Welcome to the Telling of Story podcast. I’m your host storyteller Jewels, and along with my guests, it’s my endeavor to explore the art and science of storytelling, to attract, engage, and retain a business audience, and to unpack why it works for some and not for the many that try. In this episode, I have the pleasure of talking with Sam Knowles.

[00:00:25] Jewels Nistico: Listen in as he talks about the fundamental skill required in data storytelling.

[00:00:29] Sam Knowles:  The fundamental skill I think, in a data storyteller is empathy. I. And humanity and ability to, you know, we always say in storytelling, know your audience. One of the real challenges that academics and people in business, and let’s look at some functions.

[00:00:46] Sam Knowles: The insight and analytics team, or the market research team or, or the finance team maybe in particular, they have a lot of data, but they are afflicted by what is known as the curse of knowledge. The curse of knowledge is simply this, that when you. Know [00:01:00]something about something. It’s really hard to imagine what it’s like not to know that, but that’s really a fundamental empathy fail.

[00:01:05] Sam Knowles: That’s a lack of empathy.

[00:01:12] Jewels Nistico: In this episode, I have the pleasure of talking with Sam Knowles. Sam is the founder and MD of Data Storytelling Consultancy Insight agents. He helps organizations make smarter use of data in how they communicate and in how they develop innovative products and services. He is a fellow of the Market Research Society, the Royal Society of Arts, and the Professional Speaking Association, an established and sought after keynote speaker, trainer, and podcaster.

[00:01:40] Jewels Nistico: Sam is the host of Data Malaki, the podcast about using data smarter. Originally, a atheist, Sam also holds a doctorate in psychology. These are two sources of his deep understanding of human motivation and behavior, and his love of telling stories with statistics. He’s the author of Using Data Better [00:02:00] Trilogy of books, published by Ratledge 2000 eighteen’s award-winning narrative by Numbers 2000 and Twenty’s Best-selling sequel, how to Be Insightful, and 2020 Two’s Critically acclaimed Asking Smarter Questions is Popular Training is now available online@usingdatasmarter.com.

[00:02:20] Jewels Nistico: Sam, welcome to the show. 

[00:02:22] Sam Knowles: Well, thank you so much for having me. It’s a delight to be here. Sam, 

[00:02:25] Jewels Nistico: tell me a little bit about your journey to becoming a data storyteller. 

[00:02:31] Sam Knowles: It’s like if you bumped into somebody in the countryside, deep, deep in the countryside, and you said to them, how do you get to London or Sydney, or wherever the answer might be, well, I wouldn’t start from here.

[00:02:42] Sam Knowles: I cannot recommend the journey I took lowly enough to anyone. Partly ’cause it took a long time, and partly because I think it’s a little bit unnecessary, but I started life. As a classist, as you say, at school in Middle England. I was not very good at mathematics. Let’s say I was [00:03:00] badly taught mathematics in heavy inverted commas.

[00:03:03] Sam Knowles: I was in the fifth outta six streams, age 15, 16 for mathematics. And there were definitely more animal noises than algebra going on in my mathematics classes. So I studied what I could study at the end of school and I had a, a bent for languages, Latin and Greek. I studied at school and ancient history, and then I went on and did a first degree and a master’s in those.

[00:03:22] Sam Knowles: And I fell in love with story and storytelling and story structure. And you know, you can take the boy out of classics, but you can’t take the classics out of the boy, Aristotle’s, beginning, middle, and end, the three structure that underpins. If you like that model. You know, he talked about the thesis, the antithesis and the synthesis that underpins so much of effective narrative.

[00:03:41] Sam Knowles: And I, at university I wrote and I edited the university newspapers and so on. And so I bumbled in to public relations and uh, marketing. And I did that for about a dozen years. And around the turn of the millennium, I got what some of my friends jokingly called P M T or [00:04:00] pre-millennial tension that there had to be more to life than this.

[00:04:03] Sam Knowles: And I went to go and see a vocational psychologist. And for the first time in my life, I’ve only worked in small agencies. I hadn’t had lots and lots of psychometric testing before, but I did lots of psychometric testing and Myers Briggs and all sorts of different things. And my very interesting and astute psychological profile, I said, you are very interested in psychology.

[00:04:22] Sam Knowles: I think you should retrain to be some form of psychologist, and I can be quite literal. So I said, yeah, that sounds good. And I thought, right. I’ll go back to university. I’ll become a psychologist, I’ll retrain, I might be an occupational or an organizational psychologist. One thing that had frustrated me in a dozen years in PR agencies in the end of the eighties into the NI or all of the nineties, Maybe I was just unlucky in the businesses that I was in, the lack of curiosity about human motivation and behavior.

[00:04:50] Sam Knowles: Edward Bernay’s, Freud’s nephew Propaganda founded, created this discipline and there seemed to be little passion for understanding [00:05:00] human motivation and behavior. So I went back and studied. I went back to school. I did a and. I carried on to do a doctorate in psychology. But imagine my surprise, having given up a, a Central London agency job to walk in.

