This article summarizes the wildly popular Simon Sinek Ted Talk, and outlines the right, and wrong, way to apply it when messaging your firm.
For 6-7 years, the marketing community has been abuzz with a Ted Talk delivered by Simon Sinek. Marketers shared it with me. I saw it referenced by other presenters at events where I spoke. And, of course it kept popping up on social media (the video now has over 25M views). Ultimately, the talk appears to have spawned a highly successful speaking and publishing career for Simon Sinek. If you haven’t yet watched the talk, you should. It’s highly thoughtful and very well delivered.
A Quick Summary of the Talk…
The premise of the talk is this — leaders (the people and companies who achieve extraordinary things), think and communicate differently. They recognize that, “People don’t buy what you do. They buy why you do it. What you do simply provides proof of what you believe.” Simon goes on to map out what he calls The Golden Circle:
The Golden Circle is a very simple way of articulating how we communicate (as people or as companies). Used correctly, it can form the basis of a good messaging framework for any company. Simon argues that most people and companies communicate from the outside in — they know exactly what they do, sometimes they know how they do it, but very rarely do they understand or communicate why they do it. Yet, leaders communicate from the inside out. They “start with why.” They recognize that people are drawn to an organization’s purpose and beliefs. And, they communicate those first. Hence, they lead with what they believe about the world, and let their products and services simply serve as proof of what they believe.
…And, the Biology Behind It
The good news is that this way of thinking is grounded in science. Simon goes on to relate his Golden Circle to the very biology of our brain:
- The neocortex (the outer, “newer” part of our brain) is the area where we process information. We use this part of our brain to read, to think, and to interpret complex information and ideas. Essentially, this is the part of our brain that we use to understand the world around us.
- The limbic brain (closer to the core of the brain; the “older” part of our brain) is the area responsible for our feelings. This is the part of our brain that drives human behavior. This is the part of our brain we use to make decisions, and it is incapable of processing language.
Of course, Simon’s right. There’s been a lot of previous work done on this subject. If you’re interested in understanding this further, I’d suggest reading Neuromarketing by Patrick Renvoise and Christophe Morin. In their book, they refer to the limbic brain as the “reptilian brain.” Essentially, it’s the part of our brain that controls our “flight or fight” mechanisms; the instinctive part of our brain that we use to make decisions. As I understand it, a limbic brain pretty much exists in any living being, hence the phrase “reptilian.” And, because it’s been around for millions of years, it’s virtually impossible for our neocortex to “over-ride” it when it comes to decision making. This is why we often make very large decisions based on “our gut” and justify them later using complex rationale.
Start With Why — Your Worst Marketing Decision Ever
Ultimately, Simon’s talk is a very compelling one. It gives us a very simple way to think about how we structure marketing messages and it’s grounded in neuroscience. What could be better than that?
Well, unfortunately, when it comes to marketing a professional services firm there’s a small problem with taking this talk at face value. And, that small problem can create disastrous consequences. A lot of professional services firm have not done the heavy lifting necessary to deeply think about their “what.” This is especially true for architecture or engineering firms. They say to themselves, “we’re an architecture firm; we can design anything.” But, design or engineering is not what you do. It’s simply a skill you apply towards what you do. What you do is create healthcare environments that balance healing and patient/staff utilization, design high performing schools that facilitate creativity and innovation, develop transportation systems that relieve congestion and increase quality of life, or deliver great fan experiences that make people come back for more. All those things involve design and engineering, but they also should involve data analysis, visioning, planning, consulting, wayfinding, technology, mechanics, air quality, lighting….should I go on?
Fundamentally, too many firms simply haven’t dealt with positioning. They haven’t made sound strategic decisions about what they do and who they do it for. They’re not as deep as they are broad. The unfortunate part of the Simon Sinek Ted Talk for these firms is that it gives them a “free pass” to skip over this hard work. It gives them justification to create hollow, ineffective marketing messages that accomplish nothing.
Poor Positioning + Starting With Why Leads to Messages Like These:
- We must push boundaries and explore new ideas.
- We craft provocative spaces built on the idea that architecture should be responsive to an organization’s needs.
- We believe strong relationships inspire great work.
- We challenge ourselves to think in creative ways and find truly innovative solutions for all our clients – on projects big and small.
- We’re always looking for measurable ways to enhance the natural, social and built environments around us.
Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with any of these messages. They’re all true and commendable statements. And, they’re all produced by great firms. It’s just that they’re uninspiring. Most of them are just things that are part and parcel to the practice. At some level, every firm in existence should believe some of these things. If we’re going to lead with why, then our why has to be inspiring. It has to take a stand. It has to represent a unique point of view; a compelling set of beliefs that I simply can’t find in other firms. Ideally, it’s going to shape a perspective that I, as a client, can get equally excited about because it’s going to have a massive impact on my business. And, this is almost impossible to do when our “what” is not clearly defined.
Start With Why — Your Best Marketing Decision Ever
The good news is that there’s another side to the Simon Sinek story. And, this is, of course, for the firms that have been thoughtful about their positioning. They’ve been purposeful about where they choose to compete and have built their business on a recognition that architecture, engineering or consulting is just a piece of what they do. It might be a very large piece. But, regardless, it’s a skill that they’ve chosen to apply to a very specific set of industries or business scenarios. They’ve sought, with relentless pursuit, to be the absolute best in the world at solving the unique business challenges faced by those clients.
By narrowing the field of vision, these firms have created a tremendous advantage. They’ve enabled themselves to go deep where other firms cannot. And, when it comes to messaging, they’ve enabled themselves to develop a why that has meaning. A why that embodies a unique set of beliefs. A why that shares a unique point of view. And, yes, these whys, as Simon Sinek states, inspire prospects to action.
For firms like these, who bring a compelling perspective to the market that is grounded in a clear understanding of what they do and how they do it, starting with why may be the best marketing decision they ever made.
Effective Positioning + Starting With Why Leads To Messages Like These:
- Accidents happen. Terrorists are real. And hurricanes don’t care. But Hinman cares. We are committed to helping clients find the best solutions to protect people and property from catastrophe, disaster and extreme events before they happen.
- We pioneered transparency and gamification in business to educate, empower and engage employees. Find out what Open-Book can do for your organization.
Mining for Why
Of course, the question becomes, how do you determine your organization’s why? To start, make sure your firm is appropriately positioned. Test your firm against our 7 Positioning Indicators. And, then ensure that you have enough depth where you’re choosing to compete by looking at our 6 Tests of Depth.
Assuming your firm has effective positioning, then convene a meeting of your firm’s senior leaders. Facilitate exercises that will create discussion around your firm’s beliefs and unique point-of-view. Your points of discussion should help identify:
- How you think what you do should be done.
- How your clients’ markets are changing and the impact those changes have on the work you might do together.
- How your clients’ business could be wildly more successful irrespective of your existing services or solutions.
- Ideas or traditional wisdom about what you do and how you do it you see as ineffective or in need of change.
We outline a messaging framework in the Positioning Pre-Module of our Online Learning Program (available for immediate download) that can help you develop both the language around your firm’s positioning and its unique perspective.