Post-truth: Important considerations for insight consultants

At the close of 2016, the Oxford English Dictionary announced its international word of the year: post-truth. The notion that we have somehow moved past seeing truth as important could be considered troubling for an eponymous consultancy whose primary focus is to unearth just that.

The dictionary definition for post-truth is:

'an adjective ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief'

So it isn’t as catch-all as it could seem. We haven’t thrown the baby out with the bathwater and stopped bothering with the truth altogether. However, its emergence as a term raises and reiterates a number important considerations we should be keeping in mind as insight consultants.

Deliver stories that stick

For anybody with a passing interest in behavioural economics, the definition of post-truth will sound very familiar. The notion that emotion and biases often override conscious consideration in decision making is a subject upon which Daniel Kahneman has waxed lyrical. Kahneman’s theorising suggests that in actuality people have always behaved in line with our new definition of post-truth, it just took a year of international political turmoil for the idea to surface in mass consciousness.  

This of course has implications for how we deliver truths. It highlights the importance of providing the so-whats that go beyond the cold facts and figures and forge a deeper connection. If we are able to deliver something that is compelling and intuitive, crafting a story that speaks to our more emotional side, then we should be able to cut through with our message. Being reminded that we and our various audiences are not as rational as we would like to think allows us to sharpen our focus and redouble efforts to make sure our stories resonate. 

Don’t lose touch

The coinage of post-truth has come at a time of social fragmentation where significant proportions of the populace feel disenfranchised. Writing for the Guardian in October David Runciman, a professor of politics at Cambridge, argued that an educational gulf alienates swathes of the general population from those with influence:

These are not just the bankers, but the lawyers, the doctors, the civil servants, the technicians, the pundits, the academics. Not all of the educated are winners in this world, but almost all of the winners are educated. It gives the impression that knowledge has become a proxy for influence.”

Perhaps by this account we should consider ourselves among this disconnected set of influencers. However, it is literally our job to be the conduit of the voices of these individuals, to ensure we listen properly and understand the breadth and nuance of opinion. Remembering that everybody we speak to differs in their backgrounds, attitudes, needs, fears, and goals should guide us when designing research. Our approaches must take this into consideration to ensure our findings and conclusions are fully reflective and therefore actionable. 

Mind the say-do gap

Finally, the polling calamities that meant the results of recent elections came as a surprise also remind us of the fallibility of direct questioning in data collection. It once again brings to the focus the say-do gap that is arguably fuelled by the same inability to rationalise that has led us to our post-truth state. Furthermore the shock results highlighted a mass failure to notice the social schisms that were hiding in plain sight. It is therefore important that we dig deeper, look wider and use appropriate cultural lenses to make sure we are finding all there is to be found, and interpreting it carefully.

So all things considered, the emergence of post-truth as a concept should not strike fear into the hearts of those who deal in truths. Instead, it should energize us to take heed from the learnings that come from its conception, enabling us to be confident in the truths we deliver and in the way we deliver them, so that we can ensure we are fully living up to our name.