‘The Why’ Before ‘The What’

By Brooke Smith and COMPASS

Apr 8, 2014


Minute Read


By Brooke Smith
Published April 8, 2014
Title: ‘The Why’ Before ‘The What’
Tags: collaborating, oceans, So What?, story, Brooke Smith

At COMPASS we spend a lot of our time helping scientists engage outside of their comfort zone. We know that speaking well about your work in an unfamiliar context is intimidating, and occasionally we get a simultaneously discomfiting and reassuring first-hand reminder of that experience. 

Last week I had the privilege of participating in my first Startup Weekend: an event that brings together diverse talents and new collaborators to work towards launching a startup in 54 hours.  In a room full of brilliant coders, software developers, and designers, I overheard conversations about the oculus, and assumed they meant the recent horror movie. I thought to myself, “I am out of my league.” What do I know about developing technology?

The event was hosted by Vulcan, Paul Allen’s company that invests in diverse projects from technology to NBA teams (Go Trailblazers!) to real estate to saving African elephants. They’ve been trying to find ways to invest in ocean health, so the goal of this Startup Weekend was developing “the ultimate ocean app.” The weekend began with pitches from anyone who had an idea. Then we voted on the top ten ideas, formed teams, and spent the next two days developing an aptly named MVP (minimum viable product). On the last day, teams pitched their startup in under 5 minutes to a panel of judges – senior Vulcan staff and venture capitalists – who voted on a winner.

I was invited as a ‘domain expert’, someone who knows about oceans. I mustered up the inner-strength to pitch an idea that first night. It was chosen as one of the top ten, and the next 48 hours were a whirlwind of tech development, business planning, and market research (phew, something I know about).

Our amazing team included a designer, a lawyer, a technology manager, and a communications professional, but no developer. Throughout the weekend I was increasingly nervous about making a pitch without expertise in the technical details. Thankfully, the event’s mentors offered a clinic on making effective startup pitches, led by Startup Weekend co-founder and CEO Mark Nager.  I jumped at the opportunity. If I was going to pitch for 5 judges and eighty participants, I wanted to ‘talk tech’. I sat anxiously waiting. I had my notebook and pen out, ready to record the secret formula.

Start with purpose; lead with your “So What?”
(CC BY-NC-SA by The Kufi Smacker on Flickr)

The first thing Mark said was, “Have any of you seen Simon Sinek’s TED talk about starting with ‘the why’?” I perked up. My COMPASS colleague Karen had shared this talk a couple weeks earlier. I was struck by how Sinek’s message is just what we teach scientists – start with your “So What.” It’s our mantra. It’s even the subtitle of this blog!

We learned an effective tech pitch is not just about the details, but about helping people understand the problem you solved: the why. What successful tech and business entrepreneurs do is no different than what we teach effective scientist communicators to do! You need to start conversations, talks, and even papers with your “So What” – Why does your science matter? What problem did you solve? Why do you do what you do?

If someone only has five minutes with you, they are more likely to listen to (and frankly, be interested in) why you do what you do, than what you do. This emphasis is often counter to our scientific training. Many scientists state the problem they are solving up front, but it’s glossed over, so you can dig into what really matters – the data and your analyses – right? Those things do matter, but to many non-scientist audiences they don’t matter without the “So What.”

I bet the team that pitched “Find My Phone” didn’t begin with, “‘We plan to leverage GPS connectivity and standardized communications protocols to allow registered users to locate devices with geographical accuracy.” They probably started with the problem, “You’ve lost your phone. You want to find it. Find your phone – problem solved.” The why before the what.

My palms were clammy as I started our pitch, but I calmed my nerves and dove into practicing what we preach at COMPASS – start with the “So What.” I began the weekend nervous and uncomfortable, but embraced the power of “So What.” It can help you with your science, help you in your daily life, and it turns out “So What” can help you become a tech entrepreneur, or at least be recognized as a best app at a Startup Weekend!

Brooke Smith was Executive Director at COMPASS from 2004-2016. This post was transferred from its original location at www.compassonline.org to www.COMPASSscicomm.org, August 2017.

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