So many of you have been asking me ‘how do you get insights?’ that it’s about time to write an answer. It’s an important question to all serious about ideas, knowledge, solutions and communication. And the answer can be the difference between inspired content creation and insipid content creation.

My short answer is this:

Insight is seeing the invisible; seeing the connections others never notice.

My long answer is five every day strategies that get you to the ah-ha moment that is insight. But first, let’s here from a cognitive expert on the subject.

The getting of insight is well described by cognitive psychologist, Gary Klein, author of Seeing What Others Don’t: The Remarkable Ways We Gain Insights, who explains that ‘an insight is an unexpected shift in the way we understand things. It comes without warning. It’s not something that we think is going to happen and that’s why it’s unexpected. It feels like a gift and in fact it is’.

In two words, sudden clarity.

The paradox of this is that it happens gradually. This is made infinitely clear in that old showbiz saying (I think Eddie Cantor said it first) that it takes twenty years to make an overnight success.

In our case, all the time and effort spent researching and sifting through data and information is a necessary prelude to the flash of sudden clarity. And more often than not, it comes at the most unexpected moment. You could be doing coffee with friends. You could be playing with baby. You could be walking the dog. Notice how it happens when you’re busy doing something other than “work”. You can’t force insight. It wants to come when there’s no stress or pressure or anxiety. It’s a pretty laid-back phenomena, so you want to chill out to create a welcoming space for it to come visit.

This is the rationale behind the “mindfulness rooms” now set up in organisations like Google, Apple, KPMG, IBM and eBay. Mindfulness training develops the skill of presencing the faculty of attention to the here and now. This heightened attention to “reality” is the lens through which you can see more than you otherwise would.

This is nothing new of course. Meditation masters have been doing “mindfulness training” for 2,500 years and attained the ultimate insight — enlightenment — as a result. Siddhārtha Gautama, Dōgen Zenji and Yeshe Tsogyal are three of many.

So how do we train the brain to become more attuned to insights? Here are a few strategies that you too can employ and see what happens.

Hmmm Curiosity

When looking at all the information before you, ask yourself questions like ‘what does this actually mean?’, ‘how does this go with that?’, and ‘what if …?’ You’ve got to be alert, proactive and positive in the process. Above all, you’ve got to be very interested.

The art of questioning was recently covered in my Socratic Dialogue post which describes the three types of questions (opening, guiding and closing) that enable you to harvest information for knowledge and insight.

No insight comes from a passive, dull mind. Klein notes that, ‘people who get insights see something that’s a little bit off, and instead of ignoring it, they’re curious about it. Curiosity keeps our mind engaged to work out the implications.’

The results of an fMRI experiment found that we’re most curious when we know a little about a subject (our curiosity has been piqued) but not too much (we’re still uncertain about the answer). This supports the information gap theory of curiosity first developed by George Loewenstein of Carnegie-Mellon in the early 90s. According to Loewenstein, curiosity comes when we feel a gap ‘between what we know and what we want to know’.

Einstein should have the last words on this: ‘I have no special talents, I am only passionately curious.’

Haaah Daydreaming

In a 2012 psychological study published in Psychological Science by researchers from the University of Wisconsin and the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Science, researchers examined the relationship between people’s working memory capacity and their tendency to daydream. They first asked participants to do one of two extremely easy tasks that might prompt them to daydream—either press a button in response to a letter appearing on a screen or tap their finger in time with their own breath—and periodically checked in to see if the subjects were paying attention or not. Then they measured each participant’s working memory by testing their ability to remember a series of letters interspersed with a set of easy math questions.

Their findings showed that participants who more frequently daydreamed were better at remembering the letters when distracted by the math problems compared to those whose minds did not wander. According to the researchers, this points to the fact that the mental processes of daydreaming may be quite similar to those of the brain’s working memory system. ‘Mind wandering isn’t free—it takes resources,’ explains Jonathon Smallwood at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Science, ‘but you get to decide how you want to use your resources. If your priority is to keep attention on the task, you can use working memory to do that, too.’

The key take-away here is that when you’re daydreaming, your mind will still be on the job at the sub-conscious level.

Geeez Coincidences

‘Be more alert to anomalies’, is Klein’s recommendation, ‘rather than quickly explaining them away and staying in your comfort zone.’

Happy accidents. Serendipity. Synchronicity. Or, as Dylan so eloquently put it, ‘a simple twist of fate’. These are the magical mysteries that are hard to explain and easy to ignore. Even when we do bother to give it a moment’s attention, our tendency is to explain it away as a fluke; simply because we think it’s meaningless. But what you’ve actually done is miss the point.

As a writer, your job is to look for meaning. Coincidences are connections you make to realise a meaning. It’s not the meaning itself but a surprising connection to a possible meaning that then leads to an insight.

Recently I was preparing a proofreading training program for the Supreme Court. A conversation with one of my clients led to the subject of seeing. Her neighbour, who happened to be a QC, told her about an experiment in which a one minute movie shows a gorilla passing through a group of basketball players and 50% of viewers didn’t see it. This led me to the realisation that proofreading is the ultimate act of seeing what others don’t see. It also inspired the theme of the training program — Proofreading: The Act of Seeing. And to underline just how valuable and meaningful the insight was, the training was received with a round of applause by all thirteen participants.

