A simple technique for finding purpose

A blue question mark against a pink background

Powerful, effective communication has a clear, meaningful purpose. If you don’t know why you are doing something, you can face a lot of unnecessary problems. And/or it can take much longer to reach your desired end point.

Without a clear purpose for your communication you may:

  • Send out mixed messages – causing confusion, inaction and maybe even anger
  • Go off at a tangent – losing your way and your audience
  • Put in a lot of effort for little or no return
  • Be unable to measure your outcomes – or measure the wrong things
  • Miss opportunities

I could go on…. But I think I’ve made my point.

Deeper level

Sometimes when we do articulate a purpose for our communications, we can get stuck at a high level. Clients often tell me their reason for communicating is to ‘raise awareness’ of an initiative, policy or campaign. But what does that really mean?

Their audience might become aware of the policy’s existence, for example, but still not comply with it. That doesn’t count as effective communication in a context where a policy has been introduced in order to save money or keep people safe.

The 5 whys technique

So how can we get to a deeper level of purpose?

I use a really simple technique called ‘the 5 whys’. Basically, you channel your inner toddler and ask yourself (or your colleague) ‘why’, 5 times.

This approach for getting to the root of something was originally developed by the Japanese company, Toyota. It has since been adopted by a wide range of industries and companies, for a variety of situations and is used in a more or less structured way.

An example of using this technique

I’m going to communicate internally because I want our employees to know about our new campaign to make life better for refugees

1. Why do you want them to know about the campaign?

Because I want them to sign the petition and tell other people to sign the petition

2. Why do you want them to sign the petition and tell other people to sign it?

Because then the petition will have more signatures on it

3. Why do you want the petition to have more signatures on it?

Because then there will have to be a debate about how refugees are treated

4. Why do you want there to be a debate about this?

Because if there is a debate then the measures we’re asking for will become nearer to becoming law

5. Why do you want the measures to become nearer to law?

Deeper level communication purpose: Because we want refugees to have a legal right to support from a trained advocate

The end purpose of wanting refugees to have legal protection is far more powerful than simply wanting people to know about a campaign.

Starting from this point will give you a much stronger base for your comms plan. It will also give you details along the way, such as specific actions for people to take and key moments to ask for their views.

Some people follow strict rules when using the technique, such as you must use paper to write down the steps or make sure you don’t jump to conclusions. Whilst some of these can be helpful, I don’t personally feel they are necessary for the technique to work. (If rules are your thing, though, take a look at Wikipedia for details.)

At the end of the day, if the 5 whys helps you to identify the core purpose of your communication – and you can use that deeper understanding to build truly effective comms – I’m not inclined to be overly strict about how you get there.

Why not try this technique for yourself today? Let me know how you get on, I’d love to hear how it goes. Or get in touch if you would like my help to use the technique at your organisation.

Until next time

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