Start With WHERE, Not WHY In Your Stories

story world

My business storytelling colleague Paul Andrew Costello shares great wisdom with us as he challenges the popular notion of "start with WHY", so rampant today in business/business storytelling circles. 

Paul, I couldn't agree more. WHY has it's place, but WHERE is much more powerful. I like your approach much better. 

Folks -- check out Paul's post and let's get unstuck from WHY

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Paul Andrew Costello The new book, all the rage is, "Start With WHY" (Simon Sinek), but Why? dare I ask?

I want to write a book in reply, titled, Don’t start with WHY, start with WHERE. Because Why assumes there is a reason, whereas more times than not, WHY is a SITUATION, not a reason. Why are police in controversy? Why are young men from minorities being targeted? Why is America still so scared of terrorism? Don't formulate some grand theory about racism or class, just go into those streets and meet those people and you understand that a thousand reasons wont do justice to the situation. 

A why question implies that people have the luxury of an answer, as if the world must always conform to cause and effect logic, or that people always have the freedom to have reasons, rather than acting out of necessity. Most human complexities are compounded by answer-denying situations and once you give an answer, its immediately wrong because there is no one answer. 

The answer is wrong because the question is wrong. Don't ask WHY, ask WHERE and understand that WHY is a symptom of our infatuation with "Tidying up intolerably messy Truths." WHY is not a doorway into the situation that will soon reveal the real geography of meaning, that "why you are" has everything to do with "where you are" and most of us are born there, which is a situation, not a reason.

Follow up thoughts, when you ask WHY about something in the past, you get an explanation or an excuse or an alibi, Why did you do this, Why did you walk away? etc, looking for an excuse, but when you ask WHY about the future, the idea of goals and ends come into play, which in a way is a different WHY altogether, you are not soliciting an alibi so much as a dream, a vision, an empowering purpose, and so perhaps that WHY needs to be called something different, the WHERE TO, Start with the WHERE TO, where do you want to take us, And WHERE FROM, where did this dream come from, which are locative questions, allowing people to put themselves in place.

Bruce Waltuck I often ask "what are you noticing and what does it mean to you?" First. Then I will ask "who else could you talk to, whose knowledge, understanding, and abikity, could help you?"

Peter Fruhmann I always liked the (your) landscape metaphor. Where do I come from? Where am I? (What am I doing here?) Where could I go from here? How and what (and with whom) seem more practical additons.

Peter Fruhmann Looking at it... the WHEN might be important as well. Time (in the sense of tense: past & present / future dichotomy) is an inseparable part of each story. 'Telling times' may organize processes of recollection and oblivion. In which time/tense do you feel comfortable when you tell your story?

Paul Andrew Costello yes when and where instead of why

Paul Andrew Costello i think of the question When as simply asking, where in time, what place in time

Madelyn Blair i just finished watching Ken Burn's series on the National Parks of the US. Those who talked about the parks and their creation were keenly aware that place is formative. One quotation from it was, "The parks have answers to questions we have not even begun to think." Sorry, I can't remember who said it, but the statement hasn't been able to leave my consciousness.

Peter Fruhmann Madelyn Blair Maybe 'out of bounds' in this conversation... But 'Sense of place' comes to mind: sense of place as in 'a sense of the beauty and the wealth of phenomena that comprise a particular place. Sense of place as a factor that makes an environment psychologically comfortable.' It is the perspective one can choose towards these definitions but then, just scratching the surface here.

Paul Andrew Costello The original work we did was on Aboriginal stories and their sense of place mapped through narrative, and how that seems to resonate with our larger issue of our place in the world, and ideas of home and belonging and identity. The WHY question can take one totally out of context- forcing us to extract a reason from the contingency making it sound so determined rather than free. Why did he do it? because he was a killer ( identity) or because he was angry ( emotions as reasons) or because he thought the gun was a toy, ( an accident is a reason which sounds like no reason) or It is a conspiracy, ( the reason is hosted in mystery) 

Just like solution is meant to end the problem, reason is heard as meaning the end of the question it is a curiosity killer unless we keep questioning the why- like a little 4 year old, go to bed Johny, but Why, cos its too late, but WHY, cos you have kindergarden, but why? Little kids aren't fooled, they know there is a reason behind the WHY as much as there is a reason in front of it.

Madelyn Blair I checked on the quotation I mentioned, and it correctly reads, "The National parks hold the answers to the questions we do not even know to ask." Still can't find the speaker. But regardless of how it is said, it suggests that place contains so much more than we realize. yes, it is comfort and inspiration and more, but there is something in the human that resonates with surroundings. As you say, Peter Fruhmann Just scratching the surface.

Michael Margolis Where am I? That's the first question in the mind of your audience when you're telling a story. WHERE definitely triumphs WHY wink emoticon

Karen Dietz Thank you Paul Andrew Costello -- you've given us words of wisdom. Love the comments. Yes, WHY is significantly overrated. Time to move on.

Peter Fruhmann Michael Margolis Like that, the 'altered state of consciousness' (time and setting...) The invitation to look around and explore and discover

Madelyn Blair Nice variant on why. I like it.

David Hutchens I've been thinking about this since yesterday Paul! (That's a compliment. I love dedicating mindspace to you.) 

I like "why" as a purpose-defining question, but not as a diagnostic question. 

