From Woodstock to Nudgestock

Apparently 2020 is what you get when you put together 1918, 1929 and 1968. With just over 40% done, it’s a bit early to say. Or is it?

Pandemic – tick. Global recession – about to hit. Political turbulence and social unrest – we’re only getting started. At least 1968 was followed by the year of moon landing, and Woodstock.

Fifty years and a bit on, we’ve just had the first private company sending astronauts into orbit (though not quite with e-rockets; Elon needs to work on that). And the next Woodstock is likely to be a smorgasbord of Zoomed home gigs.

As for Jimmy Hendrix and his Fender Stratocaster – well there’s the virtuosity of puppet master Demonic Goings pulling the strings of the Punch and Judy show that is British politics.

Jimi Hendrix

Our rule-bending pocket Machiavelli prefers to go about his craft off-stage – yet his public performances are noteworthy. None less so than his headline act at Nudgestock 2017, where he wowed an audience of persuasion pros with his very own take on Bernays’s 1928 masterpiece: “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses …”.

And then, of course, there was Sherlock Holmes immortalising Dom – see this too-close-to-home review/portrait in the Spectator by Mrs. Goings, Mary Wakefield (whose habit of chronicling her spouse’s private life might still bear some interest beyond a Spectator audience – but that’s another story). Or perhaps Mary Shelley.

A larger than life monster, then? Well no. The truth seems rather more banal, from Demonic’s lawyered ‘witness statement’ in the rose garden of Number Ten (clinically dissected by the FT’s legal commentator David Allen Green) to the discovery that his prescient coronavirus comment in a 2019 blog post was in fact added on 14 April 2020, it’s all a bit petty and small.

And yet it matters, a lot. Chief Adviser to the Prime Minister in times of COVID-19 and Brexit is a big role, no matter how tiny the character.

Last week, we learned from the FT that the UK was near the top of global excess death tables in almost every measure, and in last Thursday’s Guardian’s Today in Focus podcast about the crisis in care homes, we heard from staff and managers how much their experience differed from reported government perspective.

How to Be Insightful

As Sam rightly points out, it’s difficult to learn when you’re in the middle of things. But learning is key, even more so in an evolving ‘situation’. Understanding, taking action: insights from data, the wisdom to do the right thing. It’s all in Sam’s brand new book How To Be Insightful, which Neville and I will critique in depth in our next podcast …

For Sam, insight is “a manifestation of empathy”, and judging by the Confuse-A-Cat style performances of various senior government reps, we’re having a bit of an issue there. The bleached language of public statements: “I’m sorry if you feel that way”, “behaved reasonably”, “time to move on”, the inability to apologise, or even just to listen – is the opposite of textbook crisis communication and what I’m teaching students as best practice and the right thing to do. The gap between theory and experienced reality could hardly be bigger.

Neville sees all of this as a continuance of a lack of government insights, and a question of political priorities: Trident over health and social care investment, for example. Opinions differ, of course, and one man’s blustering bloviating buffoon is another’s St Bojo in shining armour, slaying the coronavirus dragon before leading the country to the fertile pastures of a post-Brexit Britain. And if that turns out to be the failure it promises to be at first, second, and thirty-fourth glance, well, Blond Ambition will blame it all on coronavirus.

It’s too early to tell, but what seems clear is that we should continue to listen to the science. Even though the Prime Minister seems increasingly less inclined to let the public listen to his lead scientists, lest their contributions be misconstrued as ‘political’.

It’s not just about the numbers, though. “The numbers have no way of speaking for themselves. We speak for them. We imbue them with meaning.” That’s Sam quoting David Spiegelhalter quoting Nate Silver. From The Signal And The Noise to The Art Of Statistics to How To Be Insightful (and Narrative By Numbers, Sam’s first book on storytelling with data), we’re back to the roots and the essence of the SmallDataForum, and what drives Neville’s, Sam’s and my curiosity: how to connect dots, how to make sense of stuff, and how to share our journey to insights with others.


By the end of this annus horribilis, on 31 December when we look back and forward, what will we see? The Daily Telegraph’s Harry de Quetteville published a rather splendid piece recently, about life a year from today. It ends with the prediction of five trends: that we’ll still wait for a vaccine; that we’ll all but stop using cash; that cloud kitchens become a huge thing; that working will change drastically; that eco investment will be a positive outcome.

Interesting thoughts, but as the UK government would say, “it would be wrong and premature to be drawing conclusions at this stage.”

One thing we do agree on: Demonic Goings is staying. Until further notice.

Listen to Episode 36:

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.