[00:05:11] Sam Knowles: Having moved out of London, never to be able to afford to return, to walk into a statistics lecture. The first two hours of my new life for a statistics lecture, and I thought, what have I done? This is a terrible decision. I’m math phobic, but I did have two brilliant statistics teachers who showed me that along with Latin and Greek and Sanskrit and English and French and whatever.

[00:05:31] Sam Knowles: I suddenly had this new way of understanding the world. Data was there, and when I eventually came back out in 2004, 2005, suddenly, you know, Facebook had been born, Twitter was coming along. I went back into communications agencies and they were about as mass phobic as I had, and they just chucked me the data and they said, is there anything in there that we can make out it?

[00:05:52] Sam Knowles: So fast forward to 2013 and I decided to go self-determining and founded of my own boutique consultancy. I thought, well, [00:06:00] data storytelling is what it’s at. Unfortunately, there seems to be an inexhaustible supply, uh, so far of largely big global corporates ’cause that’s the world that I’d lived in, in consultancy and also scale up and startups who are surrounded by data, but really either use far too much of it or run for the hills.

[00:06:19] Sam Knowles: So that’s how I got there, but I wouldn’t start from here. 

[00:06:22] Jewels Nistico: That’s a good story. Thank you very much for sharing data and storytelling. It’s kind of a contradiction in terms, right? They seem like poles apart, and I’ve been part of so many presentations where it’s very data heavy. Not very interesting for the most part, often because of the delivery or the dry nature of the, the topic.

[00:06:43] Jewels Nistico: Tell me a bit about that. Like, it just seems opposites of terms. How did you bring the two together and how do you bring the two together to make it interesting? So I 

[00:06:52] Sam Knowles: probably Yeah, of course. That’s a, that’s a really good, it is a good question. They are a contradiction in terms of one level. I often talk about this fire and ice world of narrative numbers of [00:07:00] stories.

[00:07:00] Sam Knowles: And statistics. I’m not just trying to impose my education on the world. I worked out relatively early on there was all this potential in data. If you can find what statisticians would call the killer statistics, if you can find the really motivating proof points, then if you can blend those with narrative, you’re gonna be more persuasive than not.

[00:07:23] Sam Knowles: And the reason I say that is the way that. Cognitive psychology has shown particularly the works of Daniel Kahneman and his collaborators, a Amos Dsky Kahneman, the Thinking Fast and Slow guy, Princeton, professor of Psychology. Now I think almost into his nineties. What he’s shown among many other things is that the way we make our decisions is emotionally using the ancient evolutionarily, ancient reptilian, and limbic parts of the brain that have no access to language, no access to logic, no access to data in particular.

[00:07:54] Sam Knowles: Well, that’s how we make our decisions quick and dirty. And then we go on to justify them using the [00:08:00] more energy intensive, uniquely human cerebral cortices where data comes in. So if you balance not the rational and the emotional, as people would say, I would say balance the emotional and the rational. If you put those two parts in, I think you are very much more likely to be persuasive than if you just go one way or the other.

[00:08:16] Sam Knowles: Many people who teach and train and consult in storytelling for business will say with some justification, we’ve had enough of data, data spoils things, data gets in the way. I think actually it can do if it’s presented and handled in the wrong way. So I think there are a number of elements. The fundamental skill I think, in a data storyteller is empathy.

[00:08:40] Sam Knowles: And humanity and ability to, you know, we always say in storytelling, know your audience, right? I’m training some early career researchers, some postdoctoral researchers tomorrow at a university just up the road from me here, who are working on all kinds of fascinating areas. Some of them social sciences, some of them hard [00:09:00] sciences, some of ’em humanities, and they all have their own kinds of data.

[00:09:03] Sam Knowles: I think one of the challenges, one of the real challenges that academics and people in business, and let’s look at some functions, the insight and analytics team or the market research team or, or the finance team maybe in particular, they have a lot of data, but they are afflicted by what is known as the curse of knowledge.

[00:09:21] Sam Knowles: The personology is simply this, that when you know something about something, it’s really hard to imagine what it’s like not to know that, and so, but that’s really a fundamental empathy fail. That’s a lack of empathy. I’m sure we’ve all been, I mean, you described that sort of horror story of being in presentations.

[00:09:36] Sam Knowles: I remember once being in a very big, they shall remain nameless global market research debrief to a very big, they’ll also remain nameless consumer goods business, and they were feeding back. Their findings for some testing of a new product, and they had the disadvantage of having a global brand director in the room who had a very, very low tolerance of data.

[00:09:58] Sam Knowles: He was whip smart. [00:10:00] He could run a pivot table in Excel, like the best of them, but he didn’t want to be taken through the journey of, we did this, it didn’t work. We tried this, the audience didn’t like it, we tried. What he wanted to know was, What do the data mean? And what should I do as a result? So what now what?

