How to be insightful

This Best Practice Guide to data storytelling originally appeared on WARC – the World Advertising Research Center database run by Ascential, the owners of the Cannes Lions. This is a link to the original article (may require subscription), written by Insight Agents’ Founder & MD, Sam Knowles, author of the 2020 book “How To Be Insightful: Unlocking the Superpower that Drives Innovation”, the critically-acclaimed follow-up to his best-selling 2018 book, “Narrative by Numbers: How to Tell Powerful & Purposeful Stories with Data”. Both are published by Routledge.


Provides a novel framework and a structure for generating insight.

  • Drawing from philosophy and psychology, the history of insight and advertising planning is explained.
  • The article then sets out a clear framework for developing insights and shares how the insights behind major campaigns can be expressed.

Why it matters

By taking time out from the requirement to innovate at pace – a growing requirement in a post-COVID-19 world – and learning a simple framework for insightful thinking, we can all make it much more likely we’ll produce genuine, useful insights.


  • Insight is a nugget of data-driven, evidence-based certainty. It helps us understand and think about an issue differently, more completely, with more insight. It tells us what the data means.
  • Insight truly is the superpower that drives innovation, and all organisations in the 2020s face the challenge of evolving their product and service offerings and marketing at record pace.
  • Those brands that recover and thrive in the decade ahead – in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and in the context of the requirement to pay more than just lipservice to diversity in all its forms – are those that can fast-track innovation and show they are truly insightful.
  • The STEP Prism of Insight is a novel framework – with its roots in cognitive psychology and the birth of advertising planning – that empowers those that use it to be reliably insightful.


The Princeton psychologist Daniel Kahneman is fond of remarking that: “Thinking is to humans as swimming is to cats; they can do it, but they prefer not to.” While we’re the smartest species on the planet, each of us in possession of the most powerful supercomputer yet developed – the human brain – until recently we’ve been at a loss as to how the mind actually works. In his book of that name – How The Mind Works – Kahneman’s opposite number at Harvard, Steve Pinker, suggests that we actually lack the cognitive power to understand the workings of the brain.


From the foundation of Western literature and philosophical thinking in Ancient Greece – and classical Athens in particular – how we have ideas and what having ideas both means and enables us to achieve have been major concerns. The philosophers Plato and Aristotle – particularly in the form of Plato’s teacher and hero Socrates – were among the first to ask what it meant to know or have knowledge (episteme or gnosis) of a topic, to understand its essential or purest form (idéa). Knowing or understanding (noesis) – bringing together elements from different worlds to explain something else – makes one clear-sighted (dioratikós). And although the classical Greeks had no exact parallel for our concept of insight, in modern Greek clear-sightedness has survived from ancient times as a linguistic trace. The modern Greek for insight is dioratikótéa.

The word insight made its first appearance in English around 1200 AD, as innsihht meaning “sight with the ‘eyes’ of the mind” or “understanding from within”. By Shakespeare’s time, the sense had shifted and taken on metaphorical meaning to be “penetrating understanding into character or hidden nature”. In other European languages the same philosophical shift was happening, in Dutch (inzigt), German (Einsicht), and Danish (indisgt).


What philosophers had theorized, the emerging schools of both experimental and Gestalt psychology started to find reflected as behaviours in the lab, in tests of both humans and primates. Wolfgang Köhler’s early 20th century book The Mentality of Apes recorded insightful behaviour among chimps, able to use familiar objects (sticks and boxes) to attain desired goals (bananas) in otherwise unobtainable scenarios by combining existing knowledge to create new solutions. Once learned, the insights were instantly remembered and shared with other chimps.

Graham Wallas, one of the founders of the London School of Economics, is perhaps the grandfather of modern insight. His 1926 book, The Art of Thought, he proposed a four-step model of insightful thinking, from preparation to verification. Critically, Wallas identified that insight problems are very different from analytical problems; the latter only require sufficient domain expertise and effort to solve them. Insight problems demand imaginative leaps and combinations of existing, acquired understanding, pieced together in new ways. As Vlifredo Pareto – the Italian philosopher better known for his 80/20 rule – observed: “An idea is nothing more or less than a combination of old elements”. This is the key to insightful thinking.

