The Myth of WIIFM

woman making notes in a book

If you have taken a presentation skills workshop, even one by yours truly, you will be familiar with WIIFM — “What’s In It For Me?” The concept is based on that idea that a presentation or communication will fall flat unless you clearly outline how the audience benefits from the information. Your audience members will be more engaged if their needs are addressed. 

This acronym is used to help leaders pivot their orientation from “what do I have to say?” to “what does the audience need to know?” An audience-focused presentation, rather than a speaker-driven talk, has a much higher probability of making an impact. 

The idea of WIIFM, however, has taken a rather militant tone in some circles. Some executives translate this to mean that audiences are selfish or self-centered to the exclusion of all other motivators. It implies that the communication has to provide or suggest a literal, direct benefit to the audience.

That is not entirely true.

If there is one thing that the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us, it is that people are willing and able to listen to and process information even when it benefits others. The global lockdown effort is the single biggest act of solidarity and altruism in history. Overnight, a third of the world’s population (by some estimates) have understood the concept of “flattening the curve” and have gone into retreat to protect the vulnerable and give health care providers a head start in their preparation.

The answer to “WIIFM” too often is transactional. It is based on oversimplified assumptions about what motivates people. Investors want to make money. Employees want to work to be easier. Donors want recognition. Those may be true, but often there is more.

In his book, “Discover Your Truth North,” author and former Medtronic CEO Bill George describes two kinds of motivators: intrinsic and extrinsic. Extrinsic motivations include money, power, prestige, status, and recognition — in other words, values that are are bestowed by external forces.  Intrinsic motivations, on the other hand, are driven by growth, personal satisfaction, finding meaning, making a difference.

The answer to WIIFM too often focuses on extrinsic motivators. While those can be valid and part of the answer, it is well worth exploring what might be intrinsic motivators that you can tap while trying to appeal to your audiences.

This requires a deeper understanding of your audience. It means your assessment must be based on more than categorical assumptions — s/he plays this role, so therefore this is what motivates her/him. It means you need to think more about your audience. It also means you think more highly of your audience.

When you prepare to sketch or storyboard your next communication — a presentation, an all-staff memo, a video script, or speech — consider how it serves your audience. Think about both extrinsic and intrinsic motivators for your audience, and craft messages that address their needs more deeply.



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