How to turn thoughts into insights

Five steps to generate data, business, and people insights

Everyone has thoughts. Few turn them into insights. Even fewer communicate insights in a way that creates a lightbulb moment for others.

Arriving at personal insights and shared insights is a skill accessible to everyone. It just takes some guidance and a lot of practice.

What’s the difference between a thought and an insight?

A thought is everything the voice in your head is saying. An insight is the distillation of those thoughts into something simple, profound and actionable. An insight cuts to the (non-obvious) truth. An insight changes the way you see something. The best insights save you time, energy, money, and unlock unique opportunities.

Here are some examples of distilling thoughts into insights:

Thought: Our suppliers are not seeing enough sales. We need to get them higher visibility. Can we give them special placement?
Data insight:
They are actually getting a large share of the views and clicks, but people are not buying. We have a conversion problem, not a traffic problem.
Thought: Suppliers believe our marketplace is low ROI so they don’t update their catalog, which makes them perform even worse. How do we escape this doom loop?
Business insight: We have cheap access to something that is expensive for them. They care about getting paid quickly. We can offer the best suppliers guaranteed payments to lock them in, which will then ignite demand.
Thought: We just spent 2 hours debating the pixels on this screen. Is this the most important thing to get right? What’s the problem again?
People insight: Most people dive into the “What” and “How” instead of starting with “Why”. You can’t possibly design a useful solution without understanding the problem and why it’s important. People like motion, but motion is not progress.

In real life, our thoughts are rarely this organized. Reality has a lot of details, much of which distract from what’s most important. Wandering thoughts are not bad though. It takes many wandering thoughts to form an insight. To find the insight in the haystack, we need a process. Here are some guiding principles.

Sifting your thoughts for insights

1. Don’t take things at face value

To find bedrock truth, you need to identify your assumptions, challenge them thoroughly, and pursue unintuitive findings. This is the opposite of what you’re taught in school where it’s more efficient to memorize than understand. Most people do not engage in deep inquiry. Others give up midway. The ones that stick with it are rewarded. Easier to do when you’re genuinely interested in what you’re working on.

2. Ask “why” and “so what”

Cut through the fluff to what really matters using sharp questions. They help you tease out cause-and-effect. They help you quickly become an expert on the problem, and deeply understand what you’re working with. Without this groundwork, it’s impossible to come up with simple and elegant solutions.

3. Capture your early findings

Get your thoughts down using your preferred medium, whether it’s writing, drawing, or talking out loud. Thoughts floating in your head are like castles in the air — they generally don’t survive contact with reality. I find writing to be particularly useful because it exposes logical holes I would otherwise overlook.

4. Take a break

The best aha moments often arrive when your brain is working in the background. Think: revelations in the shower, during a run, or after a good night’s sleep. Once you’ve done the active thinking, give your brain the chance to surprise you. Insights emerge from turning your mental kaleidoscope. Your brain needs time to work through the combinations.

5. Pattern match

As you put in more reps, you’ll sense at times that you’ve seen this movie before, and know what the twist is. Your instincts will sharpen. Pattern matching is the shortcut to insights, but is only possible after many iterations of the previous steps.

Make no mistake, this is a lot of work and requires focus time. You can’t possibly analyze every observation like this. But if you regularly practice with the most important thoughts in your head, you will get faster and better at deriving insights.

From personal insights to shared insights

A personal insight helps you understand what matters most, and sparks ideas about what to do. A shared insight turns that personal insight into words that help others arrive at the same understanding. To go from one to the other, you need good framing.

There’s only one secret to framing: understand what your audience cares about. What are their priorities, and how does this insight change their lives? The rest is just sequencing your delivery to match what they care about.

Management consulting is a well-known bootcamp for the skill of framing. One of the first things they teach fresh-faced recruits is that executives are busy. Let’s pretend you’re in a 2-minute elevator ride. They ask you for a progress update. If you start rambling about some esoteric detail, you will most likely bore them, and they may reconsider your value.

To make a better impression, start with your “so what” / insight: the thing that potentially changes the way they see their business. If you don’t have anything impressive yet, start with the implication of what you’re working on.

Everyone is an executive of their own life. So starting with an insight that resonates applies to anyone you’re talking to.

What if you don’t know what they care about? The best step is to do research so you’re not going in blind. The next best step is to prepare different framings, and adjust on the fly based on their response.

Developing a habit of knowing what your audience cares about, and how your message will land will place you in the top 1% of communicators.

Credibility ratio

What’s your ratio of expressed insights to thoughts? I call this the credibility ratio. The most effective people have a very high ratio — most of what they say are thoughtful gems rather than throwaway lines to fill the void.

People tend to not only listen to them, but want to listen to them. They don’t go off on random tangents and squander valuable time. They get to the point. They provide direction. They help others get unstuck. We can all raise our own credibility ratio.

Thoughts are like carbon: cheap and plentiful. Insights are like diamonds: rare and valuable. Mining our thoughts for insights helps you work on the things that matter, persuade people to get on board, and uncover opportunities invisible to others. There are few skills that generate more compounding value than being able to find insights in the haystack of life.

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