‘There’s a belief that correlation doesn’t imply causality, which is true. People see all sorts of correlations in coincides that turn out to be spurious, so they get a bad reputation,’ explains Klein, ‘but a lot of insights are fed by people spotting coincidences and making assumptions, and instead of just saying “It must be true” do the follow-up work to find out if it’s true.’

Ahhh Contradictions

Whereas curiosity makes us wonder, contradiction makes us doubt. Next time something doesn’t make sense to you, instead of explaining it away as an inconvenient fact, question why?

Questions open up the conversation. They also open your mind to new possibilities. And contradictions often provide excellent manure for fertilising the mind. All you have to do is question the contradictions and see where that leads.

One of my copywriters and I worked on a project where the product was a 3D virtual battlefield training program and the target audience were military commanders. Based on Hugh Mackay’s Ten Desires That Drive Us, we identified their key desire to be ‘to love and be loved’. Huh!? Love? War? Unimaginable! But when we put aside our typecasting, and looked at it seriously, it made all the sense on the world. A military commander will go to any length possible to maximise their troops survival in a war. Love of country also includes love of countryman and women.

As Klein says, ‘the contradiction only leads to an insight when people take it seriously enough to explore it a bit.’ You’re bound to end up in a few dead ends, but it only takes one little opening for you to arrive at a valuable insight.

Uh-ho Urgency

Sometimes the good old drop-deadline contributes to freeing up the straight and narrow mind. Urgency is very effective for focusing the mind to hone in on a solution a.s.a.p.

This situation occurs regularly in my copywriting classes. We’re nearing the end of the session, the participant has yet to come up with the idea, and a creative outcome must be arrived at before the bell tolls. This is when I get pushy and inject a lot of urgency into the process. It focuses their mind toward a workable solution. Here’s a true story in which the student was struggling to come up with a headline and he only had one minute to go — 60 seconds: Tools for creating greater inclusion … NO! … 50 seconds: Training towards greater inclusion … NO! NO! NO! … 40 seconds: Train towards wider inclusivity … YOU CAN DO BETTER THAN THAT! … 30 seconds: Learn towards wider inclusivity … GET REAL ABOUT IT! … 20 seconds: A clear window to inclusion … 10 – 9 – 8 – 7 – 6 – 5 – 4 – 3 … Abolish Exclusion! … YEEEEEAH! YOU CRACKED IT!

Embrace urgency, or what Klein calls “creative desperation”. It forces you to look at things you might otherwise ignore. Then when insight breaks through, urgency encourages you to see it and act on it right away.

Oooh I See

The more you see, the greater your depth of observation, and the more information you can pick up on. Next week’s post will dive a little deeper into ‘the act of seeing’ and the mindfulness studies that are opening the eyes of researchers around the world.

Oh and by the way, did you see the eye in this post’s picture?


  1. Sandra says:

    Some great strategies outlined. Its encouraging that all ideas and information can be relevant because sometimes we can be too critical of our own ideas. As a result we dismiss the idea and potentially oversee the lead to the insight we were looking for! I’m especially happy to be reminded that questions and curiosity are a good thing too – be prepared Nic for our next CWiA session!

  2. Liam says:

    I’m really enjoying the psychology of this so far. Looking forward to applying some of these strategies to our work.

  3. Melissa says:

    Really interesting article – I need to remain curious!

  4. Karl says:

    I like the Information Gap Theory of Curiosity. It’s a useful way to keep people reading to the end if they feel like they don’t have the full picture just yet. It reminds me of the way the TV show Lost worked so well, constantly stringing viewers along in the hope of quenching their curiosity.

  5. Christopher says:

    I found this quite informative

  6. Mel says:

    It may sound simple but the key point I took from this piece was that all information is relevant, regardless of how small or big or relevant it appears on the surface – it just might hold the key!

  7. Veronica says:

    Thanks for the insight to insights. I especially enjoyed seeing how the techniques of copywriting, the use of patterns of expressions were put into play in this article.

  8. My takeaway from this is that basic assumption can be the killer of insight. Remaining curious, asking questions and listening (with awareness) are fundamental to our capacity to go deeper in the creative process

  9. sacha martini says:

    Interesting read and I look forward to applying these skills to my writing.

  10. Elise O says:

    Great article. Extremely useful in identifying thoughts I may have previously ignored throughout the creative process.

  11. Alex D says:

    This article is encouraging in relation to actively pursuing curiosity on the path to insight.

  12. Simon Carr says:

    It’s interesting, the different tools used to arive the one objective, Insight.

  13. Ken says:

    An interesting perspective. The idea that insight is the direct result of investigation is as simple as it is brilliant. It also gives power to following relevant tangents to a conclusion.

  14. Jessie L says:

    Very interesting read. I especially like the idea of being curious enough to explore a contradiction to find insight.

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