The importance of finding your why

By Greg Dardis / Guest Column

Longtime readers of this column know I’m a sucker for a good TED talk. There’s the obvious reason: I’m in the business of public speaking. I enjoy analyzing each TED presentation, looking for the content and delivery guidelines we provide in our training.

I also appreciate the breadth of TED talks, which proves that, with proper training, anyone can give a riveting public address, whether you’re a musician or a mathematician, an athlete or an astrophysicist.

But the popularity of TED talks makes a broader cultural statement: In an information age, we crave knowledge. With endless data at our fingertips transmitted through isolated taps, texts and tweets, we hunger for a tour guide to real learning. The inspirational knowledge we’ve come to expect in a TED talk draws us in.

The third-most viewed TED talk of all time has powerful application for Iowa businesspeople. Simon Sinek’s 2009 presentation, “How great leaders inspire action,” has amassed more than 38 million views on In it, he explains the pattern he’s noticed among the best leaders.

It involves a circle with three rings: why, how and what. The outer ring is what: what a company sells. The middle ring is how: how a company makes its product, which features set it apart. The inner ring is why: why the company exists, why its CEO shows up every morning, why customers should care.

Typically we start with the outer ring, the what. It seems like the simplest element to articulate. But when we reverse the order of information – beginning with the why, then addressing the how and what – we appeal directly to the part of the brain that controls behavior.

“People don’t buy what you do,” Sinek says, “they buy why you do it.”

I’m quick to share this advice with fellow entrepreneurs. When I reflect on our 16-year journey with Dardis Communications, I see how crucial it was that we knew our why from day one. I truly believed we could help professionals become better leaders by refining their communication. I saw a clear need: I was surrounded by smart, hard-working Iowans who simply lacked the training to demonstrate their smarts through public speaking. Every morning I couldn’t wait to get out of bed and help them speak as well as they think. This “why” provided direction in the beginning, a sense of purpose today and our true north for the future.

A defining moment in my life paved the way to the founding of Dardis Communications. When I was 23, I went to New York City for a job interview. Someone there told me I looked like I was from Iowa – and I sounded like I was from Iowa, too. It was not a compliment.

I mulled over this comment the entire flight home. I was upset because I knew I had a strong work ethic and was just as smart as the other candidates. But the reality was I didn’t have the polish – and that’s what came through in the first impression I made.

When I boarded my connecting flight, I began to pay close attention to the people around me. I scrutinized the factors that shaped their image, for better or worse: their choice in clothing, the way the flight attendant spoke in the microphone, the poorly written emails that filled my inbox. I quickly realized I was not alone. I also recognized the power we each have to enhance our image.

The feedback in New York was hard to hear, but it helped shape the why to Dardis Communications. Not only did it change me, but it has now changed thousands of people around the world.

Summer is the perfect time to step back and re-examine your why. Is it clear to you? To your employees? To the people applying for your job openings? To your customers and prospective customers?

It feels good to articulate your why – and, subsequently, to do business with people who believe what you believe.

Greg Dardis is the CEO of Dardis Communications, based in Coralville.