Today, Tuesday 26 May 2020, marks the official publication date of my new book – How To Be Insightful: Unlocking the Superpower that Drives Innovation. As the world blinks and thinks about recreating and re-establishing itself in the wake of the first global pandemic of the age of globalisation, we have never needed more urgently the tools, skills, and strategies to innovate, pivot, and evolve at pace. Exactly what you’ll find in How To Be Insightful.
For this first blog about the book – and, spoiler alert: there will be others – I wanted to start with some acknowledgements and inspirations. My thank you list.
The eighth instalment of the Star Wars triple trilogy, The Last Jedi, begins a couple of days after Episode VII, The Force Awakens, ends. The second season of Killing Eve begins just 30 seconds after the first has ended. This is becoming increasingly fashionable in sequels.
How To Be Insightful is very definitely the sequel to Narrative by Numbers, published (thanks Judith, Rebecca, and Sophie) by Routledge in spring 2018. In my George Lucas-like envisioning of my series of business books, I’d originally intended How To Be Insightful to come first. But it took my friend and Elisabeth’s Lists author, Lulah Ellender, to point out that I needed to write Narrative by Numbers before I could move over here into insightsville.
I’d been struggling with the neuroscience of insight, but was buzzing about a lecture I’d just given on data storytelling at the University of Greenwich. Thanks for your insight, Lulah. And thanks also to course director Nicky Garsten for that annual gig in SE10. I wouldn’t have had the insight and spark to create Narrative by Numbers – and to do so first – without you both.
So if you put down my first book just half an hour ago, here’s a Star Wars episode VII into VIII style segue into this new one. For anyone familiar with Narrative by Numbers, you’ll recall we were at the memorial service of Asa Briggs, the pioneering vice chancellor of Sussex University, where I learned statistics in the early 2000s as a student retread. It was at Briggs’ memorial service that my hodgepodge of education (master’s in classics, master’s and doctorate in psychology) made sense as the lens through which story and analytics could be yoked together.
This was the same Asa Briggs who in his last book outed my father Kenneth Guy Jack Charles Knowles as having worked at Bletchley Park, a secret Kenneth kept from his family to his death in 1988. Kenneth was a deeply insightful man, able to see connections that others couldn’t. He could do the “Where’s Wally/Waldo?” thing apparently at will and The Guardian crossword in a regulation 29 minutes, though his bizarre upbringing in affluent Edwardian London did mean he lacked a little insight when it came to his own romantic life. I say that as the grateful last child (of a baker’s half dozen) from his fourth of five wives.
But a decent part of what I know about mashing up analytics and story I owe to my old man. His own trajectory – and one that inspired me, 60 years on – was Mods and Greats at Oxford in the late 1920s / early 1930s, Bletchley Park during the war, and co-founding the Institute of Economics and Statistics back at Oxford in the late 1940s. Narrative by Numbers’ official publication date was staged to fall on Kenneth’s 110th birthday, and there’s more about all of these stories in this commemorative blog I wrote a couple of years back. Thanks for the memories and all those late night, post-Chandos Arms, Madeira-fuelled conversations, Dad. They’re the origin of my insatiable curiosity, a critical dimension in being insightful.
I developed the model at the heart of this book – the STEP Prism of Insight, which carries a trademark no less – back in 2015. I’ve used it as the basis for insight training since then and started to sketch out the structure for this book a year or so later. So, How To Be Insightful presents no difficult second album syndrome. Not something that could be said of the fictitious progressive rock band Victims of Circumstance that my oldest and best friend Peter Russian and I created and graffitied on the walls of Buckinghamshire in the summer of 1984. We had difficult first single syndrome, but we learned how to run a very effective whispering campaign long before that was A Thing. Thanks for the insights and insightful reading of so much of my writing over the years, Pete, including early sections of this book. You were perhaps a bit harsh on the lyrics of our EP The Peace of Nicias, 421BC, though. A great song and ancient history A-level revision in the same set of words? Who could ask for more?
To my closest of close family – my wife, life, and business partner, Saskia, my splendid son Max (officially a better footballer and guitarist than I could ever be, and now a better photographer, too): thanks for putting up with me, particularly when I’m writing. I broke the back of How To Be Insightful in a cottage in Chichester in spring 2019 while Max was on year ten work experience nearby.
I can give no thanks whatsoever to the builders with whom we shared our lives during the gestation period of some of this book, save the fact that their lack of empathy and understanding of human motivations and behaviour taught me bucket loads about what insight most definitely is not. Our architects, meanwhile, were a different leather thing altogether.
And never, of course, forgetting Tony the Cat, named in honour of Tony Soprano, doyen of my Instagram feed for many years, who sadly purred and nuzzled his last during the editing process thanks to dodgy kidneys, but the nicest, gentlest, most insightful animal I ever did meet.
So there we have it. My as-ever eclectic list of acknowledgements and inspirations, the sine qua nons of this new publication. I’d be thrilled if you read it, and even more thrilled to hear what you think of the model and the insight it shines on well, er, insight.
2020 has so far been a dismal year of myopia, and our journey to this point has been lacking clear vision. It is my hope that my new book can help to lead us back to our role as a uniquely creative, problem-solving species.
Thank you for your consideration.
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.