The Five Ws: You Won’t Get to the Right Answers If You Don’t Ask the Right Questions

I recently attended a performance of James Graham’s excellent new play, Ink, at the Almeida Theatre in Islington (running until 5 August 2017). Ink relates the story of Rupert Murdoch’s 1969 purchase of The Sun newspaper, and how, under the editorship of Larry Lamb, it became Britain’s most popular and influential title.

It’s an enjoyable yarn, full of fond recollections of Fleet Street’s Golden Age; of scoops and scandals, hacks and hot metal. The play also has a number of contemporary resonances, concerned as it is with journalistic ethics, truth, privacy and populism. At one stage Hugh Cudlipp, the editor of The Mirror (The Sun’s rival), warns Lamb to beware the Pandora’s Box of populism.

‘Pander to and promote the most base instincts of people all you like, fine. Create an appetite. But I warn you. You’ll have to keep feeding it.’

Ink begins with an exposition of journalism’s Five Ws: the five questions that classically every story should answer:

What happened?

Who was involved?

Where did it take place?

When did it take place?

Why did it happen?

I was quite taken with the elegant simplicity of the Five Ws. They force a full description of the key facts and core events. They focus the mind. But in the play Lamb challenges the value of the last W, ‘Why?’

‘Once you know ‘why’ something happened, the story’s over, it’s dead. Don’t answer ‘Why?’, a story can run and run, can run forever. And the other reason, actually, honestly, I think, is that there is no ‘Why?’ Most times. ‘Why?’ suggests there’s a plan, that there is a point to things, when they happen. And there’s not, there’s just not. Sometimes shit – just - happens. Only thing worth asking isn’t ‘Why?’ It’s …’What’s next?’’

This is clearly a provocative thought. We imagine that, while all five of the Ws are important, ‘Why?’ is the critical question. ‘Why?’ suggests curiosity and inquiry. ‘Why?’ offers insight and understanding. ‘Why?’ implies progress. But a diet of sensationalism, celebrity and sport needs no explanation; it doesn’t improve or illuminate our world. It gives immediate satisfaction and just propels us along with its own momentum: ‘What’s next?’

I wonder whether, in the commercial world, we have seen an equivalent erosion in the value we attach to ‘Why?’ In our race to embrace accelerated living; to create engaging content at pace; to express a brand in real time, do we sometimes forget to pause and ask ‘Why?’: ‘Why is the market behaving in this way?’ ‘Why do consumers feel and act like this?’ ‘Why are we doing this?’  Or are we too just endlessly asking ‘What next?’

The Toyota Motor Corporation used to have a process that asked ‘Five Whys?’ every time they encountered a defect or problem. They believed that if you ask ‘Why?’ often enough of an issue, you can pursue cause and effect down to true root causes; and therefore you’re best placed to find a solution. The repetitive ‘Why?’ may be a little irritating in the mouths of children, but it clearly encourages deeper examination of a task.

In this vein, I have always liked Robin Wight’s encouragement to ‘interrogate the product until it confesses to its strength.’ It’s an approach that prompted WCRS to produce a motorcade of great advertising for BMW back in the day.

Some have partnered ‘Why?’ with its natural bedfellow ‘How?’ ‘Why?’ provides insight into the problem; it illuminates the issue. ‘How?’ provides foresight into the solution; it sets us on the right path.

In the communications industry we could perhaps imagine some cocktail of the ‘Five Ws’ with an added ‘How?’ forming the basis of a compellingly simple creative brief.

I hesitate to make this suggestion because in my time in the industry there was endless debate around creative brief templates: Which particular set of words and format provide the most clarity and catalyse the right kind of creative response? Which are best suited to the demands of modern marketing? I’ve seen task-based briefs, propositional briefs; experience briefs and ‘big idea’ briefs; PowerPointed and pictorial briefs. I’ve seen one-word and six-page briefs. I’ve seen them knitted and laminated.

Broadly speaking, I have found that the more nuanced and sophisticated the thinking that has gone into a creative brief template’s construction, the more complex and difficult it is to use. I have always preferred the simple to the subtle.

So what are we to learn from all these ‘Hows?’ ‘Whys?’ and ‘Wherefores?’?

Perhaps it is that the key to the strategists’ art is the questions we ask. Asking good questions is as important as arriving at good answers. Indeed you won’t get to the right answers if you don’t ask the right questions. Questions are the keys that unlock the door.