[00:10:13] Sam Knowles: And the poor market researcher, I felt for her. I still know her. She’s still in market research. This is a dozen years ago. He saw on her PowerPoint as it came up on the projector slides one to 162. Now, that’s not death by PowerPoint. That’s genocide by PowerPoint, right? I mean that’s, that’s just all appalling.

[00:10:29] Sam Knowles: And each one of them was this cross tabulation, but no. And then the very last one was, and then this is what we found. Now what he did was he slammed her laptop shut. I mean, I, I think, you know, that may not be acceptable corporate behavior in the 2020s. But he said, and he rubbed the back of his head, very irritated.

[00:10:46] Sam Knowles: He, he actually had a little bald patch at the back of his head, ’cause he always rubbed the back of his head. And he said, can you just not tell me what the story is? And she was thrown for a couple of minutes, but she did. She said, we’ve looked here and there and [00:11:00]everywhere, and we haven’t found anything apart from this.

[00:11:03] Sam Knowles: He said, brilliant. What does that mean? We should do? Well, what it means we should do is this. Here’s the creative. So he said, well, why did you have 162 slides? So I think that curse of knowledge, you know, when we work on behalf of our clients, if we’re in agencies, when we work on a project within a corporation, we are very much more expert than the people that have briefed us to do it.

[00:11:22] Sam Knowles: That the people we are giving the information to. They really don’t want to be taken through the pain that we’ve been taken through to come to the conclusions that we’ve come to. And if you fall foul of the curse of knowledge, then you will be blinkered to your audience. And I think that encouragement and kind of ex to know your audience.

[00:11:39] Sam Knowles: Sometimes it can be a bit bland or a bit, you’ve gotta know your audience. You’ve gotta know who you’re communicating to. One. One of the exercises I’m running with these early career researchers. In the University of Sussex tomorrow is called a pen portrait, and I’m just getting them to do a little spidergram about who they’re looking to communicate with and to focus on what they know, [00:12:00] what their likely data tolerance is.

[00:12:01] Sam Knowles: If you can understand, are you talking to the procurement team? Or are you talking to the marketing team now? Some unkind people like the Anglo Aussie, uh, mark Ritson, the, uh, marketing professor, mark Ritson. You know, would unkindly call a lot of marketing the coloring in department Now, you know, things have moved on.

[00:12:19] Sam Knowles: I know, but if you don’t know what your data tolerance is of the people that you are looking to influence, Then you’re gonna have an empathy fail and you are not gonna use data in a, in a human and empathetic way. But if you do, you can choose. You can find and use any relevant data and you can use that to reinforce the stories that you tell.

[00:12:39] Sam Knowles: So I think it’s possible to Aristotle thesis, antithesis synthesis, bring them together and be even more powerful than if you just use one or the other. I’ve got a 

[00:12:47] Jewels Nistico: feeling there are a few people listening to this episode that perhaps go, oh my God, I’ve got one of those 162 slide presentations ready to go.

[00:12:57] Jewels Nistico: What advice would you give somebody like that that [00:13:00] goes, maybe I am overdoing it on the data side. What? How do you distill 162. Slides down to something that’s a lot more acceptable, and I get the fact that you need to understand your audience, but how do you draw the stories? Where do you start when you’ve got so much data and so much knowledge you want to share, and yet, you know, the tolerance perhaps might be a little bit low.

[00:13:21] Sam Knowles: So you know that old often quoted line Blaze Pascal, the French mathematician, mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, Winston Churchill, I would’ve, you written you a shorter letter. I just didn’t have the time. So it takes hard work. I’m not saying it doesn’t take hard work to find and news only truly relevant data. I take inspiration from.

[00:13:41] Sam Knowles: A policy. I don’t think it’s a policy of Google’s anymore. I can’t pin anyone being Google down to tell me this is true, but it used to be for sure, the policy in Google. If you were a research partner and you’d done a piece of work and you were coming to debrief a team, you were allowed three slides.

[00:13:56] Sam Knowles: Those three slides, Could only have one data point [00:14:00] on each slide. They could only have three bullet points. They had to be an at least 30 point print, and you could only have one line of text on each of those three. I mean, what they preferred was three. Right. But if you were gonna use text, you had three bullet points, 30 points only one data point.

[00:14:14] Sam Knowles: You could have the biggest and the fattest and the deepest and the widest appendix that you wanted, and I think the, I mean, maybe 162, the figure is burned into my retina because of the slam shut of the laptop. I mean, I encourage people to do a number of things. One is to. When you are putting together your PowerPoint or your keynote, or maybe you know Prezi, if people are still using Prezi.

[00:14:37] Sam Knowles: I’m not so sure. I haven’t seen it used corporately for a while, but when you are building your slides, or if you are writing it in a narrative format, in a Amazon style six page memo, when you are building your narrative, not to build it in one of the tools that you’re gonna be presenting it in, because I think there’s been this fundamental confusion of PowerPoint that it’s something that we can present from [00:15:00] and also create a report in.

