An Improviser’s Guide To Finding Insight Or, Five Ways To Get From Data To Insight

There is a moment in the creation of every Second City sketch revue where a scene is in precarious shape: The director and the cast know they have something there, but it’s not there yet. The audience doesn’t get it. Or they straight up don’t like it. The creators haven’t found the truth yet – otherwise known as the ‘Awful Truth,’ that recognition of some audience reality represented in some unexpected way.

It’s either too obvious (Rush hour sucks!)

Or true for only part of the audience (Become an actor so you never have to drive during rush hour…because you can’t afford a car.)

Or too weird (Rush hour is like a party for cars to get together)

At Second City, we’re obsessed with finding the human truth. We work hard to understand our audience’s fears, pains and frustrations. We don’t stop at merely observing the facts, we search for the why behind the facts to help our audiences understand their world.

In other words, we look for insight.

In our work with marketers, we’ve heard the word “Insight” used to mean different things, ranging from research data to trends to those big-ticket, sexy strategic insights. People throw around the word Insight like Altoids at a bad breath convention. That performance metric for a streaming pre-roll ad? INSIGHT! That purchase analysis of teen boys? INSIGHT! My youngest child’s name? INSIGHT!

Data is important, but it’s not necessarily insightful on its own. It can be the building block to insight. It can inform strategic decisions. But data is not insight. It requires human beings to elevate it into insight.

In the same way that our shows succeed when they nail the human truth, great creative marketing work stands out when it is based on strategic insights, the kind that can’t be summed up in an Excel sheet. They build upon the data to add 50% more empathy for human behavior, and 100% more “I wish I’d thought of it that way!”

“But,” you’re thinking, “I don’t have time to come up with a sexy insight, I’m too busy graphing up this research results on my deck and calling it insight because I have to include an insight slide and that’s all I have to work with!”

Don’t worry; the same techniques that help us discover human insights for satire can help you craft more powerful insights (jokes not included.) The distance from your observable data to great insights is shorter than you think. You just need to look at the facts like an improviser.

Here are five ways to think like an improviser to turn Data into Insight:

Listen Longer

The best improvisers are also the best listeners. When an audience member shouts a suggestion, we listen to more than the words. We listen to the emotion in the their voice and the way the rest of the audience reacts. When we try out a new idea, we watch the audience’s reaction to the scene moment by moment – and then we test it across multiple audiences: One great reaction doesn’t mean that the scene is a hit.

As you pull together your data, don’t jump to conclusions too quickly. Stay open as you gather the facts. Look for disparities, things that don’t jive. Don’t think like a detective, who has a hunch early on and follows it. Think like a couples therapist, who seeks to understand all the factors before coming to a conclusion. Great insights come from deferring the hunch-making until you have a more complete picture. Dig deeper, pull multiple sources, and get creative with your listening. Stay dubious. Pull together a mini-focus group of friends who fit the target; pull interesting articles that unpack trends – and then go to the source of those articles to gather more information.  If you’re working from a brief, don’t take the data at face value – cross-reference against other sources.

Create Unlikely Connections

Once you’ve collected all the data and perspective you can, it’s time to be brave. Now it’s time for gut-feelings and hunches. Start by asking “Why?” Why do people click on the ad after midnight but only on Tuesdays? Why are women buying more of these men’s underwear – are they wearing them? If so, why? Why are people in major cities deferring retirement – are they cash-poor, or just happier in their jobs? Or something else?  And why? For sketch comedians, this line of thinking helps to create the connection between the observed and the deeply understood.

For example:

People will post hateful things online they would never say in person

(Why?) Because they are not face to face with their audience

(Why?) Because they are too busy to get together

(Why?) Because they are spending too much time online

(Why?) Because they crave human connection

Unlikely Connection: I’m feeling lonely – I think I’ll troll some Facebook feeds!

Improvisers might riff backstage, trying out multiple ideas in a quick-fire conversation to find a direction that works. If you don’t have a willing ensemble of improvisers handy, you can replicate this process through visual Clustering.  Write down a key idea or fact or question at the center of a sheet of paper – and quickly jot down ideas, thoughts, questions, and presumptions in associated clusters radiating out from the central fact. Write down everything. By making a visual record of your internal thought process, you can begin to notice patterns and connections your conscious brain might miss.

Say, Yes And

To create our stage shows, we generate hundreds of scenic ideas, most of which die on the cutting room floor. To get to the gold, we have to create an overabundance of ideas. We also explore different iterations of individual ideas, sometimes swapping out major elements to discover the right setting, characters and tone. It takes trial and error to find the right approach to the human truth. In elevating Data to Insight, be willing to throw a lot of spaghetti at the wall.

Brainstorm laterally – Make multiple attempts. Follow different directions. If you are working in a team trying to get to the insight, break up into pairs or work on your own in parallel, then come back together and compare your discoveries. Sometimes the best ideas only stand out when you have other options. Whatever way you do it, don’t stop with just one attempt.

Brainstorm vertically – For each idea direction, spend time thinking deeply and fleshing it out. Try different options within that insight to fully explore it. Rather than poking holes, look for possibility – keep asking “What’s missing? What’s the why behind this why?”

Create an abundance of ideas.

Rush hour is when we choose to go the same direction at the same time across limited resources and blame it on all those other jerks on the road.

When I retire, I think I’ll still take the train during rush hour because I’ll miss the smell of gamey hipsters at 5:30PM.

Rush hour would be fine, if it wasn’t for all the other jerks doing it at the same time as me.

Rush hour is our communal pact to pursue happiness through total misery.

Rush hour is proof that humans are basically pack animals. By which I mean animals that need a 12-pack after driving in this madness.

Pitch It – Get it on it’s feet

At Second City, we don’t wait for a scene to be perfect to put it on stage. We get it out there prematurely, testing it in front of the audience, as a way to see if it flies and, if so, to refine it. When you have an insight that you feel good about, try it out. Show it to others, see if it continues to resonate. Consider whether it’s actionable – can it drive great work? Is it surprising, but recognizable at the same time?  Is it simple and meaningful? Great storytellers develop their stories over multiple attempts; iterating upon your insight may help you find the simplest, most elegant articulation.

Test it

Take that big, sexy strategic insight and go back to the data – do you need additional research to pressure-test your insight? Does it jive with the research, or have you been seduced by some pithy catchy phrasing that sounds great but ignores the facts? The best insights are the ones that include all the data, not just the parts you like. Ask yourself “have I retrofitted an insight to justify one of my cool creative ideas?”  One of the most painful backstage experiences at Second City is when we have to cut a scene that we love, that makes us laugh, but makes the audience say “Meh.”  

Data will always be important, but insight is what makes the people important. The ones whose behavior is explained as well as the ones doing the explaining. There will always be a place for people who can think strategically to discover great insights. Some of them will sell products, some will sell punchlines, but all of them will be more fun at a party than an Excel spreadsheet.

Learn more about how Second City Works can help your team identify and articulate those insights.


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