Part 1 of a 2-part exploration on insights
I recently attended an advertising industry event and it was like most professional gatherings; small groups of name-tagged specialists huddled together in conference halls, trading best practices and insider gossip over bagels and coffee. I’ve been to enough now to know that one topic is a perennial. Whether being animatedly debated or discussed in hushed tones like secret corporate formulas, the understanding and practice of developing insights seems to involve just enough vagaries to keep most strategists theorizing like scientists exploring the universe.
As communications professionals, we know that insights are essential for truly effective work. Doesn’t it seem odd then, how opinions vary so wildly when you ask for a definition of what one is or for directions on how to get there? This kind of acceptance of existence and contrasting lack of proven methodology or evaluation reminds me of an NPR report I heard some time ago about the existence of dark matter. According to the report, dark matter is widely accepted and plays a central role in state-of-the-art modeling of the galaxy yet there is no direct evidence of its existence or concrete understanding of its nature. Sound familiar?
Over the past twenty-some years, I’ve participated in many different approaches to insights. Most of which laid out instructions like math problems—column A minus column B = eureka! Too often we finished with questionable results. One of those exercises included the description, “An insight is what we know about the target’s mindset and motivations regarding the subject today that will help us to change his/her attitudes and behaviors tomorrow.” A little vague but not necessarily wrong, there is, however, one important aspect missing. I would correct the definition by adding that an insight reaches beyond what we know about the audience’s mindset—what research can tell us—and takes an intuitive leap to offer a new understanding of human behavior in relation to the client’s challenge.
That’s right, I said it: INTUITION. The ability to reach beyond the data to connect unseen dots. Scott Gray, Head of Strategic Planning at Quirk, describes it using a less celestial comparison, “An insight is not an observation of behaviour pulled from research. It isn’t a collection of stats and data from your web analytics. No dear reader, insights are far more than that. If observations are the tip of the iceberg, the remaining two-thirds below the water, the part that is not immediately obvious, would be the insights.”
Some might dismiss this as a form of soothsaying. But if being a good strategist means you are also a developed creative thinker, then you must embrace intuition as part of your process just as scientists exploring the universe have done. To develop his groundbreaking theories, Einstein once told his companion, “When I examine myself and my methods of thought, I come close to the conclusion that the gift of imagination has meant more to me than any talent for absorbing absolute knowledge.” Elaborating, he added, “All great achievements of science must start from intuitive knowledge. I believe in intuition and inspiration…. At times I feel certain I am right while not knowing the reason.”
Anyone who thinks that developing insights is a purely derivative process where the insight is deduced by following a set of instructions is most likely not delivering anything meaningful. For to do so, you must trust your creative mind—like designers, inventors, and the scientists theorizing on the nature of space do on a daily basis—and take an intuitive leap into discovery.
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