[00:15:02] Sam Knowles: American academic, Edward Tuft, who wrote a brilliant book called the, or pamphlet, called The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint, which I, if your listeners and you don’t know, I strongly recommend it. It’s brilliant about one, the linearity of it. You know, oh, we did a debrief for this company last month, or we did a similar debrief three years ago, and what the, and what the temptation is to go and get that PowerPoint, change the company logo, and to be bound by that structure.

[00:15:24] Sam Knowles: Now, you can possibly see on the wall there’s a big, long piece of paper with some arrows and some squiggles on it. I’m as digital as the next guy, but I always start when I’m building any kind of narrative with ikea, but I’m sure many other places do it as well. Do these long rolls of kids paper for an easel, right?

[00:15:41] Sam Knowles: I’m sure you’ve got plenty, right? And I’ve got a desk that’s one and a half meters wide. You know, when I’m planning a book or if I’m planning a complicated email that has to land, or if I’m planning a presentation, I get it and I’m afraid I make liberal use of Post-it stickies. Different colors mean different things.[00:16:00]

[00:16:01] Jewels Nistico: I’m a big fan. I am a big 

[00:16:03] Sam Knowles: fan. Yeah. And so to craft it in an analog way, I mean, I got this inspiration from when I was doing my first degree in classics, um, writing essays. Were probably more complicated in the arguments that they were considering. I’m not saying that they were higher brow, but there was just lots of things to bring in.

[00:16:19] Sam Knowles: That’s I, I didn’t do it with Post-Its and IKEA roles, but I did it with colored pens. This is this type of pen here. This is the only, I call it a planner’s pen. It’s the only ’cause you can do mean different things with different things, so not to use. PowerPoint or Word or keynote or pages or whatever you’re using to start with, to plan it out, but also to think really to force yourself to say, so what?

[00:16:40] Sam Knowles: What do the data mean? Then data might mean nothing. They might mean as many academics like to say, we need to do some more research. We’ve done some research, more research as every decent academic paper will conclude, we need more research. But what do they mean? What do they mean about the market? What do they mean about the potential?

[00:16:57] Sam Knowles: What do they mean about this? Is it a white space? [00:17:00] Have we missed the boat? What do they mean? And therefore, what should we do as a result? Are we aggressive? Are we defensive? Are we rewriting the rules? But to, what you want to do, I think with data is to, is to, is to stimulate and. Those in the audience either say, I’m with you or I’m against you, or, or to look a bit puzzled and say, how did you work that out?

[00:17:22] Sam Knowles: You say that 27% of 15 to 20 year olds really like vanilla flavored yogurt, but actually that’s completely opposed to all everything else. So to engage in a debate and once you’ve got them engaged in debate, And they’ve internalized what, what you’ve presented to them. Well, then you’ve won. Then you can open up slides 21 to 162 that are in your appendix to say, well, look, look, vanilla was here, but honey was here and Zaatar Spice was over there completely making up what the different things are.

[00:17:54] Sam Knowles: But you want to engage and begin a dialogue. Cognitive Psychology 1 0 1 will tell us if you [00:18:00] bombard people with information, they just put up a wall and they get entrenched in their position. If you open it up a little bit, if you get them to debate, if you meet them where they are already. There’s a really good Ted Salon talk by a Kiwi called Julia, d h a r, and she tells the story.

[00:18:21] Sam Knowles: She’s a former high school debating champion, so she’s good at rhetoric. She knows how to make an argument, but she tells a really good story about her dad who was in America in 2016 after the. Shall we call it the first? No. The Trump election victory. I was gonna say the first Trump election victory, we’ll call it the Trump election victory.

[00:18:35] Sam Knowles: He was naturally a Democrat and he had lots of friends who had voted in a way that he couldn’t understand. And what he didn’t do, which I think very many people did do, was to go around saying, oh my God, I can’t believe how stupid you are. How on Earth have you done that? Why have you done that? This is the end of the world.

[00:18:50] Sam Knowles: What he did was he said, I’ve never really thought about it that way before. I’ve never really thought about politics, voting, women’s rights, the right rights. I’ve never really thought about this issue [00:19:00] that way before. What can you tell me that would help me see things from your point of view? And I give you that because that line and that talk, because.

[00:19:09] Sam Knowles: That really is fundamentally about empathy. I think brilliant data storytellers, they’re not empaths, but they realize that what they have in at their disposal and their, their potential is very, very strong and very powerful. But there are some hurdles that they need to clear first, and those hurdles include not falling foul of the curse of knowledge, really understanding.

[00:19:30] Sam Knowles: What it’s like to be the other person. It’s a great quote in To Kill a Mockingbird, the hero lawyer, Atticus Finch, says to his daughter, scout, you know, we’ve never really understand a person scout until you get inside of her skin and walk around it live their lives. And I think data storytellers have to work harder than.

