Effective communications – The Why, What, and How

Effective communication is one of the most important skills as we advance in our careers and lives. The more senior we become, the more we need to achieve things through others. To do so, we first need to convince them to follow our lead. Even if we’re not on the brink of a CEO promotion, we need to convince our peers, managers, or spouses of our ideas.

Communication happens in many different channels, in writing, in meetings, or in 1:1 conversations. The principles of effective communication are always the same: 1) active listening, 2) maintaining a laser-focus on the topic, and 3) a clear thought structure that our partner(s) can follow along.

Today I want to talk about 3) – structuring our thoughts and communication in a way that makes it easy for the recipient to digest, follow along, and buy into our logic. The magic is to always explain the Why, What, and How – in that order!

The Why, What, and How are critically important to convey any idea or suggestion. In presenting ideas, we need to remind ourselves that while we have all the context, causation, and details, our communication partners most likely don’t. Don’t assume everyone has as much context on the topic as you do! – If they did, they would have brought up the idea to you, not the other way around.

If you don’t re-create the full thought context with your communications partner, you cannot expect them to come to the same conclusions that you came to or to agree with your proposal.

The Why

This is also affectionately called the ‘So What’.

Everything starts with this. Tell me why I should care to listen and follow your thoughts. Why does this matter? Why does it matter to me? Why is it important, and why should I care?

If you can establish why a particular topic is important or why a problem needs to be solved, you have already won have the battle. On the flip side, if you don’t have a Why it will be hard to gain support for your idea – there are so many things that already have a strong Why established and thus will take priority.

The What

Ok, you got me with the Why. I know that I need to pay attention, now tell me what needs to be fixed or created.

Don’t get ahead of yourself; don’t jump to solutions. I’m not yet ready for that. I’ve signed up for your cause. Now let me know where I need to direct my attention. If you can get me focused on the right what, you have practically won, and I will crave to learn what I can do for you.

The How

NOW is the time to get to what you wanted to start with. Not a second earlier. For you, this is a long build-up to something that is crystal-clear to you – for me, it’s essential for being able to follow your thoughts.

How can we solve the issue we identified in the What and established as a priority in the Why. Tell me what you want to do and where I can help. What is your plan, where do you need input, where can I help. Be specific, precise, and concise.


Let’s put some meat to the theory with an example. Let’s say you want to sell the idea of establishing a weekly metrics review meeting for Ops tickets (totally made up).

A bad communication would be:

“Hey, I want to identify key metrics for the ticketing systems. We should change some of the ways we measure them and then have a weekly review meeting with the Ops team.”

Most likely, my (unspoken) reaction as a recipient would be either “???”, or “sure, now leave me alone, I have important work to do”.

A better Why/What/How approach could be:

“I noticed that we are really slow with certain tasks while onboarding new employees. Often they don’t get proper access to their systems for more than two weeks. That delays their onboarding, and we’re practically wasting their resources for the first month.

I looked a little closer at the process, and it seems that Ops tickets are a key contributor to those delays. However, we don’t have good metrics for tickets right now, and so we can’t really diagnose where the problem lies or how to fix it.

What I would suggest is to establish a consistent way to measure the performance of such tickets. With that, we can identify key bottlenecks, brainstorm potential improvement areas, and measure if those improvements have the desired impact over time. What do you think about establishing key metrics and reviewing them with Ops leaders every week?”

You would have caught my attention on the second one, as no one likes employees who are eager to contribute but are constraint by systems or processes.

Bonus tips for emails

  • Spend time and energy on formatting – White spaces and paragraph breaks emphasize the structure and flow of your thoughts! Nobody wants to read a solid blurb of text and re-engineer the logical structure.
  • Re-read your message twice – Put yourself in the recipient’s shoes. If you have no context at all, does what you wrote still makes sense?

Did you like this post? Want to read more?

Check out our book for more thoughts and a week-by-week guide to make strategic changes to improve your health, career, and life purpose:

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Put On Your Own Oxygen Mask First
A practical guide to living healthier, happier and more successful in 52 weekly steps
By Alfons and Ulrike Staerk
ISBN 9781077278929

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