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Happy birthday, dad

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My late father, Kenneth Guy Jack Charles Knowles, was born 110 years ago today. He tumbled into a privileged existence in early Edwardian England. He was the grandson of the original Polish builder, Julius Kino, who’d arrived penniless 40 years before, but then built Bayswater and left a small fortune to his four children. £1.6m in 1900; about £190m in today’s coin, but who’s counting?

At school and then at University, Kenneth was a Classicist, mesmerised by the storytelling power of ancient Greece and Rome. But shortly after graduating in the early 1930s, his own hero’s journey was beset by trials and a crisis in which he was disinherited and cut loose (it’s a long story). So, he went out to work. Exactly what he did for work in the late 1930s and early 1940s was unclear, even to those with him at the time. There was talk in later years of being “a protected mind”, but it took until 2011 – more than 20 years after his death – for him to be outed by the great historian Asa Briggs as a “Bletchley Park-ite”.

By reputation, Kenneth had been able to solve The Times crossword in 29 minutes since he was a teenager. That plus his classical training and then Bletchley led him to set up the Institute of Economics and Statistics back at Oxford after the war. The treasure and return from his hero’s journey saw him blend storytelling with statistics, and forever more his stall was set out as a renaissance man. His 1951 book Strikes was (one of) the world’s first on industrial relations, and there are some great jokes – particularly in the footnotes.

I knew Kenneth towards the end of his life. He was 59 when I was born to the fourth of his fifth wives, about to retire and dedicate his last two decades to glass – engraving, lustring, making church windows. He passed on his love of Classics to me – teaching me the rudiments of Greek one Easter holiday – and it was the focus of my first degree, too. I was the only one of his six children to be as captivated by Homer and Catullus as he had been 60 years before.

Story-lover soon became storyteller, and I worked for a dozen years after graduation in PR and communications agencies. And then – after a memorable intervention from a career psychologist – I went back to school and retrained as a psychologist. An experimental psychologist. “Badly taught” at maths as I had been – the fourth set featured more animal noises than algebra – I had a sink-or-swim realisation. I either had to get my head around statistics or I wouldn’t be able to construct any narrative at all from the reams of data my experiments were generating.

So, I massively overcompensated and completely fell in love with data and statistics and how the language of statistical analysis helps build truly-compelling, evidence-based narratives. I wasn’t becoming quite the renaissance man my father had been, but there were clear parallels. And today I take great pleasure that my second alma mater, Sussex University, had been shaped by the very man who went on to expose my father’s Bletchley Park past.

Asa Briggs – a one-time colleague of Kenneth’s at Oxford – was the guiding light of Sussex in the sixties, seventies, and eighties, and one of his enduring principles as Vice Chancellor of the new university was interdisciplinarity. In shaping his students’ syllabuses, he was truly the professor of mash-up, insisting that everyone study a minor subject unrelated to their main degree.

Over the course of the past year, I’ve written, finessed, found a publisher, edited, and now at last published a new book (thanks, Routledge). Narrative by Numbers: How to Tell Powerful & Purposeful Stories with Data is literally just out. And with delightful synchrony, its publication coincides with what would have been my father Kenneth’s 110th birthday.

Happy birthday, Kenneth. In the ground as you have been for almost 30 years, this book would not have been possible without you. I’m pretty sure you’d enjoy it, too – particularly the stories about Briggs, the pokes in the eye for Trump and Bannon and Gove, and the conclusion that telling stories with data is fundamentally all about empathy. Understanding your audience and obeying the Cocktail Party Rule – these were lessons that you shared with me around the fireplace in the house where I was born in Buckinghamshire.

Yes, happy birthday, dad. This one’s for you.

Sam Knowles
Sam Knowles is Founder & MD of Insight Agents. He helps companies, brands, and third-sector organisations find simple, true, and authentic language. This gives them the tools, permission, and confidence they need to communicate effectively. His purpose is to help organisations talk like people.

Sam has recently written a book called “Narrative by Numbers: How to Tell Powerful and Purposeful Stories with Data”. It will be published in April 2018 by Routledge.