[00:19:46] Sam Knowles: Classical storytellers or, or storytellers that don’t make a lot of use data because that’s a, that, that is a fun, clearly a fundamental skill that I know you and many of your guests on previous episodes and a doubtless future episodes of your podcast have covered. [00:20:00] You’ve gotta be able to understand what it’s like to be in other people’s minds, and that’s the great power of story that enables us to have that experience.

[00:20:08] Sam Knowles: You’ve 

[00:20:09] Jewels Nistico: talked quite a bit there about empathy, but also underlying all of that was the ability to ask questions. And I like the way that particular one of those questions was framed where rather than reacting sort of poorly to somebody else’s decision, to actually sort of stepping back from them and asking them why or how did they come to that?

[00:20:28] Jewels Nistico: Particular decision and that sort of draws out, you know, the thinking process sort of behind that. So I think that’s quite clever. Is there such a thing as, you know, universal principles to asking smarter questions? I probably should have asked you this at the beginning of the podcast so that I could ask you smarter 

[00:20:44] Sam Knowles: questions.

[00:20:46] Sam Knowles: Well, I think, I think there is, you kindly went through my books. I actually wrote my books in wrong order and I would say that that history won’t remember. I confess to it in the beginning of the third one. So the reason I say that is because I think there are three important steps or components [00:21:00] to using data smarter in business, in government communication, and healthcare, where wherever you are, one is to ask genuinely smarter questions, and I’ll come back to those principles shortly.

[00:21:08] Sam Knowles: If you ask questions of a. SQL database of somebody you’re doing a qualitative interview with, of a suspect in a crime. If you follow principles of asking some other questions, you will get the data that you need. You will surface the relevant data with that data. Then you can build genuine insights. And by insight, I mean I define that as being a profound and useful understanding.

[00:21:28] Sam Knowles: It’s profound ’cause it, it says so what, this is what the data mean. It’s useful ’cause it allows you to say, now what, what do we do? And then you make this human, judicious, empathetic use of, of data in your narrative. And that’s just, I just happened to write those books in the wrong way. In terms of principles, I think.

[00:21:43] Sam Knowles: Absolutely. So I think definitely curiosity and curiosity, not just for what you are looking at now, but actually as a kind of defining, passionate way of living a life, wanting to find things out. Open-mindedness. For sure. I meant to, I told you you could take. The ball out of [00:22:00] classics. I’m a massive fan of not everything that he has said to have said, but particularly the Socrates, the the fifth century Athenian philosopher.

[00:22:09] Sam Knowles: I mean, he didn’t write anything down. He actually thought that writing was a bad thing. He thought that writing writing was a bad thing ’cause it would stop people remembering things. Heaven knows what he would think of chat. G P T. Actually, I know exactly what you think of chat, G P T. Uh, Plato wrote, you know, lots and lots of dialogues of him trying to find out what is the universal nature of courage or truth or beauty or what’s the ideal state and so on.

[00:22:29] Sam Knowles: And whilst the conclusions, I’m not particularly interested in the conclusions. One thing I am interested in is the paradox, the so-called Socratic paradox. He has said to have said many times, all that I know is that I know nothing. And if we go into a new brief, With that Socratic paradoxical state of mind and say, I’m gonna park my biases, my assumptions, my prior knowledge, my prejudices at the door.

[00:22:50] Sam Knowles: You know, think you are, you are. Say you’re working in a market research agency or on an analytics brief. Oh yeah. We’ve worked in the whiskey market for years. Ah, I know the Brazilian market inside out. [00:23:00] This is how we are gonna frame this. Well then you’re gonna come to some conclusions. Your research will bring you some automatic conclusions.

[00:23:07] Sam Knowles: But if you park those biases at the door and you say, I don’t know anything about this market. I mean I’ve got some experience, I dunno anything about this market, what would it be interesting to know? So open-mindedness I think is really, really, really important. Openness as distinct from openness I think is very important.

[00:23:21] Sam Knowles: So the police, not just in the uk, but the police. I was at a family gathering over the weekend and I saw a, a relation of mine who’s a detective sergeant in the north of England. He opened my eyes to a formula called the TED Formula. Tell, explain, describe now, of course, each of those three words. Are a brilliant invitation to narrative.

[00:23:42] Sam Knowles: They’re open questions, so rather than closed questions, open questions I think are incredibly important. If you are a victim of a crime, if you’re a witness to a crime, if you’re a perpetrator of a crime, you don’t want to answer the police questions. If you are a witness, you don’t want to get drawn into it.

[00:23:56] Sam Knowles: If you’re a victim, you don’t want to relive it. And if you’re a perpetrator, you wanna get away with it. [00:24:00] And so, but these tele explained crime, just tell me where you were last Friday. Can you describe what it was like when you walked into the pub? They encourage people to tell stories. So open-mindedness and openness I think are definitely, uh, different elements of the same.

[00:24:15] Sam Knowles: They’re different sides of the same coin, if you like. And so those are three, I’d say preparation, making sure that you get ready for what you’re gonna be doing. Preparing the room, if you’re doing it in person, preparing the way that you think the conversation might flow. Simplicity would be the fifth. Um, not asking cluster questions.