"Why" should face the future, not the past. 

"Why" cannot not be prescribed. It must be discovered, created, and stepped into together. 

Does that match where your thinking is going?

Madelyn Blair Dedicating mindspace - what a beautiful phrase. My sense is that you and Paul are on the same page.

Paul Andrew Costello "Why" cannot not be prescribed. It must be discovered, created, and stepped into together. 

I love that, David, 
the irony is that we sometimes discover the answer before we even know what the question is, or was, or that the answer totally makes the question irrelevant, such as the rich young man asking Jesus who is my neighbor, and his answer makes the question sound foolish, Rilke talked about living the questions into answers but life often does the reverse, the answer doesn't come and we have to wake up to the fact it was the wrong question,, so that-ask WHY for the future- can work though looking at my life, the sense of purpose slowly emerges more often than being vibrantly clear at the start, I guess the future is an experiment into the territory of why. hence, if why is a place, one we traverse, then yes, why is a great question. If it means we travel, it works.

Thaler Pekar Please do write the book, Paul; your musings the shortcomings of "Why" have long appealed to me and gotten me thinking. And just now, I found this old blog post of mine, on story as a grounding tool: "I ask myself, How did this story start? Where would you like it to end? Where are you now? I am, invariably, in the middle. In the ordinary. In the place of change. In the moment of possibility."

Madelyn Blair I'm with Thaler Pekar. Do turn this into a book. It's time for another book, Paul Andrew Costello. How can we help?

Yes Paul Andrew Costello, we need that book! And thanks for the article Thaler. I'll check it out. In the meantime everyone, tomorrow I'd like to do a mash-up of Paul's posts about this, everyone's comments, and the link to Thaler's article so I can curate it. That way all will be in one place. Thoughts?

Thaler Pekar Great, Karen. Here's my summary of this thread (I've been mulling it over and playing with it since Paul first shared his thoughts): "Where" is both aspirational and reflective. "Why" is static. "Where" encourages honesty in a way that "Why" cannot.

Paul Andrew Costello Wow, thanks for the comments. I appreciate the encouragement- and to share that this idea of place, and position all comes out of the mapping/geography of meaning work I am doing to keep some handle or to be honest, some sanity in NSL and our Middle East Work-its like my ongoing Case Study....

So when I ask -why wont Israel and Palestine make peace- that can be a dead end question, inviting attribution of motive, They dont want peace, or blame, we have no partner, or excuse, we keep trying, its not our fault. 

Why suggests a reason, Where suggests a situation. 

When you ask WHERE are Israel and Palestine in their quest for peace, you get to track the arc of the story, how themes events characters repeat themselves, that this is almost a repetition compulsion, and how when we understand that energy is a condition of position, one gets to understand the feeling of most of us- we are stuck in the middle, the end way off and the beginning almost forgotten, so that means, lets honor that place, and refuse the invitation to cynicism or burnout, but lets not try a brand new peace initiative, and repeat or feed the futile cycle-

what is needed is a new story, a new place to begin, not perhaps in politics or diplomacy at all, but with creative resistance, poetry, song, dance, theater, business, environment, faith, this way invites us to map the territory, to unpack the power of this story system that seems incorrigibly committed to a status quo- its what one of my Palestinian alums said in March, the best way to solve the Middle East conflict is first of all, to stop trying to solve the Middle East conflict. it sounds like zen, but it respects the story and where it contradicts itself. If a story is not working, don't try and fix it, get out of it. Find a story that makes the old story irrelevant. Find the Story that changes the Story.

4 Critical Steps for Telling The Story Imbedded In Your Data


Karen Dietz's insight:

Here's a 4 step process for taking complex data and shaping it into a story so it is easy to understand. Really, these 4 steps are all about how to think better about the data so you can better find and share its story.

In reality, there is a lot more to visualizing data and combining that with good storytelling skills. But these 4 steps lay a strong foundation for getting started. There's a video for sale on the site that suggests a more thorough treatment. I have no affiliation with it, and you'll need to check it out if you are interested.

I'm pleased however, that we are starting to get much better a data storytelling and getting good advice now about how to do it.

This review was written by Karen Dietz for her curated content on business storytelling at 

Storytelling Wins Again: Top Business Skill For The Future


I like how this post goes through the necessity of building storytelling skills today in order to survive and thrive in the marketplace of tomorrow.

The author, Shane Snow, links storytelling into the ability of a company to create effective content to capture customers. He talks about the huge shift in advertising and marketing that has been happening, and how storytelling is the critical factor. In fact storytelling is now a core competence that every business needs to pay attention to.

This is a quick read, with an important business slant that you are going to want to capture and use.

Story on!

Stuck for stories? Here's are ways to open the tap

Colleague Annette Simmons, author of several ground breaking books on business storytelling, has written this terrific post helping anyone get unstuck about their stories.

This article goes hand-in-hand with another post I curated last week from colleague Shawn Callahan on spotting stories.

What I love about this post is how Simmons starts off -- with the hidden fear we all have about storytelling. She then gives clear directions for finding your stories that will get you over that hump.

Hey, even I freeze up when someone out of the blue asks, "So tell me one of your stories". I like all of Simmon's 4 buckets and use them to break up that frozen place I sometimes find myself in.

Enjoy this article and get story-ing!