The Importance of “So What?”

My goal is for you to take away at least one new idea….

This phrase must be taught to presenters, because I’ve heard it many times in seminars and classes. I walked away from each presentation with a new idea, so I think it’s a good phrase.

The new idea doesn’t always stick around for long, though.

There’s one idea for writing that stuck around for years after my college Technical Writing instructor drilled it into me: “So what?”

You’ve chosen a topic. So what? What might your writing on that topic do for a reader?

You’ve added a sentence. So what? What does that sentence add to the sentence before it? After it? Would it matter to a reader if it didn’t exist?

You’ve used a semicolon. So what? What would happen if you used a comma instead? A period? Are you even using the semicolon correctly?

Okay, my Tech Comm instructor didn’t go into the so what’s of punctuation. I expanded on the lesson he provided. Isn’t that what every instructor desires?

My point is everything written should answer the question, “So what?” Most of the time, answering the question doesn’t involve thought. When you write a note to remind a friend to feed your cat while you’re on vacation, let’s hope you don’t need to ask yourself, “Why am I writing this?” You probably knew the answer without your conscious mind getting involved.

However, if you write a note to a coworker, a research paper for a class, an article for a magazine, or anything else and get stuck with the nagging feeling that something’s WRONG, then reach for the caged So-What to throw at your writing. Allow So-What to nibble on your words, sniff at your concepts, and claw at your intentions.

Use So-What to expose where you haven’t shown remarkable talent at predicting readers’ thoughts and feelings. Indeed, So-What is the helpful offspring of Who’s-Your-Audience. When So-What turns from your words and could-become-words to bark its question, it’s really telling you to remember what your audience wants, needs, and expects. Those are what define your audience. Acknowledge So-What’s mommy by answering its question.

If you remember this, I’ll be happy. After all, my goal is for you to take at least one new idea from this blog today.

A similar post with the same title was published in 2009.