OPINION1 January 2012

Giving the gift of confidence


Predictions are precarious things. Everyone has a view on what will happen at some specified time in the future but most people will be wrong. You don’t have to have read Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s bestseller Black Swans to know that surprise events can render even the most plausible predictions redundant.

Uncertain times such as these breed unforseen and unwelcome developments and the reliability of predictions goes down as a result. Yet companies – nervous about the future – look for guidance about what to expect. Can researchers meet this demand for foresight?

As Robert Bain discovers in this month’s cover feature, much of what makes for a compelling prediction is the confidence the forecaster has in his reading of the future, and the way in which he communicates it. A strong vision, powerfully put, demands attention and wins converts.

Researchers aren’t short of the evidence needed to formulate a prediction of what might be, based on what has been – but figuring out the best way to tell the story might need some work.

Also this month, Richard Young meets five researchers who are learning what they can from other disciplines to make their insights more attention-grabbing. Advertisers, entertainers and entrepreneurs – three of the five – know that to succeed, they must make people want to listen to what they have to say. Researchers should know that simple truth too – after all, it is they who do much of the message-testing work that other professions and industries rely on.

It might be beyond the reach of most mortals to accurately foretell the future, but it’s well within the ken of researchers to build a powerful and persuasive case for what might happen, and to instill their clients with confidence that they’re heading down the right path for their business and their customers.

Confidence is a valuable commodity in these insecure times. Never mind questionable claims to prophetic abilities: the research industry’s greatest gift might be to give businesses the fortitude to invest and grow and get the economy moving again.