Why … allows you to present a reasoned argument.
Why … allows you to list all the benefits the subject has to offer.
Most importantly, Why … allows you to speak your vision. To state what you believe in. To go straight to the limbic centre of our brain (white matter), where those emotional, behavioral, motivational and long-term memory decisions are made. The How and the What of things only penetrate the surrounding neocortex, one of the outer layers of our cerebral hemisphere (grey matter), which involves sensory perception, motor commands, spatial reasoning, conscious thought and language. Only Why goes direct to our central headquarters.
Apple is a perfect contemporary example of the power of The Why School of Headline. While there are many equally good computers out there (with Samsung fast closing the gap), only Apple gets the queues camping outside Apple Stores waiting for the doors to open to buy the next big thing in technological innovation. Why do they do that? The great Apple headline Think Different answers it one mind-setting headline. Apple doesn’t talk about what the computers can do (neocortexting), or how the computers can do it (more neocortexting), but what it means to you (limbic bulls-eye). And in the Apple story, it means the Steve Jobs vision of technology and beauty and user-friendliness all in one. By starting with Why, you make the all important connection with your target audience that opens the way to delivering the Whats and Hows. Unskilful reversal of this narrative risks your story ending before it begins.
In researching this article, I came across the Simon Sinek TED talk. He offers a very valuable explanation for the resonance of starting with ‘why’. He sums it up beautifully like this, “People don’t buy what you do they buy why you do it”. We can all agree on that. Apple products represent the Steve Jobs vision of cool technology meets designer aesthetics. Macro Wholefoods Market represents the importance of organic foods in our diet. Oxfam Shop represents fair trade as an economic imperative. Why gives us a reason to believe. A reason to choose this instead of that. Take it to the social limits, and Why can give us a recognition that we are part of something bigger than both of us – Civil Rights (King’s “I have a dream …”); unifying a divided nation (Obama’s “Yes We Can”); ending apartheid, (Mandela’s “An ideal for which I am prepared to die”); reconciliation (Keating’s Redfern Speech: “We have to give meaning to “justice” and “equity”). These are landmark speeches because they declared a belief in something we could all own. It all begins with a Why.
Back to a more mundane level, in the headline department, the same principle applies. When you’re communicating to your target audience from the standpoint of Why, you invite them to participate as an equal, rather than a wallet. It’s the difference between getting a lecture and being in a dialogue. It’s a shift from matter of opinion to matter of fact. Take this ad: the first part of the headline – 100 Good Advertising Headlines – is one writer’s opinion. The second part – and why they were so profitable – makes it into a matter of fact. There’s wall-to-wall copy in this one and that “why” makes it irrisistible to read, because us content writers want to know why.
The writer could have written something like – How 100 Advertising Headlines Made a Profit – it becomes a technical story about what you should do to achieve similar success (“more blood, toil, tears and sweat” would be our reeaction) – 100 Good Advertising Headlines and What makes them so Profitable. Another lecture of the word-fest kind. You’re being told to by somebody bigger, better and brainier than you (“excuse me for living” would be our reaction). Neither of these alternative options make room for you to enter and engage in the story (and it’s benefits) and make it your own.
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Why the Best Headlines Start with Why
In short, How and What dictate action. Why invites and inspires action. Don’t get me wrong, I love good How and Why headlines, it’s just that they take you straight to the nuts and bolts. Why takes you into vision. There is a sense of inclusivity, that we are being privy to the whole, the big picture, rather than just the nuts and bolts that make it. It becomes a dialogue between you and the other about why you do what you do, think what you think, or feel what you feel, that makes you produce, create or plain do. When we know that, we want to get on the bus. Our own hopes, dreams, aspirations or desires want to be part of that kind of journey. Vision gets us where we live up there in the white matter. To conclude with the words of Simon Sinek, “If you hire people just because they can do a job, they’ll work for your money. But if you hire people who believe what you believe, they’ll work for you with blood and sweat and tears.”
In a headline: Get Them Where They Live.
Originally posted 2013-08-13 00:07:47.