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:

  1. Ten Ways to Improve Your Relationship
  2. Protecting Yourself Against Neighborhood Burglars
  3. 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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