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The Power Of Why

detail of an in-flight safety card showing an adult securing an oxygen mask with a child in the next seat
photo by Zach Graves

Imagine you and a young child are on a flight and something goes wrong. Oxygen masks fall from above as the cabin depressurizes. What do you do?

Assuming you have paid attention to standard preflight safety briefings all your life, you know that you are supposed to secure your mask first before assisting others. However, if you are like many people, in the moment you may panic and help the child before helping yourself. Until recently, I would have been in the latter camp, despite hearing the advice to secure my own mask first countless times.

Thanks to a recent video posted on the YouTube channel Smarter Every Day, I now understand the importance of putting on my mask before helping others. The video illustrates how severely and rapidly your cognitive abilities decline as a result of hypoxia, or a lack of oxygen. At 35,000 feet, depending on how quickly the cabin depressurizes, your brain can become incapable of simple tasks in as little as 15 seconds. If you try to help a child or an incapacitated seatmate first, you risk losing the ability to function – potentially killing you both.

Destin Sandlin, the professional engineer who created and hosts Smarter Every Day, visited NASA’s Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory in order to film himself and astronaut Don Pettit undergoing the effects of hypoxia under controlled circumstances. Sandlin said ahead of time that he would like to remain off oxygen a little longer than Pettit, since at a simulated 25,000 feet they would have more time before true danger set in. In the video, Sandlin clearly experiences euphoria and confusion as the minutes tick by. Ultimately, he was not capable of putting his mask back on even when told he was in life-threatening danger and had to rely on assistance from someone else.

In the video, Sandlin clarifies that he did not intend to scare viewers, but to make them understand the physiology behind the easy-to-ignore, routine preflight announcement. He succeeded in communicating something to me that no airline ever has. Why? Because he told me why.

Based on the comments on YouTube and Reddit (where I ran across the video in the first place), I was not alone in finding the demonstration effective. Many commenters mentioned how sobering the clip is. On YouTube, Adam Arroyo suggested: “Put this [in] airport waiting areas or planes!” For many of us, the message got through because Sandlin remembered to, as author Simon Sinek put it, “start with why.” If we want to inspire others to act, we can be more effective by including the why.

At a recent internal management training course, I was reminded of how essential it is to tailor communication to a particular audience. People learn and process information in different ways, and we tend to retain information best when we can use our preferred method. Some people are readers and learn best by being given text in advance. Others are listeners, who learn best by listening to others speak rather than by reading on their own. Still others are talkers – people who need to talk through the options in order to arrive at a decision. Some people need all of the details, while others find too much information overwhelming. Some people want to know why, while others just accept what they hear at face value as long as it comes from a trusted source.

I was never in the military; I gave up team sports at a relatively young age; and I (depending on who is counting) can be considered part of the millennial generation. All of these factors, plus natural curiosity, lead me to greatly value understanding the “why” behind everything. My recent training experience, combined with my reaction to Sandlin’s video, makes me think that airlines and other companies should consider tailoring their messages to answer the why in order to make the message more effective for a large segment of their audience.

Good financial planning goes hand-in-hand with good communication, and this example is a useful reminder that it is not enough to just deliver sound advice to a client. The adviser should also think about what the client will need in order to internalize that message.

Just as any of us can understand the concept of securing your own mask first when it is only theory but may find it hard to remember in the panic of a true emergency, investors can understand that markets go up and down and still do precisely the wrong thing in the moment anyway. Explaining the why behind an investment strategy or financial planning technique may help some people follow advice, even if the topic is otherwise abstract.

Clients can help their advisers by explicitly letting them know their preferred method of communication and the level of detail and explanation they desire. Even when clients do not say, or possibly do not know, their preferences, smart advisers usually discover them naturally over the course of a relationship.

Trying to understand your natural communication style and the methods that others prefer leads to richer conversations and more productive relationships. This is true whether that relationship is between family members, a financial adviser and a client, or just two seatmates on an airplane.

Client Service Manager Benjamin C. Sullivan, who is based in our Austin, Texas office, contributed several chapters to our firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55, including Chapter 13, “Federal Income Tax,” and Chapter 16, “Investment Psychology.”

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