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