What? Why?

Ask someone a “what” question and you’ll get a factual response. But you barely need to ask “what” questions anymore—not to people, anyway. Siri nails them every time:

  • What’s the population of Cleveland? About 396,800.
  • What book has been on The New York Times best-seller list the longest? Midnight in the Garden of Good & Evil, 216 weeks.
  • “What creeps your spouse out the most about hearing a disembodied voice answer a question?”

That was my spouse, wandering through my workspace just now. Okay, so Siri has her drawbacks.

“What” triggers the fact-finding parts of our minds. But “why” gets at our emotions:

  • Why does artificial intelligence “creep you out”?

Siri can pull up a list of articles people have written about the scary side of artificial intelligence, but she can’t tell me why my spouse objects to hearing Siri give me the population of Cleveland.

  • Why should I go to that movie?
  • Why do you prefer product A over product B?

We can research these questions—pull up a list of movie or product reviews, say—but they won’t tell me why I should go to the movie. Unless it’s a documentary, my “what” brain doesn’t make entertainment decisions. For that, you have to tap my emotions. Marketers know that. That’s why television ads aim to make us laugh—or at least smile—or perhaps shed a tear. They don’t recite a bunch of facts.

The most fact-filled ads currently running that I can remember are the ones in which Chevrolet  asks various focus groups to guess which cars have various features the moderator describes, and then the big reveal shows that most of the people guessed wrong. Now, I can’t remember which features those are—okay, maybe I can. Something about WiFi (to keep your kids happy) and something about trucks. But what I do remember clearly is that whatever preconceptions I have about Chevrolet, they just might be wrong.

Chevy uses their “what” (WiFi, whatever the truck features are) to get at our “why”—Why do I think Chevy isn’t cutting edge? Why don’t I take a closer look?

The way I see it, when you’re communicating to a general audience, “why” is always more effective than “what.”Even with a business audience, unless you’re talking to a roomful of engineers, you should always give them more “why” than “what.” You know, scratch that. Even engineers need some “why”—because we need to care about something before we know the details of it.

Look at what I do and don’t remember from the Chevy ads: they have some car that’s WiFi-enabled. The focus group for that ad was all kids, and although I don’t have kids myself I could absolutely feel the pain of a parent driving around a bunch of gadget-obsessed kids running up their data usage on a long road trip. But the truck details weren’t emotional. It was something about payload or hauling or, I don’t know—it was a bunch of facts. Maybe people who know the pain of driving around in a truck with a puny payload would connect with it, but for me, that “what” was not nearly compelling enough to stick.

Why. It’s what matters.

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