How to Ask and Answer “Why?“

Published on 04 March 2024

Aunt Minnie is in the hospital. Why? — Because she went out and she slipped on the ice and broke her hip.

Why did she slip on the ice? — Ice is slippery. Everybody knows that!

Why is ice slippery? There aren’t many things as slippery as ice. — Because when you stand on it, the pressure melts the ice, a little bit of instantaneous water surface on which you’re slipping.

Why on ice and not on other things? — Because water expands when it freezes, so the pressure tries to undo the expansion and melts it.

The more I ask “why,“ the more interesting it gets!

This story about Aunt Minnie is an excerpt from a splendid interview with Richard Feynman, an American physicist and Nobel laureate. In his free time from science, he engaged in various activities: he smoked marijuana for research purposes, poked fun at colleagues, painted decent portraits, and played the bongos. Here is his book about his life and a video interview that illustrates this article.

Of course, we’re not discussing physics here. More about life and, since you’re here, about marketing.

Asking “Why?“ Repeatedly

In his book, Feynman mentions that many learn not by understanding but through rote memorization; hence, their knowledge is quite fragile. People can’t explain the reasons behind various phenomena or processes; moreover, they definitely can only manage them with a detailed understanding of how everything works.

This is true for marketing as well. Many marketers (and others) stop at the first round of “why?” Only a few dig deeper.
— Why are revenues low?
— Not enough leads from the website.
— Why?
— Traffic isn’t growing.
— Let’s give some ads and write articles for SEO.

This is an example of a dialogue where “why?” was scarcely explored.
What we consider the cause is often the result of something else. Changing the outcome without addressing the cause is just a waste of resources. So, keep asking “Why?” until you reach the core.

You can develop this skill. Just be genuinely curious and learn to sound non-aggressive because people around you will wonder why you’re digging so deep.

Adding Fuel to the Fire

Questions will work up to a certain point, and then you’ll hit a block. Marketers may have tunnel vision; they might lack knowledge, fail to understand, or, ultimately, dislike thinking and be lazy. You can stir things up in such situations to keep the thinking process alive.
— So why exactly isn’t search traffic growing? Which specific pages are gaining traffic, and which aren’t? For which queries? Could we have lost positions? What’s even in the search results? Have the search query volumes decreased? Or have users started to phrase their queries differently? What about the competitors? What does SEMrush show? Did we forget to set the counter on new pages?
Don’t be afraid to appear foolish by asking “silly” questions. Firstly, questions that are easy to answer can break through the stupor. Secondly, it’s better to appear foolish yet curious at the moment than always to seem smart but myopic. And here, it doesn’t matter whether you’re a leader or an executor.

Changing Perspectives

Aunt Minnie is in the hospital not just because the ice was slippery: gravity made her fall down. And that’s also a cause: if not for gravity, she definitely wouldn’t have ended up there. This cause might not seem relevant, but can it be ignored in analysis?

Changing perspectives, i.e., looking broader, is even more challenging than delving deeper. Here, other skills will help determine the causes: broad knowledge and the ability to detach from the context.
— Why are revenues low?
— Not enough leads from the site.
— Okay, what kind of leads are you expecting?
— Our target clients — major banks.
— Aha, how many of them are on the market?
— Well… Fifty?
— These?
— Yes, but they are all in our CRM, and we have already contacted them.
— Doesn't the bell ring? If you are targeting the top 50 banks and already have all of them in CRM, why do you need leads from the site? You must either engage in ABM with them or extend your target market. But even if you target the top 100, they are likely also in your CRM. So?..

Knowing When to Stop

Still, with “why?” you need to know when to stop. When decomposing reasons and delving deep, you might find that the cause is just two or three specific events. Consider them, but avoid falling prey to survivorship bias. You better step back a few levels and make your hypotheses there.
“Endless Questions”

So why does water expand?

In water, H2O molecules frolic as they please. When water freezes, the molecules align into a crystal structure.

Why? Because the kinetic energy of molecular motion, a.k.a. “temperature,” falls below the energy of the hydrogen bonds between the hydrogen and oxygen atoms.

In water, molecules lose a sense of personal boundaries, encroach on the territory of neighboring molecules, and therefore pack more densely. Because of this, they occupy, on average, 10% less volume than in a crystal structure, where everything is aligned.
And why precisely 10% less?
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