I am reluctant to admit this, but I learned about the importance of the "so what" mindset the hard way: A client made me realize I needed help.
After years of training salespeople as a professional speaker and facilitator, I felt extremely confident that I was at the top of my game. And I had testimonials from people who had heard me present to prove it. In early 1995, I received a call from Jeff Goldberg, executive vice president of EMC, a developer and provider of information infrastructure technology and solutions, who wanted to know more about my training programs, which he had read about in a local newspaper.
Unbeknownst to me, Jeff was responsible for helping to re-position EMC from a small computer storage company to the number one player in their category in terms of market share. I met with Jeff and explained how my training program worked. He then said that he would get back to me the following week once he discussed the program with his team.
Jeff called me the following week, and I was surprised when he asked me to meet with him a second time. When I asked why, he said he wanted me to run through the presentation I planned to make to his team. He said I needed to give my speech in his office to an audience of one - him - just as I would to his salesforce.
My first thought was, "Is he kidding? Why is he going to have me, in essence, audition before agreeing to hire me?"
I took a deep breath and said, "Jeff, of course. I would be glad to run through my speech with you. But can I ask you why?"
"Sure," he said. "I want to make sure that what you are going to say is relevant to my team."
The second he said this, I realized that I had never thought about whether my content was relevant to his people or not.
Tell me more
As I look back on my life as a student and participant in numerous training programs, I realize that one of the key elements separating great trainers from everyone else is what I call the "so what" mindset. It's the ability to intuitively understand how to communicate in such a way that the listener knows what's in it for her.
It is the difference between an instructor telling you, "you need to learn calculus to meet your math requirement," versus, "I know you are interested in going into the field of finance. Would you like to understand how compound interest actually works?" I was fortunate enough to have several professors in college who helped me understand what was in it for me, rather than rote learning because they said so.
What I always find remarkable is how many people do just what I did with Jeff Goldberg (that is, not considering the needs of the audience, before getting up to talk). Here is a simple strategy called the so what matrix, which will help you answer the so what question quickly, succinctly, and convincingly.
The so what matrix is a roadmap to help you prepare your presentations and deliver them consistently.
For what reason are you giving the presentation?
The reason this is important to my audience is because?
What do you want to have happen as a result of this presentation?
By answering these three questions before any important communication, you will be sure that you are really communicating what matters to your audience and not just what matters most to you. It's critical that you actually answer each of the three questions for this to work.
It's easy to think you know the "for what" reason you are giving a presentation; however, you need to ask yourself whether this is from your perspective or from the perspective of the audience?
Initially, when Jeff asked me for the reason that was I going to present to his sales team, I didn't have a good answer. Later, after asking him a specific question - what do you believe is the biggest challenge your salespeople face in terms of being able to hit their respective goals - I realized what was really important at EMC. The real "for what" of my presentation was to create a new mindset that would help his team get out of their comfort zone and overcome complacency.
The right results
For Jeff, the answer to the "so what" question about my training program was that his team gains a new belief that with the right level of confidence in themselves, their company, and their product, they could hit their goals. He also reminded me that his team didn't just sell computer storage, but rather, they sold what computer storage could do for their clients. This was the essence of the so what mindset - not what is "it" but how does "it" benefit you.
In the past, the sales goals seemed insurmountable because the people the salesforce were calling upon lacked decision-making authority. Using the confidence they had developed after attending my training program, the answer to the "now what" question was to call on higher-level executives that actually had decision-making authority.
So, did my new approach work?
You bet. By the time I was done with my presentation, the EMC salesforce understood that their goal of becoming the industry leader could not be accomplished just with more incremental effort. A whole new way of thinking was required.
The EMC presentation was such a hit that I was asked to return to talk to the next group of new hires. And I have used the so what matrix to answer the so what question in every talk I have given since.
Ten years and more than 10,000 people later, the message I created was still relevant at EMC, even if I had to be embarrassed into learning how powerful the so what mindset actually is.
I leave you with the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, someone who had a clear understanding of "so what"? He said, "It is one of the beautiful compensations of life that no man can sincerely try to help another without helping himself."