Wallas’ four steps were defined in his abstract language of the time as:

  1. Preparation: “the problem is investigated, from all directions”
  2. Incubation: “not consciously thinking about the problem
  3. Illumination: “the appearance of the happy idea”
  4. Verification: “the validity of the idea is tested”

James Webb Young worked at J Walter Thompson from 1912 to 1964. Inspired by Wallas – and much more simple and clear-thinking in his exposition and application of Wallas’ approach – Webb Young published his seminal pamphlet A Technique for Producing Ideas in 1940. He added an unnecessary fifth step, but he was a great populariser of the approach. He said: “Every really good creative person in advertising has always had two noticeable characteristics. First, there was no subject he could not easily get interested in … Second, he was an extensive browser in all sorts of fields of information. For it is with the advertising man as with the cow: no browsing, no milk.” Here Webb Young was underlining the critical importance of curiosity in insight development, in Wallas’ first, preparatory phase.

Reprints of A Technique for Producing Ideas since the late 1940s onwards have featured a foreword by Bill Bernbach. Bernbach used Webb Young (and Wallas’) approach as the foundation of how his agency, Doyle Dane Bernbach (DDB), addressed the function of strategic planning and the critical role of insight in developing creative.


In his 1951 book The Art of Clear Thinking, the readability and writing expert Rudolph Flesch reviewed the history of both the philosophy and psychology of insightful thinking, and identified half a dozen, unrelated fields in which similar, four-steps model had been developed spontaneously but along spookily parallel lines. Fast forward to 2018, and the Caltech physicist Leonard Mlodinow has drawn together in his book Elastic how the predictions of philosophy and the observations of experimental psychology have been shown to have their neural correlates inside the brain, thanks to different techniques in neuroscience.

Reporting on the work of the labs of John Kounios and Mark Beeman, at Drexel and Northwestern Universities, using brain monitoring EEG and brain scanning fMRI, Mlodinow underlines the critical importance of curiosity (Wallas’ preparation), time spent away from thinking about the insight problem you’re trying to solve (Wallas’ incubation), and what actually happens in the brain at the longed-for moment of insight or eureka (Wallas’ illumination). Both Kounios and Beeman show that, just before we solve an insight problem, our visual cortex – about 40% of our brains – effectively shuts down. The floodlight of attention becomes a laser-focused spotlight, presaging – in Wallas’ words – “the appearance of the happy idea”.


In advertising, market research, and innovative thinking, insight is a profound and useful understanding of a person, a thing, a situation, or an issue. It’s profound because it brings together previously-acquired information with other, previously-acquired information, joins the data points together, and makes sense of them in an altogether innovative way. Insight is a nugget of data-driven, evidence-based certainty. It helps us understand and think about an issue differently, more completely, with more insight. It tells us what the data mean.

Insight is useful because it allows us to do something new or different or innovative. When we understand the inner meaning – back to Plato’s fundamental idéa or essence of something or some quality – we can move from “So what?” to “Now what?”

Mike Teasdale was head of planning at Lowe & Partners (now Mullen Lowe), running a team of 90 planners around the world producing 300 briefs a year for Unilever. He describes insight as: “a glimpse inside the mind of the target audience, shining a light on a possible solution to the problem we have defined. Insight increases the chances of creative breakthrough, makes the creative process less random, and incites behaviour change.”

Pierre-Emmanuel Maire runs Brand Think Tank in Paris. He was part of the team working with Unilever’s Aline Santos to create the Dirt Is Good proposition of the company’s global laundry category in 2004. He uses a four-step analogy for insight generation: “Unearthing genuine insights is like finding oil. First, you zone in the right area. Next, you mine in the right place. Then, you extract something relatively crude. And finally, you refine until you have something truly powerful.”