[00:24:34] Sam Knowles: I, it was like in Australia, but during the pandemic, when, it’s a lovely phrase to say, former Prime Minister Johnson was doing his daily press. Journalists had one question on Zoom to ask, but they wouldn’t answer, ask one question they’d ask six, and Johnson would choose the question he wanted to ask, answer rather than the question that they wanted answered.

[00:24:53] Sam Knowles: So not asking cluster questions. And the the same is true with, you know, Boolean logic in, in [00:25:00] searching social media data as it is in, in running a political interview. And then I think the single most important principle would be, So providing space, when I, I mentioned, um, Ted talk, her metaphor, her metaphors are, if you’re gonna ask questions in the way that her dad of, of Trump support.

[00:25:21] Sam Knowles: Um, it’s to treat questions and answers as a climbing wall, so you’re looking for the next niche to put your handhold in your toes in rather than the fighting cage. And I think too often we’ve all, I don’t know, have you been in meetings like this? I, I think I’ve been in meetings like this where somebody has to ask the first question.

[00:25:37] Sam Knowles: They want to be the first person recorded in the minutes, and someone has to ask the saki questions. And it’s just a back of competition, and I think that really means that you are not gonna get the data that you need. You’re just gonna get, it’s gonna be performative. So those would be my six top tips for asking smarter questions.

[00:25:53] Sam Knowles: That is a 

[00:25:53] Jewels Nistico: really lovely list, and I think anybody listening to this, they’re worth noting down. So [00:26:00] curiosity, open-mindedness, openness, including the openness in your questioning, the preparation, simplicity, and listening. I think were the six, is that right? That’s exactly right. You mentioned there as well, you know, sort of the openness of the questions and not necessarily leading the witness, if you like, into giving you exactly what it is you want to hear.

[00:26:20] Jewels Nistico: And I think I, you know, sometimes you hear, you see this in presentations or in in questioning is, People will specifically ask a question in a certain way to reinforce what they already perhaps know, rather than asking an open enough question to perhaps learn something new and, and, and move the conversation forward.

[00:26:38] Jewels Nistico: Right. And I’ve learned this, and you mentioned chat, G B T as well, and that’s a, a very good example is when you type something in chat, g p T will give you pretty much exactly what you’ve asked for, you know, to some degree. And the power in it is in the question. Being able to format a really well crafted question will will tend to actually open [00:27:00] up the responses that you get and perhaps take you down a path that you weren’t expecting.

[00:27:05] Jewels Nistico: How important is it in storytelling to I. So I guess give people the power to ask you open enough questions so that you then have the opportunity to present back in a way that allows them to learn exactly what you are learning and, and what you are trying to portray. Is there a method to sort of invoking the right open openness in in the audience as well as the openness in the way you are presenting?

[00:27:32] Sam Knowles: I think the best way to do that is to.

[00:27:38] Sam Knowles: I mean, I, I describe these as universal principles because I like to label things. I’m sure there are others. By the way, I didn’t just make them up. I spent quite a long time talking to people for whom professional success is predicated on their ability to ask smart questions. So I. F b i hostage negotiators, we’ve got quite an important thing to do.

[00:27:58] Sam Knowles: Coaches, market [00:28:00] researchers, police journalists, doctors, people for whom it can be life and death. But, you know, success is, is really important. One of the most interesting people I spoke to was a, a Zen Buddhist sensei. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the Koans, that Zen Buddhist asked. You know, what is the sound of one hand clapping?

[00:28:16] Sam Knowles: That kind of thing. The actual, the process of the process of mulling on the question, considering the question is more important than the answer itself. So I think if you are able to manifest. Particularly listening. I mean, most particularly listening, I’ll give you that last as a principle, but I think it, it could be the most important, counterintuitively, the most important.

[00:28:34] Sam Knowles: If you can manifest those principles and show that you are in Julia Dalworth on a climbing wall rather than in a fighting cage, then you know, we like to mirror. You know, we, you know, we, and maybe a few primates are the only. Animals that have these mirror neurons that, you know, it’s why we cross our legs in the same way or why we fall or unfold their arms in different ways.

[00:28:54] Sam Knowles: It’s not that we want to copy people in order to flatter them. It’s that we feel easier [00:29:00] if the other person is doing, I’m surprised I’m not doing this, to be honest. If I was standing up, I would be for sure, but we like, we feel more at ease than we are. Nope, not, not going mate. Not going mate. Changing position.

[00:29:11] Sam Knowles: We feel more at ease if we not are, are the same, not our mirror images of one another, but if there is similarity and I think that that’s or kind of equality or parity. And I think that that is the same in our questioning style and our answering style as it is in our kind of physical comport. So it’s not really much of a hack.

