” is a plausible WIIFM. But if the retailer told the vegan that half of the shoe’s purchasers are other vegans who value the humane production methods used by the manufacturer, you might have a sale. The logic is clear: if they like the shoes, and they’re like me, then I’ll probably like them too.
When making that shoe-buying decision, the vegan didn’t rely upon narrow self-interest alone (although it may have played a role), but also on how the broader peer group might act. Powerful questions of self-identity—how we see our place in the world, which groups we affiliate with, the values we share with our peers and how they influence our decisions—can serve as vastly more powerful drivers of human behavior than a narrower WIIFM frame ever could.
In fact, self-identity is so powerful that a wide body of research finds people frequently act against their self-interest in order to maintain a consistent self-identity. If you’ve ever wondered why a low-income worker might vote for a politician who pledges to slash her benefits while cutting taxes for wealthier families, you’ve already observed that people often self-identify in unexpected, curious, and complicated ways.
Self-identity plays a pivotal role in matters profound, such as our political views, religious affiliations, and romantic partnerships, and ordinary, such as our decisions regarding which television show to watch, coffee brand to drink, or grocery store to shop.
In Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, Chip and Dan Heath write, “Any change effort that violates someone’s identity is likely doomed to failure.”
In that context, it’s no surprise why that Washington thinker (see previous post) failed to convince his audience.
Imagine instead if he had realized that the auditorium would be filled with civically-minded students dedicated to their communities. He could have discussed healthcare through the frame of what other civically-minded community members—people just like those students—have done to improve access to healthcare in neighborhoods just like theirs while relying more on one another than the federal government.
Such an argument may or may not have ultimately persuaded the audience—but it would have stood a significantly better chance than his original one.
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Brad, this was an interesting and thought-provoking article. I’d like to offer a few opinions that run counter to yours, but in the context of a respectful and appreciative discussion… Not an “I’m right and you’re wrong” argument!
I fall very strongly into the camp you mentioned who believes in quickly establishing a reason for your listeners to care about your material and your presentation. I find that thinking in terms of your audience’s WIIFM triggers is extremely useful.
I don’t actually think that your examples violate the principles of WIIFM. The examples may instead indicate that the presenter is approaching the question incorrectly. You mentioned peer group identification as an alternative to self-interest. You wrote that “people frequently act against their self-interest in order to maintain a consistent self-identity.”
If you see your audience’s interests this way, it’s you as the presenter who is wrong — not your audience! In this case, an accurate understanding of your audience’s primary “What’s In It For Me” priority is not the thing YOU think serves their better wellbeing (such as health, monetary gain, etc). The thing that they care about is positive reinforcement and confirmation of existing beliefs through peer approval. So the rest of your tactics apply, and you can use their peer group affiliated beliefs and actions to help sway them. But the reason those are effective is because you are telling them why they should care in a way that matches the thing THEY find most important… Not the thing YOU think they should care about!
It can be very tricky to guess what might be most important to an audience (especially a large, heterogeneous one). As you pointed out, making a pitch point that shoes “look cool” is only important to one segment of the audience and is not important to others. I often advise and teach presenters to take a different tack when figuring out the establishing value proposition for their talk. Don’t try to engage based on a specific value proposition such as “looks cool”, “avoids animal cruelty”, or “costs less.” Instead, you start with a promise of what’s in it for them in terms of overall attention and investment of time in your presentation:
“At the end of this talk, you will walk away with some new insights on shoes that you probably never thought of before. You will have information on specific differentiators that can make it easier to pick the shoe that is right for you. And you’ll be able to apply that information on your very next shopping trip. Sound like something you can use? Great… Let’s get into the details!”
Now every member of the audience has a reason to care about the content. They aren’t starting by weighing whether they agree with the relative value or importance of a single value point you have picked for them as supposedly being the most useful to their interests.
Thanks for keeping us thinking!
Thank you for your substantive and thought-provoking comment. I suspect we agree on 90 percent of these points; I know that’s true for me. I’ll explain why I believe that parsing this out in the manner I did adds something important to the usual discussion about WIIFM. (We both of course share the view that speakers must “quickly [establish] a reason for your listeners to care about your material and your presentation.”)
In the dozens of public speaking books, articles, and blog posts I’ve read about the WIIFM, the vast majority appeal solely to narrow self-interest — the types of things I mentioned in this post, such as making more money, saving time, or moving up the corporate food chain. While it’s possible a few of those books/articles/blog posts broadened the scope of the WIIFM to questions of group identity, I can’t remember seeing that point explicitly stated. I certainly don’t remember it seeing stated as clearly as it was in your comment.
What we’re talking about are two different things: the way the WIIFM is commonly understood, which is narrow, and the way it should be understood, which includes a broader definition of self-identity and peer group association. It’s clear you’ve been preaching that point for some time — but based on my experience, you’re the exception, not the norm.
That leaves us with two choices:
1. Redefine WIIFM to include broader categories; or
2. Accept the commonly accepted (and narrower) definition of WIIFM and teach people to think outside of it to better align their message with their audiences.
There’s an argument to be made with both approaches. The first one would indeed be more technically accurate. But I’ve chosen the second one, because I’m of the belief that a counter-intuitive idea such as “WIIFM Is Often The Wrong Question” is stickier and more likely to lead to behavior change than “The WIIFM Must Include Matters of Group Identity.”
I’d love to know what readers think about Ken’s comment and my response. Let’s keep the conversation going!
Brad, you may enjoy this short post I wrote a year and a half ago where I discuss the WIIFM of the famous “sell me this pen” scene from The Wolf of Wall Street. It’s relevant to our discussion and offers another example of thinking about audience priorities and steering them to recognize the value of your proposition.