Insight isn’t the same as empathy, but both terms overlap significantly on a Venn diagram. In the novel, film, and stage play To Kill A Mockingbird, Atticus Finch says to his daughter Scout: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” The late film critic Roger Ebert describes the movies as “a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand the hopes, aspirations, dreams, and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.”

Where to start

The STEP Prism of Insight is a novel – and self-consciously-derivative – model of insightful thinking that I’ve built on the basis of the work of Wallas and Webb Young, Flesch and Mlodinow, Kounios and Beeman. It, too, has four steps, and is a framework designed to help those required to generate insights to do so more reliably, more predictably, and with more certainty. It’s a Prism because it’s a way of viewing the world, and STEP is an acronym, standing for Sweat, Timeout, Eureka, and Prove. The model is shown in Figure 1., below.

  1. Sweat – the research phase
  2. Timeout – the thinking phase
  3. Eureka – the enlightenment phase
  4. Prove – the testing phase

To give our subconscious minds the opportunity to do their recombinatorial best – to do what Pareto describes so eloquently – we need stimulus. Stimulus demands curiosity, and not just curiosity for the brief we’re working on today, but ongoing, chronic curiosity for the world around us; curiosity of the sort recommended by Webb Young. Otherwise, as with the cow: “no milk”.

Techniques to expands curiosity include: talking to people (experts and the naïve), consuming and analysing comedy, reading winning award submissions, making friends with R&D, and taking in the widest diversity of inputs from different cultures / perspectives / points of view.

Figure 1. The STEP Prism of InsightTM


Taking timeout and time away from trying to solve an insight problem can feel – particularly to bosses – like a palace revolution. But to join old and old stimulus and make something new, we have to distract our conscious mind from the insight problem. Insight problems thrive on timeout, demand the focused application of subconscious processing, and are not reducible to predictable formulae. That’s how we solve analytical problems.

Techniques to deliver sufficient timeout include: exercise of all sorts, turning workshops into walkshops, doing boring tasks (like mowing the lawn, washing up, or ironing), not going to work, or working on something else. The neuroscientist Baroness Susan Greenfield recommends getting somewhere big. She says: “It appears as if there’s a space-time metric in the brain. Large spaces [like mountains, deserts, cathedrals] make time slow down, and that’s why so many of us deliberately seek them out. It’s why they so often give us a sense of awe and calm.”


When you’ve been curious – chronically not just acutely – and given your subconscious mind the opportunity to combine acquired stimuli in novel ways, you need to be prepared for what having an insight is actually like. Intellectually, of course, but also emotionally, physically, and physiologically. When insight strikes, it often does so at inconvenient times – during a dream or just when waking, when out running, or in the shower. Invest in memorial and mnemonic devices all around you, such as pens and pads by the bed, recording apps on your phone, and waterproof crayons for the shower. The forensic scientist Professor Angela Gallop titled her memoir When the Dogs Don’t Bark,giving her profession’s insight into where to look for insights – in unexpected places, too.

Other techniques for capturing the fruits of your subconscious processing and the eureka moment include: learning and articulating what insight feels like to you, keeping an ideas journal, and doing other things that join dots and combine ideas, from jigsaw puzzles to cryptic crosswords.


If you’ve had what you believe is a profound and useful understanding, it can be tempting to protect your insight from the world and not share it until you’ve worked it up, polished it, and honed it. And while it’s important that you can articulate your insight simply and clearly, resist the temptation to spend too much time making it perfect. It could be an expression so obvious that everyone else has already had it, it could be the property of a competitor in your category, or it could be wrong. You should be prepared to share your insights early and quickly, with colleagues and clients, and start road-testing its validity as early as you feel happy to.

Techniques for testing and validating insights include: pitching it alongside other candidate insights, Dragons’ Den style, rewriting your insight in completely new language and with new terms of reference to see if it holds up, and sharing it early in a tissue meeting.

