Think Leadership Ideas

Four Questions, Sharper Thinking

Four Questions
for Sharper Thinking and Focused Presentations

How do you even start to organize ideas?

Perhaps you have a complex business you need to describe to potential customers or investors. Maybe your department needs to continually justify its existence to corporate powers that be, or you have to present material about a complicated subject to people from different backgrounds.

What is a Solution?
Here’s a technique for organizing your ideas so you can present a topic meaningfully, whether you have one hour or are limited to one minute. Succinctly answer these four questions: what, why, how, and so what?
  • What means, what is it? what is the objective? what is this about?
    Why includes questions like, why are we here? why is this important? why now?
    How questions include, how is this going to get done? how does it work? how do we make it happen?
    So What deals with long-term implications, a follow-up to why. Why will this matter in the long run? What happens if we don't?

Order is not important, but being sure to answer all four questions is. Here's the key that makes this method powerful: answer each of the questions -- what, why, how, so what -- with one sentence or phrase each. Voila, you have a succinct summary, that also serves as a framework that can be expanded to whatever level of detail is required.

Why is this a powerful technique?
First, it helps reach people who think differently than you do. Some people are not ready to take in information until they know how something will happen. Others feel it’s much more important to know why, and still others need to know the what in great detail. Everyone has a bias toward one of these questions. Cover them all if you want to ensure connection with everyone.

Second, that bias often extends to the information we present others. How many times have you seen someone give a great overview of how a process works, but fail to mention why it is important - or start giving directions about how to do something, but not say what they are talking about. Answer all four questions to make sure all important information is communicated.

Third, this is a way to be brief but still convey key information. There are many settings where you just aren’t going to get the hour, or the day, that you may feel you need to do justice to the topic. If you can do one sentence each to answer what, why, how, and so what, then you have a powerful summary that provides clarity.

How can you use the four question technique?
Introducing a Topic. If you are giving a longer presentation, briefly covering the four questions – or at least mentioning that you are going to cover them – helps ensure everyone in the audience is on board.

Summarizing Information. Skill at summarizing information is valuable for communicating clearly. The four question model offers a framework that help you articulate critical pieces of information succinctly.

Organizing Complex Information. For example, a unit within a large corporation carried more than a dozen major initiatives. Team leaders spent a retreat day articulating, in one sentence, the what, why, how, and so what for each of their projects. By the end of the day they were able to craft a one page summary of their unit’s efforts, which became a very useful tool for strategizing, priority setting, and communication.

WWHSW in Action. A manager knows her project can make a big difference to her company, a large life-sciences corporation undergoing rapid change. She knows the success, and funding, of her project depends on getting it on the radar screen of key executives. With that in mind she works diligently on a presentation scheduled for an upcoming company leadership meeting.

The day of the meeting she sits through a long series of presentations where every speaker seems to have too many powerpoint slides and goes over time. The meeting winds down and apologies are made that there isn’t enough time for the manager to talk about her project. Undaunted, she stands up and says “I can tell you about the project in sixty seconds.” That alone grabs everyone’s attention. True to her word, she summarizes her project in one minute in an impressive way everyone can remember - and does!

So what?
Although this tool is simple, it is incredibly powerful. When you present complex information so it feels complete, connects with people who think differently, and is concise, then you communicate with impact. There are few competencies more helpful toward giving you an edge in building influence and enlisting others in the achievement of goals.

by Tom Stevens (c)2008
Tom Stevens helps individuals and organizations create brilliant futures and make a difference. To contact him, visit

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