Are You Misusing the Word ‘Insight’?

  • Darshan Mehta
  • October 27, 2017

Occasionally, a word becomes so culturally ingrained that its meaning becomes lifeless and watered down – such has become the fate of “insight.”


It’s a powerful word, but it’s also widely misused thanks to a huge spike in popularity over the past century. Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, companies have searched for magic methods to stand out, and they’ve seen insights as the gateway to do so.


But as good as that instinct was, the true meaning of the word began to escape those same businesses. It devolved into a flavor du jour, causing confusion and wasting resources in pursuit of misguided goals.


Somewhere between ‘information’ and ‘intuition’


So what, exactly, is an insight? The Oxford Dictionary defines the word “insight” — which first appeared in Middle English — as “inner sight, mental vision, and wisdom.” In modern language, we’d say that insights are intuitive understandings of something or someone.


Interesting, especially when you consider what isn’t included in the definition. Nowhere is an insight described as a piece of data, a one-dimensional observation, or the expression of a consumer’s want or need. In the context of modern brands, insights combine data, observations, and broader knowledge of macro level and microlevel technological, economic, and cultural influences on peoples’ desires, expectations, and decision-making.


Or more simply, insights cover the “why” rather than the “what.” Until you’re ready to step out your comfort zone and question your preconceived assumptions and theories, insights will remain elusive.


Get to the truth

I’m hardwired to be curious, wanting to know the “why” behind everything I encounter. To get to it, I dig into base concepts and then work my way up, a method known in academic and business circles as “first principles thinking.”


Although it’s natural to me, I’ve noticed plenty of the clients I consult need guidance on how to turn today’s insights into tomorrow’s facts. Many “givens” started off as hypotheses: Consider Isaac Newton’s famous apple-laden “aha!” moment that led to a deeper understanding of gravity. His breakthrough hinged not just on a fruit landing on his noggin, but on what he did with all the evidence he gathered. Newton’s inquisitiveness seems to have been lost on many of today’s businesses.


Corporate leaders regularly link insights with simple observations, but insights are multidimensional. They unite the bottom-up and 30,000-foot view with a single, coherent truth.


What’s your typography?


The very font of this article is a result of the late Steve Jobs’ insights. When the first personal computers came to market, popular digital fonts like Arial and Times New Roman didn’t exist. Computers came with a blocky typeface or two, and that was that.


Around the same time, Steve Jobs was taking calligraphy classes at Reed College. Over time, he saw how dependent our society would become on computers and wondered whether he could use font design to improve adoption and user experience.


He tossed this notion around for a decade before unveiling a Mac featuring exquisite and never-before-seen fonts named after his favorite cities, like Toronto, San Francisco, Chicago, and Geneva. He leveraged his early insights and transformed the way we think about computers. We can thank Steve Jobs for all the creative options at our disposal, but we can also emulate his success by honing our understanding of what insights really are.


Life is short; insights enrich


Inquisitiveness is the heartbeat of insights. If you can’t ask questions and listen carefully to the answers, you’re going to miss nuggets of wisdom.


For example, I’ve been teaching global executives about delivering business presentations for years. One of my favorite exercises is to ask participants to persuade a group of Midwestern Americans who’ve never traveled outside the United States to vacation in a foreign country.


Inevitably, participants exclaim, “We’ve got to sell Billy Bob on Thai food!” or, “What’s the closest thing to a dude ranch in Paris?” They jump to conclusions rather than putting themselves in the shoes of the would-be travelers.


I then turn the exercise on its head by telling participants to shift their emphasis to the fact that these people have never gone outside their country. I encourage them to think of their audience as human beings rather than Midwesterners. That small reframing helps people empathize with these hypothetical travelers. What might the flight be like? How will they get around? What national customs should they be aware of?


When brands stop to think about their consumers as people, they open the door to better conversations. Companies are quick to say, “We can do this” or “Our product does that.” Only empathy can help brands bypass surface-level opportunities to arrive at powerful consumer insights.


Isabelle Ioannides, former advisor of Bureau of European Policy Advisors, noted, “In today’s complex and fast-moving world, what we need even more than foresight or hindsight is insight.”


Ioannides is correct, but to get to true insights, we must start from a place of humanity. We must be more curious, more empathetic, and more open to the ideas of our consumers.

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