Always answer the ‘why’ question

Question markWhen I was a child my parents told me to always ask a lot of questions.

That was a good idea in principle but the problem was that I never stopped asking questions, and all parents know how annoying that can be.

Years later, as a communications specialist, I realised the ‘why’ question was a force to be reckoned with and that you ignore it at your peril.

That’s because humans are hardwired to ask the question ‘why’ before they will agree to perform any actions you’ve requested.

In copywriting terms, you’ve got to answer this question early on if you want your readers to continue reading. With time being a scarce commodity the reader needs to satisfy themselves that the rest of the article is worth their time before committing more of their precious resource.

The ‘why’ is normally a reason or a benefit. It’s about viewing matters from the reader’s perspective and answering the ‘what’s in it for me?’ What is the reader going to personally gain from reading your article?

For example, I wrote a financial publication for a client, to make its readers – which included accountants and finance directors – aware of certain financial products. I needed to encourage them to take an interest early on.

I explained that the products will help their clients’ businesses grow and become more profitable. By implication, this was also useful for the financial advisers to know as it improved the advice they could offer, and therefore their own professional reputations.

Unlike with spoken communication where the audience is usually ‘captive’, readers of written materials have more discretion over whether they continue to read or ignore the material. So get it wrong and your readers will have wandered off in seconds, but get it right and you have a ready and willing audience.

Even if the material is mandatory reading, for example legal or regulatory, it still makes sense to answer the ‘why’ question as people still feel they need a reason to do something before actually doing it. Once that desire has been satisfied, people feel they can move on and start to focus on your key content and messages.

2 thoughts on “Always answer the ‘why’ question

  1. Good understanding of the ‘whys’ of communication-be it written or verbal. However, why do ‘communicators’ still fear to give the floor to audience who provide feedback is another issue. I think in all forms of communication, there has to be a mechanism to allow interaction. Only those who are not experts in their fields fear questions. Unfortunately such prople abound the world. So can we suggest a sort of code of ethics for communication? Otherwise the why of communication will always remain.

  2. Thanks for the comment Vikash.

    From my experience, addressing the ‘why’ when speaking to a crowd is best done at the start so people understand the purpose of the talk and how it relates to them. If it’s a communications training session I’m giving, that’s slightly different and some debate around the ‘why’ at the start is usually a good idea.

    If it’s a talk I’m giving then giving the floor at the early stage would be fatal. However, once we’re well into the talk then questions towards the end can work really well. If it’s a small group then questions earlier on can also work well.

    As you suggest, a speaker that has confidence in their own abilities doesn’t fear taking questions from the floor. Questions can present useful opportunities for both the audience as well as the speaker.

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