[00:29:32] Sam Knowles: I don’t, when having asked questions them to. Their often when I’m talking about these principles from the stage and I’m going through the principles, I’ll see how long it is. I can wait between. In my head it’s going beat, beat, beat, beat, beat. Okay. Listening and, you know, kind of rhetorically that works incredibly well.

[00:29:55] Sam Knowles: The audience could feel really nervous about the fact that they’re suddenly, you’ve got a 20 minute keynote [00:30:00] and you’ve wasted 20 seconds on, uh, what’s, it must be really important what he is gonna say just to allowing people that time, I mean, It is a bit of a hack, the listening bit and the silence.

[00:30:11] Sam Knowles: Learning to love the sound of silence is a bit of a hack because I mentioned that we like to kind of mirror or have parity, but also many, many, many people feel very, very, very uncomfortable in silence and will say things that they might not have wanted to tell you if you allow them silence. I think silence in sales negotiation can be just.

[00:30:33] Sam Knowles: Because if you don’t, you know, well, you know, we’ve got this, it’s gonna cost $60,000. Um, and just allowing people the time for that to sink in and respond to that. Well, no, I never did that. Well, not this year anyway. We couldn’t afford it this year. And, and they can, they, you know, they can suddenly volunteer information.

[00:30:49] Sam Knowles: Journalists do this an awful lot. Print journalists in particular, or, or journalists that are not recording live, just allowing people to volunteer information because they hate the sound of silence. I’d [00:31:00] encourage, learn to love the sound of silence and, and genuinely listen. So 

[00:31:05] Jewels Nistico: for anybody out there listening who’s data heavy, And is wanting to present better and present that information better.

[00:31:14] Jewels Nistico: What advice could you give these folk that are possibly listening that, that know they’ve got way too much information and they want to get a, a, you know, a particular point across. Give the audience a little bit of an idea of how you would help them break down or too much data, and where would you start?

[00:31:30] Jewels Nistico: How does the conversation start in a story when you are delivering something of value that you want? You know, you might only have a, a short period or a defined period of time to do it in, and making sure that the audience gets to the point that you’re trying to make. 

[00:31:47] Sam Knowles: That’s a great question. When I said that preparation is so important, I mean, and I’m not gonna talk initially about the actual act of presentation, but I’ll, I will come back to that.

[00:31:57] Sam Knowles: You know, you’ve been given a brief [00:32:00] by a client or a colleague or a boss or whatever to go and find something out about something. Is it possible that we can enter in this market, look for whatever, or how do we persuade our customers to stop switching supplier, whatever it might be. And you know that there’s a meeting at Wednesday at 12 o’clock and you are a week or two days away.

[00:32:20] Sam Knowles: There’s a phenomenon in data analytics known as the Last Mile problem. Uh, it’s a very good article in the Harvard Business Review in 2019 by a guy called Scott Barato who writes a lot about data called the Art and Science of Data Analytics. And he talks a lot in there about working out when your presentation’s gonna be, and then not allowing five minutes or half an hour to prepare how you’re gonna tell the story, not working and working and working away at the data, but actually giving yourself false deadlines.

[00:32:51] Sam Knowles: So I would encourage false deadlines for sure, so that you don’t allow that last mile to be swallowed up in five minutes or half an hour. You [00:33:00] actually do create a narrative. Let’s say halfway between when you’ve been briefed and and when you’re feeding back. It might be that you don’t have all the data in by then, but to give yourself false deadlines so that you begin to think from the very beginning of the response process, you begin to think, I’m gonna have to go back and tell a story and not to force fit.

[00:33:19] Sam Knowles: Definitely not to force fit the data and that definitely not to bring these assumptions and biases. Well, if I’m do that, it’s this really work and work and work away. And find and identify what you believe to be the most important data. That may well get you to a point or a moment of insight to try it out early.

[00:33:38] Sam Knowles: I think it was the ad agency T B W A, who invented the phrase, a tissue meeting that you’re gonna go and have a meeting where you draw creative ideas on tissue paper rather than expensive foamex boards, maybe to have a check-in. I know you gave me a month for this project. Can we just put a two week meeting in?

[00:33:55] Sam Knowles: So just informal over a coffee. It, it’s looking like this. What do you think? Not [00:34:00] always to precede what? To precede, not to proceed. To precede what’s gonna come and to get people to buy in. I mean, it can, that can be very useful, particularly if the initial data are very striking. That could be a very useful to, we thought we were going over there, but actually we, it looks like we’re going over here.

[00:34:16] Sam Knowles: The stakeholder, the client, the internal client may just rip it up and say, absolutely no way. We couldn’t possibly do that. We’ll be fired if we do that. I told you to make cat food and you’ve come back to me with dog food. Why would that work? And then for the drama, if you like, of the performance to actually rehearse to actually how often, I mean, I know for new business people will have.

[00:34:39] Sam Knowles: Last agency I worked at, we used to call them a limp through anyone. Not, not a walkthrough or a run through, but can we have a limp through? I’d rather like that honestly about it, but to actually rehearse to, and you can do it, you know, if it’s a team that’s presenting back, you know, we are gonna divvy, divvy it up this way, Ste.