Essentials and mini-case studies

As a “profound and useful understanding of a person, a thing, a situation, or an issue”, insight is very definitely NOT a casual observation or presentation of data. Data isn’t insight, it’s a stepping stone on the path from curiosity to proof – as we move from data to information to knowledge and onto insight, from where we can progress to wisdom and ultimately impact. And just as data isn’t insight, nor is a screen shot of a dashboard summarising data.

Sometimes advertising briefs, answering the question “What insight drives this brief?”, put forward casual observations such as “Mums like tea”, “Millennials favour bottled craft lager over keg lager”, or “We eat our evening meals differently from the way our parents’ generation used to”. But those aren’t insights and, while they may be a good starting point, they’re unlike to do any of the things Mike Teasdale demands of them: “Insight increases the chances of creative breakthrough,” he says, “makes the creative process less random, and incites behaviour change.”

There are many ways that insights can be expressed, and one useful formula for insights to be used to develop advertising and other commercial communication is this: [STATEMENT 1] because (of) [STATEMENT 2] which means [CONSEQUENCE].

Consider Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty: “Many women don’t like how they’re portrayed by the beauty industry” because “Most women don’t have figures like those that dominate fashion press” which means “Many women suffer from low self-esteem”.

Or the underpinning to Persil/Skip’s Dirt Is Good: “Since the 1920s, laundry ads told mums off if their kids’ clothes weren’t whiter than white” because of  “The misperception that parenthood is more about protection from unseen evils than it is about development” which means “A generation of children rarely go outside and don’t grow through experimentation”.

Nike’s 30th anniversary ad for its Just Do It campaign was fronted by Colin Kaepernick and titled Dream Crazy. The insight underpinning the campaign can be expressed in this way: “We limit our aspirations of what we can achieve in sport because of our mindset” because “Society – teachers, coaches, community leaders – constantly tell us how far we can go, based on our origins and our circumstances” which means “Unfulfilled potential of those could have been a Williams or a Kaepernick but didn’t bother to try”.

And finally, for P&G’s Always and the Like a Girl campaign: “Girls’ self-esteem drops twice as fast as boys’ during puberty” because  “Gender stereotypes label some activities as male and heroic, while others are seen as weak and girly” which means “Being a girl and being raised a girl can be seen as second best”.

Key takeaways

If anyone tells you they’re not creative or they never have insights, indulge them but don’t believe them. We humans are remarkably resourceful at creating new things. The key to innovation is understanding, but that doesn’t mean using facts, data, and casual observations as the basis for doing something new. Progress demands the profound and useful understanding of a person or a thing, a situation or an issue. And profound and useful understanding that truly effects change is that most prized and elusive of phenomena: insight.

One thing humans genuinely aren’t very good at is metacognition: thinking about thinking. By taking timeout from the requirement to innovate at pace – a growing requirement in a post-COVID-19 world – and learning a simple framework for insightful thinking, we can all make it very much more likely we’ll produce genuine, useful insights. While philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience have all been heading in the same direction for 2,500 years, what matters for those at the coal face of innovation is a simple and reliable framework and toolkit to solve what can be the most elusive category of problems: insight problems.

The STEP Prism of Insight is the model at the heart of my 2020 book, How To Be Insightful. As well more than a dozen tools and techniques for each stage of the model, the book covers the complete history and philosophy, psychology and neuroscience of insight.

Further reading

Flesch, Rudolph (1951). The Art of Clear Thinking

Gallop, Angela (2019). When the Dogs Don’t Bark

Greenfield, Baroness Susan (2015). Mind Change

Kahneman, Daniel (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow

Köhler, Wolfgang (1921). The Mentality of Apes

Kounios, John & Mark Beeman (2015). The Eureka Factor: Creative Insights and the Brain

Mlodinow, Leonard (2018). Elastic: Flexible Thinking in a Constantly Changing World

Pinker, Steven (1999). How the Mind Works

Wallas, Graham (1926). The Art of Thought

Young, James Webb (1940). A Technique for Producing Ideas