Good things often come about from happy accidents. The Small Data Forum is one of those things. Thrown together for a chance, corporate, fire-side chat in May 2016, my fellow podcasters Neville Hobson, Thomas Stoeckle and I had such a good time chatting at a data industry event that – at Neville’s suggestion – we turned our musings into a podcast. Neville knew what he was talking about – he’d been podcasting for more than a decade already at the time – so who were Thomas and me to argue?
Four years and a few dozen episodes in, we thought it would be a good idea to have a long-weekend away – abroad – to record a bumper crop of pods at Thomas’ future home, Andalucía in Southern Spain. Tickets, suntan lotion, and swimmers were packed, and – as the 2020s dawned – we looked forward to our April trip to the sun. Then COVID hit. And our trip was bounced weeks, then months, and finally years.
Despite Omicron variants threatening to poop our party for the third year running, we resolved in late 2022 to make our pilgrimage come what may. And the long weekend before last, we three spent a happy four days recording, eating, drinking, recording, sunning, recording, swimming, and recording. Four podcasts in four days – not a bad return on investment.
On our second morning – after recording our focused special on Lineker vs Braverman – rubbing the blear of a Rioja-over from my eyes, I had something that I prize very highly. As the proud owner of the carefully-named business Insight Agents and author of 2020’s critically-acclaimed book How To Be Insightful, I’m really quite keen on insights. These profound and useful understandings of topics, issues, people, market, and things. I know they’re hard-to-come-by, much less common than many – particularly those in the market research / analytics / insight industry – might have you believe.
But I also know that, to have these profound and useful understandings, you need to be endemically curious – perhaps almost pathologically so – and fill the hopper of your subconscious mind with stuff. And then take timeout to allow its brilliant, recombinatorial engine to put old and old together to make something new, which can then pop out into consciousness and fill the world with light.
And that’s just what happened to me the Saturday before last, the lees of Tempranillo being chased out of my bloodstream by caffeine, when I said to Neville and Thomas: “Do you know what we are? We’re podnosticators!” A quick Google search became my first ever Googlewhack, a one-word search yielding only one result (thanks, Dave Gorman). The only other instance (at the time) of this word online came from – predictably enough? – three middle-aged blokes from a short-lived blog (2019-2020) called The Wine Is Talking from Atascadero, California.
My little Googlewhack
Often insights when first revealed can feel like a joke, a wisp of whimsy. But the more we swirled the idea round in our mind – sometimes (let’s be honest, often) accompanied by swirling of more Rioja – the more the description of we three horsemen of the Small Data Forum as podnosticators seemed to fit. To be a profound and useful description of what we seek to do in our sideways look at the uses and abuses of data big and Small (stet) in politics, business, and public life.
Why do I say this? Well, our CTO Neville has just published a 15-minute podcast in which we give our own take on the what and the why, and you can listen to that over there. At the start of the pod, I describe the episode with candour and hair-shirted honesty, as “self-indulgent, solipsistic, Onanistic”. But I truly believe that the idea – the insight – should not fall on barren ground. So here’s a summary of my take on our new epithet, as the Small Data Forum’s resident etymologist (but not entomologist; insects don’t float my boat).
Podnosticators is – clearly – a mash-up of pod(cast) and prognosticators. The etymology of prognosticators shows that the word entered English via Middle French, coming from the Latin prognosticare, meaning to foretell. As a Hellenist more than a Latinist, I’m delighted to report that Latin just copied Greek (as so often, and usually making it worse), and that the root is prognostikos – meaning fore-knowledge. Related to the abstract “prognostication”, prognosis will be more familiar to English speakers as meaning “the likely outcome or trajectory of chronic medical conditions”, and in ancient times prognostication related to matters medical and meteorological, particularly in connection with weather that affected crops and harvests. Prognostication is all about having knowledge before the event; about foresight, indeed about insight.
In English, the word waned in popularity from a peak around the turn of the 19th century to a low point towards the end of the 20th, before having a perhaps predictable rise in the 1990s as the world was gripped by what The Fortean Times dubbed PMT or “pre-millennial tension”. In the increasingly VUCA world of the first quarter of the 21st century, prognostication has been on an uptick. A route out – perhaps – of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity?
The etymology of “prognostication”
As the podnosticators of the Small Data Forum, it is our purpose to seek to find wisdom about the uses and abuses of data in politics, business, and public life; data big and Small. And we deliver this (drum roll) via the medium of our podcasts. We’re aiming to provide some illumination, some light at the end of the tunnel, some clues to what may lie around the next corner. We’re not soothsayers, clairvoyants, or seers. We put information together – from our often radically-different perspectives – to make some kind of sense of the world. And it is a world that has never needed more light and less heat.
In the frame of the books about using data smarter I’ve written – in the context of the training I deliver, in person and online – I contend there are three core steps to insightful data storytelling.
1. Asking smarter questions to surface the right, most relevant data
2. Using this data to articulate genuine insights, that often elusive and evanescent – profound and useful – understanding
3. Deploying data-rich insights to tell data-driven yet human and empathetic stories
Questions. Insights. Stories. Usually open questions, but only until – like a good lawyer, detective, or doctor – we follow-up with closed, confirmatory questions.
In the podnosticators episode – episode 70 of the Small Data Forum – Thomas encourages us to follow the maxim of the 6th century BCE lyric poet, Archilochus, who observed that “a fox knows many things but a hedgehog just one big thing”; to be more foxy and less hedgehoggy. I build on that, and contend that there’s a role for both. We should be foxy in our curiosity, but perhaps embracing our inner hedgehog (it’s less prickly) when we get to insight. This approach – focusing on one topic not many – has been a signature of our podcast trip to Andalucía. For although the first episode we recorded was a regular, wide-ranging ramblechat covering many topics, the next three were short and focused, first on Lineker, then on PR missing the boat on AI, and finally on what we mean by our new soubriquet, the podnosticators.
Podnosticators are go!
Sam Knowles is a master data storyteller and the Founder & MD of the consultancy Insight Agents. His purpose is to help organisations make smarter use of data, talk Human, and sound like people. An established and sought-after trainer, keynote speaker, and podcaster, he is the founder and host of Data Malarkey podcast and chair of I-COM’s Data Storytelling Council. He’s a Fellow of the Market Reserach Society, the RSA, and the Professional Speaking Association.
Sam is the author of the ‘Using Data Better’ trilogy of books, all published by Routledge. These include the 2018 best-seller Narrative by Numbers, 2020’s critically-acclaimed sequel, How To Be Insightful , and 2022’s eagerly-anticipated Asking Smarter Questions. In 2023, Insight Agents launched Using Data Smarter, a comprehensive, online training course based on all three books.
Find out more about Sam’s approach to data storytelling in this 15-minute video.