Skip to content

Do You Give Readers the “Why” They Need?

The other night I was traveling from Boston to my home, Seattle. When I arrived at my connection city, Denver, at 7:15 p.m. I received this text message:

Your Flight ___ on August 6 from DEN now departs at 11:55 p.m. We’re sorry for the delay. Please visit [website].

The website gave only the new departure time, no additional information.

But I wanted more information. Why was the plane going to take off 90 minutes late?

No one was available at the gate to tell me the reason for the delay. I learned much later from a gate attendant, whom I approached, that the reason for the delay was severe weather in a connecting city.

Weather is something an airline cannot affect, yet not knowing the reason for the delay, and not having a way to find out, made me blame the airline. I felt taken for granted. Instead of getting me to Seattle just after midnight, they’d get me there around 2 a.m.–with no explanation.

A simple addition to the text message (and one deletion) would have satisfied me:

Your Flight ___ on August 6 from DEN now departs at 11:55 p.m. because of severe weather conditions. We’re sorry for the delay. Please visit [website]. [Don’t send me to a website unless it has more information.]

That brief explanation–that why–would have made all the difference.


Do you include the why that your readers need?

  • When you cancel or postpone a meeting, do you include why? People who planned to attend will want to know.
  • When you inform customers of a price increase, do you explain why? If you don’t, they may think you are simply greedy.
  • When you make a change in procedure or policy, do you tell why? Readers may see you as unpredictable or secretive if you don’t explain.
  • When you want feedback, do you mention why? For example, do you tell readers what you will do with the feedback? Otherwise, why should they take the time to share it?
  • When you hire a new employee, do you tell why you chose him or her? Readers won’t know the value of the new hire unless you communicate it.

Whenever you write, be sure to consider the reader’s need to know why. Ask yourself, Have I included enough why to satisfy my readers?


Do you have an example of a missing why and how it affected you or others? If so, please share it.

Take my Business Writing Tune-Up. Why? To learn ways to take your writing skills to a higher level.

Syntax Training

Posted by Avatar photo
By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

10 comments on “Do You Give Readers the “Why” They Need?”

  • Thanks, Lynn. Writing “why” is tricky but doable. For example, some passengers might worry that the severe weather will make their flight bumpy, even if it departs 90 minutes later. So in this case the “where” and “when” of the problem are also important.

    Another helpful statement can be “what we are doing about it”. On July 27, a substation fire cut power to the overhead wires for trains at a Paris station, forcing several days of cancellations and re-routes. An email from the railway company told me from what station and when my train would depart; the power company published videos of technicians making repairs as their boss explained the work. These communication efforts enhanced the companies’ credibility and passenger acceptance of the incident.

  • Hello, Lynn! It truly is a tricky subject. Sometimes changes in plans, procedure, policy or prices can be taken negatively no matter what the reason for it was. Especially if the reason wasn’t that unquestionable like weather condition, it can be taken as a lame excuse which could only make situation even worse. Just my thoughts.

    My name is Ksenia, I am Russian, started to read your blog not so long ago which helps me a lot to improve my English. Thank you for your work.

  • Hi George,

    Thank you for your good points and for the excellent examples of effective communication in Paris. I can imagine how the information about the repairs helped increase riders’ patience and understanding.


  • Hi Ksenia,

    You are right that sometimes explaining the reason will not help people accept a situation.

    I’m glad you are a reader, and I’m glad that you find this blog helpful.


  • Hi Lynn,
    I read all your articles with great interest. these business writings helps me to understand, communicate efficiently. inturn gives positive effect on my career. Thank you very much.

  • Lynn,

    I understand that in the case of your flight delay, you wanted to know the reason. And the reason you wanted to know is, apparently, so you could know whether or not to be angry at the airline. But does it really lessen your discomfort or change the perceived reality to know the reason? If so, is that a good thing for one’s mental health?

    In one case, you might have been sitting around for hours steaming at the airlines, because you felt the reason was an unforgivable one (such as, perhaps, a pilot not showing up for work). In another case, you might have decided to simply make the best of it because, oh well, no one can control the weather.

    To me, this seems like a significant waste of energy. Whatever the reason for the delay, you were going to have extra hours at the Denver airport and get home very late. Whether the reason for the delay was acceptable or unacceptable, it was up to you to decide how to respond.

    My apologies if this is “too Zen.” But I disagree with the advice in most of your bulleted examples as well. It would require a much longer and equally philosophical post to explain why.

    Marcia Yudkin

  • Lynn –

    Marcia Yudkin’s points are irrelevant to the purpose of your blog. They may or may not apply to how YOU felt, but they are not why you write your blog. Your blog correctly explains to communicators a better way to communicate — and your bullets are completely on point. Thank you for your advice.


  • Hi Marcia,

    I’m sorry for the delay in responding. Strangely, I did not get a notice from my blog host that a new comment had been posted. I only saw your comment, and Laura’s, when I got ready to post a new article.

    Thanks for taking the time to comment. I wanted to know the reason for the delay because I wanted to understand it better. I have been at airports when a flight has been delayed, have been given a new departure time, and then suddenly been given a new EARLIER departure time. I have never missed a flight for this reason, but I have caught myself running for a gate if I make myself comfortable someplace and then have to hurry to board at an earlier time.

    On the trip I wrote about, my flight was delayed even longer on the outbound flight. I spent more than three additional hours in Chicago. I was more relaxed there though and was able to go to a restaurant and have a meal, because the same airline explained the delay (weather) and how it affected their plane schedule.

    I like the airline, and I always try to fly with them. I was irritated with them only for not communicating about the delay.

    I guess we do have differences on this topic. I appreciated hearing your views.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *