What exactly is an insight anyway?

17th January

I’m a planner. If you talk to anyone in the industry, you will hear that we’re all about ‘insights’. We look at things, filter them, then present the ‘insight’ to ‘the creatives’ or upwards to the client. Decks often rhetorically ask: ‘What’s the insight?’ before telling you. But like the word iconic, I would submit that the word insight is deployed a little too readily. Insights, per se, are fantastically useful things. But by calling any old thing an insight, the definition of what one actually is becomes devalued and unclear.

According to the OED, an insight is: ‘The capacity of understanding hidden truths etc, esp. the character of situations.’ That helps a little: it suggests that we’re supposed to look at one and one and see something a bit more than two.

In my mind though, insights are as much about instinct or creative jumps as they are about simply seeing a truth in data. Of course they will be rooted in evidence, but sometimes it feels like we need a bunch of facts when ‘having a feeling’ might be a more honest description of the process. The trouble with ‘having a feeling’ is that unless you are seen as a sage, it’s like saying ‘take my word for it’ which can be a struggle to sell and a struggle to buy.

My other issue with the word is that it’s self-aggrandising. It’s often used to big up an ‘observation’ or ‘I had a thought’. It’s really too fancy a word for some of the thinking that comes under the title. It tends to suggest there is only one killer idea lurking in any cloud of facts and feelings. It might be just a word, but words matter.

I reckon we all probably get to have just one or two genuine insights in a lifetime. But we will make plenty of good observations and will come up with plenty of leaps of the imagination. But defining these as insights is akin to claiming the creative work as a masterpiece; it’s a judgement better left to the audience to make. Let’s champion insights by respecting the power of the word.

Lastly, I think insight is also the turf of good stand up comedians. If it’s all about seeing truth hidden in plain sight, Jerry Seinfeld is very insightful on the matter…

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