How can ‘Why?’ be your best friend in communications?

We’ve all been there, you’ve been asked to do something at work and no matter how hard you try, you cannot work out the purpose of it.

This is a massive issue in marketing and communications because often people within the business may think that their solution is best, before even considering other options.

We’ve all heard them:
“I have an event coming up and need some flyers making.”
“We really need to send this customer something, we’ve done it every year.”
“Can you just put that out on social.”
“I need a this report professionally designed and printed.”

You don’t want to just say no to these people because a few things can happen if you do:

  • You damage the relationship that you have spent ages trying to set up
  • You get the blame when the project fails because you didn’t do as they asked
  • They go to someone more senior and they make you do it anyway
  • They go rogue and suddenly become a graphic designer!

Therefore, I think from time to time we just need to simply ask ‘Why?’. ‘Why?’ is a great question because it makes the person requesting the project think about its true purpose and what the real desired outcome is.

I’m not saying that you’ll get to this scenario instantly, however, I have found some great techniques to pin down why people really make some marketing and communication requests.


What happens when we don’t ask ‘Why?’

Not asking why is dangerous for many reasons. The most important reason why it’s dangerous is because we start to make decisions based on incomplete or even potentially incorrect information.

With the increased use of technology and the rise in the amount of data available to us, we shouldn’t be going on gut feelings or filling in the blanks anymore. Insight informed decision-making should be part and parcel of your daily work and should be engrained into everything you do.

By using incomplete information, we cannot expect to create an optimised effective campaign that will provide a strong ROI for the business.

In my article about marketing spend, I talked about the importance of ROI moving forward. Knowing this critical accurate information will allow you create effective campaigns that generates a higher return for the organisation.

More concerningly, you can accidentally create misinformation around the organisation. If you’re a senior leader and you try to fill in the blanks, it is likely that those below you will take this as accurate information.

Therefore, what started out as filling in the gaps because you didn’t ask ‘Why?’ has become false and incorrect information flowing around your business.

Let’s also face the facts – we should always be asking ourselves and colleagues:
Who? What? Where? When? How? and obviously Why?


How can you ask why in a better way?

We often don’t ask why in marketing and comms because we don’t want to make some feel uncomfortable or irritated by putting them on the spot. However, because we don’t ask why enough, we often miss out on knowing the crucial critical information that allows for effective decision making.

Before you ask ‘Why?’ it is important to do some research yourself. Preparation is key, especially if you find out that the ‘Why?’ is obvious. There’s nothing more awkward than asking ‘Why?’ if the ‘Why?’ was obvious!

The more informed that you can be before any conversation like this, the more likely that the conversation will be a positive one. Plus, it’s always useful to expand your knowledge as a communications professional.

There are some more friendly ways of asking ‘Why?’ without getting people’s backs up (granted, they don’t start with why):

  • How will this decision help the business achieve its commercial goals?
  • What are we looking to achieve based on this decision?
  • Does this decision have any impact on sales or potentially our reputation?
  • Does this chosen direction reflect our business values?
  • Do you feel this will be beneficial to our customers?
  • Have you considered any insights to inform this decision?
  • Can you help me understand how you came to this decision?

By crafting these questions in a more enquiry led tone will hopefully make the person being questioned not feel like they are being criticised.

More importantly, a ‘Why?’ culture should be developed within the organisation.

This way, employees at all levels are used to being challenged and don’t see the question ‘Why?’ as a negative, but more of a way to improve their work and effectiveness.


Ask ‘Why?’ 5 Times

I saw this incredibly useful method on the Happy Manager website. The technique was originally used within Toyota during the evolution of its manufacturing methodologies.

This technique allows you to get past the symptoms of an issue and identify what the root is; which thinking about the bigger picture; is what you need to tackle.

The article says that it can take different amount of times but five usually works.

A typical example might be:
“I have need some flyers making for next Monday.”

1. Why do you need this project so quickly?
“Because I have an event coming up in two weeks”
2. Why do you need to have flyers?
“Because I want to tell people about it”
3. Why do you need to tell people using flyers?
“Because it’s next week and registrations are low”
4. Why are you starting promotion a week before?
“Because I didn’t get round to promoting it”
5. Why did you not think about this during the planning stage?
“Because I’ve not planned an event before and I didn’t consider it”

Obviously, there can be flaws in this process, but you see by probing, you can actually identify that the issue is that this staff member hadn’t organised an event before and there wasn’t a sufficient planning guide in place to support this within the business.

Therefore as a communications professional, you can help this colleague with their request but also proactively develop an event planning checklist and toolkit to avoid this issue occurring in the future. If you’d have just done the request without asking ‘Why?’, you’d have never worked out the root cause.

It is important to remember that some issues have more than one root cause, for example you could argue that another root cause to this is poor staff training. Therefore, you shouldn’t just isolate one cause and move on straight away.

The Happy Manager says that the tool can be used in individual situations but it’s probably more likely to work in a group scenario – especially if you do not have a culture of challenge within the organisation.

A kaizen approach to work is the best route:

“Kaizen is the Sino-Japanese word for “improvement”. In business, kaizen refers to activities that continuously improve all functions and involve all employees from the CEO to the assembly line workers.”

Definition of Kaizen (Wikipedia) – Find out about this methodology on the Kaizen website

You will have to use your own experience when applying this technique as some people might not delve deeper easily, but might just get annoyed at you, so use your own judgement before deploying it.


So that’s it! If you want to help your workload, continually improve and make better informed business decisions, you just need to use the word ‘Why?’.

If you have any comments or areas that you think I may have missed, please do let me know.

Follow me on Twitter for more updates . . . @BradTheCommsGuy

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