On my first day of journalism school, I learned to ask the single most important question of good writing. It’s the question that every reader and every television news viewer has on their mind: Why?
The question can take several forms, depending on the context:
Why does it matter?
Why should I care?
Why is this person or institution doing what it’s doing?
Starting with the why is a great way to craft content for any business pitch or presentation. It works especially well when explaining complex information like financial, technical or economic content.
For example, recently many people have started asking “why” questions after hearing the news that the Federal Reserve would begin to reduce its $4.5 trillion portfolio of bonds after years of “quantitative easing.” Many people are understandably confused. Search for “quantitative easing” on YouTube and you’ll come across dozens of videos intended to explain it. Some have received millions of views. One of my favorites is an under 2-minute video produced by London’s Telegraph news service. The first seventeen seconds explains why the program began in the first place, in the U.S and in the U.K.
“At the beginning of the financial crisis, policy makers looked for a quick fix to stabilize the economy. One of the main responses that emerged in the United Kingdom and the United States was quantitative easing. This is the process by which central banks [the Fed in the U.S and the Bank of England in the U.K] create money to buy financial assets…”
Once the viewer understands “why” central banks began quantitative easing or QE, the rest of the video answers the follow-up why questions. Why is money created? To buy financial assets like government bonds. Why? To lower long-term interest rates. Why? To make it easier for businesses and households to borrow money, which jump starts economic growth.
Why does quantitative easing receive so much attention? Because it was an unconventional and unprecedented action to grow the economy after the 2008 financial crisis–the worst since the Great Depression. The Fed began with $900 billion worth of purchases and eventually held a $4.5 trillion portfolio. Why does it need to be phased out now? Good question. Fed Chairwoman Janet Yellen has the answer.
“The basic message here is U.S. economic performance has been good,” Yellen said. Now that the economy is “on a strong track,” it no longer needs to continue the program. That’s why the Fed is phasing it out—slowly, so the stock market which benefited from low interest rates–doesn’t suddenly tank.
One of the principles behind starting with why is based on neuroscience. Our human brains evolved to see the big picture before details. People get confused when you begin an explanation in the middle–providing the details of a product or a program. You can see how this technique works in a variety of settings:
1.) If you’re pitching a product, tell me why the market needs it.
2). If you’re selling me a product or service, tell me why I should care and why it will improve my life.
3). If you’re explaining a complex program, tell me why the program exists.
Starting with the why will make every conversation or presentation easier to follow and much more impactful.