Of course, you may find that in a creative business the most important question of all is the one that asks you to challenge current practice; that suggests you try something new and different; that prompts you to rewrite the rules: ‘Why not?’

‘Why does your love hurt so much?
Why does your love hurt so much?
Don’t know why.’

Carly Simon, Why (Nile Rodgers, Bernard Edwards)

No. 139

Nile Rodgers and The Guitar That Wouldn’t Play: Is Your Team Out of Tune?

Nile Rodgers is one of those people you’d just like to thank: for Chic and Sister Sledge; for combining uptown style with downtown rhythms; for swooning strings and relentless ‘chucking’ guitar patterns; for ‘High Society,’ ‘My Forbidden Lover’ and ‘Get Lucky’; for the renaissance of Diana Ross; for the pause in ‘I Want Your Love’; for the chassis to ‘Rapper’s Delight’; for getting ‘lost in music, caught in a trap, no turning back’; for sheer rapture on the dance floor; for the ‘Good Times.’

‘If you left it up to me,
Every day would be Saturday.
People party through the week,
They’d be laughing.

I just can’t wait ‘til Saturday.
I just can’t wait ‘til Saturday.’

Saturday,’ Norma Jean (Bernard Edwards, Nile Rodgers, Bobby Carter)

Rodgers’ excellent autobiography ‘Le Freak’ is a rollercoaster ride of joy and pain, of triumph over adversity; a story told with wisdom, warmth and good humour. He grew up amongst bohemians and drug users in New York and LA. He suffered insomnia and chronic asthma. His early life involved encounters with Thelonius Monk, Timothy Leary and assorted Black Panthers; with Andy Warhol, Jimi Hendrix and Sesame Street. Eventually he met Bernard Edwards, formed Chic, and together they created the blueprint for sophisticated modern dance music. He went on to confer his distinctive production dazzle on the likes of David Bowie, Duran Duran and Madonna. This is a life fully lived.

Rodgers’ natural musical gift was first expressed through the clarinet he was taught at school. At 15 he convinced his mother and stepfather to buy him a guitar. He set about learning his new instrument from his clarinet etudes and a Beatles songbook. But, however hard he tried, he couldn’t coax anything approaching a proper melody from the guitar. How frustrating! One day his stepfather came across him practising and took the instrument in his hands: ’Wow, this is way out of tune.’ The young Nile hadn’t been aware of the need to tune the guitar.

‘Sir Edmond Hillary, reaching the summit of Mount Everest, must have felt something similar to what I felt at that moment. This was more blissful than anything I’d ever experienced. I played the next chord and it sounded like the right chord in the progression. I started the song again. With utter confidence I sang, ‘I read the news today, oh boy,’ then strummed an E minor and dropped to the seventh, ‘About a lucky man who made the grade.’ There are no words to accurately describe what this felt like.’

I was touched by this story. It spoke of joy unconfined, pure youthful creative liberation.

In a completely different context, Nile Rodgers’ out-of-tune guitar made me wonder about the commercial world. How often does a business have the right strings, on the right instrument, being plucked in exactly the right way, without producing any meaningful music? How often is a business ill at ease with itself, out of tune, with no sense of where the problem lies?

We may think of leaders nowadays as people who hire and fire, replace and reconfigure. But the truest test of good leaders is their ability to realise the potential of the talent already at their disposal. Can they allocate roles and responsibilities, tasks and objectives in such a way as to create a genuine sense of collective purpose? Can they galvanise disparate skills and personalities into a supportive, happy team? Can they motivate them, direct them, inspire them to play in tune, to sing in harmony?

‘Everyone can see we’re together,
As we walk on by.
And we fly just like birds of a feather
I won’t tell no lie.

We are family
I got all my sisters with me.’

‘We Are Family,’ Sister Sledge (Bernard Edwards, Nile Rodgers)

Great leaders set the rhythm of a business, get it dancing in step, as one. I’ve witnessed this kind of leadership. It’s a rare instinctive thing, a wonder to behold. It requires humility and empathy; charisma and vision, in equal measure. It requires a positive engagement with people, life and circumstances.

These are qualities that I’m sure Rodgers himself has in abundance. At the start of his book, he quotes an old saying:

‘Life isn’t about surviving the storm; it’s about learning how to dance in the rain.’

No. 132