The Problem with WIIFM, and an Alternative

Christopher Witt —  February 17, 2014

What's In It For Me?In spite of what you may have heard, WIIFM isn’t people’s only concern.

It’s become commonplace both in sales and in presentations training to tout the importance of WIIFM — “the radio station that’s always playing in the back of everyone’s mind.”

WIIFM is an acronym, not a radio station. It stands for What’s In It For Me?

And answering the audience’s WIIFM makes sense. In a way. To a point. With exceptions and reservations.

Audiences want to know — rightly — how your idea affects them. Which is why I think you always have to address two questions when you prepare your speech or presentation:

  1. What’s the point? 
    What is the single organizing principle of your speech? What are you getting at? What do all your information and ideas mean?
  2. Why do they (the audience) care?
    How does your message — the point you’re making — affect your audience? Why and how does it matter to them? What interest of theirs does it touch?

The second question — why does your care? — is often the more difficult one to answer. Determining whether and in what ways your audience cares about your idea presumes that you know what motivates them, what they value, what they want and why they want it.

The problem with WIIFM is that appeals solely to people’s self-interest. What’s in it for me? Me. Me. Me.

There are two reasons why focusing on people’s self-interests is a problem:

First, people aren’t motivated solely by self-interest.

  • They’re also concerned about other people — their families and friends, colleagues, communities, countries.
  • They’re concerned about broader issues like the environment, justice and equality, progress, education.
  • They’re concerned not just about what they can gain, but also about what they can give, about sharing their gifts and wisdom, about leaving a legacy.
  • They’re concerned about values — about duty, sacrifice, compassion, public service — and about safeguarding those values. 

Yes, audiences are concerned about their own personal interests and concerns, about how your idea will directly affect them. And at the same time they’re concerned — most people, at least, are concerned — about other issues. To motivate people, you need to take into account both their self-interests and their more altruistic concerns.

Second, there’s a danger in appealing solely to people’s self-interests.

Do you really want to reinforce people’s self-centeredness? To imply or to state outright that what matters most is their individual rights and privileges, their needs and desires?

Sometimes it’s your responsibility as a speaker — especially if you are a leader of any sort — to ask people to transcend their self-interests. To care about the group as a whole (however that group is defined) and their welfare. To work for the betterment of the world we live in (or a tiny corner of it) and how people live in it. To make sacrifices, even, in order to improve the lives of others.

The most striking and enduring appeal from JFK’s inaugural address — “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” — is not a WIIFM.

I recommend replacing WIIFM with Why do they care?

Audiences don’t simply ask what’s in it for themselves.

Audiences want to know how your idea concerns them and the people, issues, and values they cherish.

How will your idea benefit them and the world they care about? Why do they care?

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Christopher Witt

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Chris Witt was born in Los Angeles, California. He currently lives in San Diego. He works as a speech and presentations consultant, an executive speech coach, and an orals coach.

4 responses to The Problem with WIIFM, and an Alternative

  1. It all starts with “Why” — there is a popular TED talks from Simon Sinek about that. Sometimes the why seems obvious to the speaker, but it may not be obvious to the audeince–or the why of the audience may in fact be different from the why of the speaker.

    • Lisa, Thanks for the spot-on comment.

      The why question is the most important and often the most difficult one to answer. Why would my topic matter to my audience? Why would they care? Why would they want to listen to what I have to say and, more importantly, why would they want to do what I want them to?

  2. The other problem with WIIFM is there’s an upspoken part of this phrase: What’s in it for me (to do what YOU want me to do)?

    It’s not an authentic interest in the audience. It’s “what icing can I put on my idea so my audience will gobble it down”?

    In my workshops, I teach that starting with an authentic interest in the audience is the most effective way to produce a speech that will resonate with them and move them to action. Why are they here? What do they want to know? How will that help them? Put your own goals second and focus first and foremost on the audience. You’ll end up with a better presentation, and a better chance of meeting your own goals too.

  3. Bruce, You’re right on the mark. But it’s surprising (distressing really) how little time and thought people devote to thinking about their audience, their needs and motivations. Thanks for your insights.