‘Who are you and what do you care about?’ Those are the questions we should be asking people in business. Not 'What do you do?' Our copywriting friend Michelle Nichol tells us how she learned this in a village in Cambodia...

I visited Laos and Cambodia recently to find out more about the charity Lendwithcare, who help some of the world’s poorest people work their way out of poverty.

When I give to a charity, I like to understand its purpose and the difference my contribution can make. With Lendwithcare, everything is very transparent. I and hundreds of other lenders choose individuals to support via loans to fund their business.

In the rural villages of Battambang province in Cambodia, I met families who had asked for small loans to help with the cost of rice growing. I learnt how they’re using the money to bridge the gap between planting and harvesting the crop that will provide their main source of food and income for the year. They answered my many questions about their challenges and how the loan is helping their business with smiles and openness.

They then began to ask me questions. And something struck me. They wanted to know about my parents, my brothers and sisters, whether I had any children. Who I am, I realised, was far more important to them than what I did.

Their friendly curiosity has stayed with me. Today, I feel it would be more interesting if, when we met someone new, we asked ‘Who are you and what do you care about?’ rather than ‘What do you do?’

As a writer for business, I know that ‘What do you do?’ is often a question that businesses ask themselves – and then look to express to their customers. That’s why we see variations on the theme of ‘We make first-class, top quality widgets, for use in the automotive industry’ on so many business websites.

But for me it’s far more interesting to know how and why we do business. Wouldn’t you be more engaged by a company that began its ‘About us’:

‘Our grandfather once rescued his best friend from a bus crash. He started this business to prevent similar accidents. We continue to make the widgets he designed back then to keep you and your best friends safe today.’

Words that tell us about purpose, rather than focusing on the nuts and bolts of process, engage us. And that can only be a good thing for a brand.

At the moment, I’m working with a client who is a counsellor and psychotherapist. I asked her the questions ‘Why are you doing this? What do you really care about?’ to start our relationship. She’s not looking to list her qualifications and services on her website any more. Instead, I’m helping her to share who she is, what she values and exactly how she can help others. The more she understands why she does what she does, the more effectively she can work with those who need her.

For the entrepreneurs in Battambang province, their purpose is simple and very human: to provide for their families and improve the lives of their children. In business, a purpose beyond just that of making money can take a little more digging to uncover. But when you find it, it can help unlock a very powerful way of communicating.

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