[00:34:55] Sam Knowles: You do this Janice, you do that. Or if it’s just you actually to [00:35:00]read it out loud to say to a room with a cat or a dog, or indeed a, you know, a partner or a family member who will tolerate you doing this or somebody in your own organization who knows about the project or knows about what you are working on, but they’re not invested in, involved in it.

[00:35:16] Sam Knowles: And then you read it out or you, you say, this is the way I’m planning to start it, and the first three slides are dripping with data and they’re glazing over. But even if you just read it out loud to yourself, just read it out loud to yourself, that can be, oh God, I, I, you know, record it on your phone.

[00:35:34] Sam Knowles: Listen to how it sounds. Does that sound interesting? Does that sound persuasive? Um, I mean, a couple of other things. One is to begin with a number. Business leaders. Some politicians are brilliant at doing this with a number and kind of the rules of syntax and 9 million.

[00:35:55] Sam Knowles: That’s the untapped potential of this market in the Sydney [00:36:00]metropolitan area. So to begin with a number, to really, to shine a light or to have no numbers at all, and just to end with the number that says, and this is, but to P, it’s all about peaking people’s interests. You know, the skill of the storyteller can, I think, be married with the skill of the day scientist in order to captivate.

[00:36:18] Sam Knowles: So those are a few ideas. I hope they help 

[00:36:20] Jewels Nistico: Sam very much so. I’m fascinated by the idea of psychology and data as a mix, and I think you’ve found a, a beautiful little niche there that’s more than big enough. As you say, there’s, there’s no end in supply for technical data, and I think that’s part of the problem with a lot of.

[00:36:38] Jewels Nistico: Businesses and, and a lot of entrepreneurs and a lot of startups and those folk where they’re technically very intelligent people and they really know their stuff. And I think that, you know, the danger of having too much knowledge is a big factor, is like they, they know so much and they want to give it, you know, they wanna tell you everything that they’ve learned and known and, and I think that’s, it’s a [00:37:00] real gift to be able to strip that back, empathize with the audience, and to be able to deliver that.

[00:37:07] Jewels Nistico: In a structured way that makes sense, that delivers the information, but also takes ’em down that path, right? Takes ’em down the journey. Perhaps it leads ’em along the journey that you’ve come along, but in a way that brings them along rather than drags them along. I don’t need to know. Every single piece of the detail.

[00:37:25] Jewels Nistico: And I think, yeah, the psychology behind that is hugely important. I think this is a subject you and I could possibly talk about for hours on end, but I, I do need to wrap it up at some point in time. Do you have any parting wisdoms, Sam, for, for anybody that’s listening and where can the audience find out a little bit more about you?

[00:37:44] Sam Knowles: Cool. Um, I think you’ve drawn that together beautifully. I mean, I think that one of the challenges, I mean, as I say, I’m working with academics tomorrow. My business partner runs a consultancy that specializes in academic impact. So what is the real world impact? Not how many papers have you had published, but how are you changing the [00:38:00] world?

[00:38:00] Sam Knowles: How are you changing policy? And so, and one of the things that I think academics. Often dig in, dig their heels against in against, but so to research and analytics and insights folk in corporations is that simplification means dumbing down, and I don’t think that’s the case at all. I don’t pretend to understand what e equals mc squared means.

[00:38:21] Sam Knowles: I can see that there’s a complex idea that has been expressed simply. Another physicist, Richard Feinman. Amazing, amazing. He was interviewed by, I think it was c n n, shortly before he died. You’ve won the Nobel Prize Fest, Feynman. It saw three minutes. How long, uh, why I’d won the Nobel Prize. It wouldn’t have been worth a Nobel Prize Simplification.

[00:38:40] Sam Knowles: Is not making something simplistic. It’s making it understandable and sharing it and making people curious and wanting to come on the journey with you. And if you have that empathy fail, then they won’t come with you. And particularly in an Always on Digital First World, they’ll go somewhere where the audience is more respected and you’ll [00:39:00] lose out on that.

[00:39:00] Sam Knowles: In terms of where to find me, you mentioned My business is Insight Agents. Insight Agents. Co UK is one location. This is captured at. At www.usingdatasmarter.com and I am, I think it’s fair to say these days I’m all over LinkedIn like a cheap suit as they say in these parts. So Sam Nolls data story is where you will find me on LinkedIn.

[00:39:24] Sam Knowles: Sam. Thank you so much. I appreciate it. My very, very great pleasure. Thanks for having me on. 

[00:39:31] Jewels Nistico: What an enthusiastic discussion we just had with Sam. And he reminded us to look for the motivating proof points and blend them with your story narrative. We make decisions with emotion, then go on to justify them.

[00:39:48] Jewels Nistico: Understanding your audience’s data tolerance to avoid empathy fails and all that I know is that I know nothing much love. Chat soon.

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