Yesterday, I was at a CIM Chartered Marketer’s event at Mintel, where the Radio 2 presenter Jeremy Vine, talked about his new book, What I Learnt - What My Listeners Say and Why We Should Take Notice.
He opened his session by asking us to choose between hearing from an astronomer who can see the moon and stars from a distance and has dedicated their life to becoming an expert, and an astronaut, who had actually been on the moon. Who would we want to hear from? Well of course the astronaut with his experience will be more interesting, compared with an expert looking far from a telescope.
His point is that personal experience is challenging accepted expertise. Experts may have a professional and academic knowledge of complex matters of economics, medicine and society, but that does not mean they are hearing or understanding what is happening at a personal level.
Do the experts really know?
In trying to understand recent surprises that experts have not predicted, such as Trump, Brexit, Corbyn and Leicester City, does customer experience or choice may be a better prediction of expectations?
Previous experts have not historically got it right either. Until recently diesel was the wonder fuel, now it is considered worse environmentally then petrol; eating sugars not fat makes you fat as previously thought for decades; and outsourcing building contracts through private finance initiatives was considered more efficient than keeping things in the public sector, now the Audit office suggests otherwise.
The rise of social media and people sharing their views more readily and easily means experience is starting to win. No more are the experts just trusted. In Jeremy’s view one phrase captured to mood of the whole Brexit debate (and it wasn’t the one about expert from Michael Gove): “One listener said: ‘The experts built the Titanic’ - those words took us out of the EU. If you listened to Radio 4, you could not see it coming; listen to Radio 2 and you knew it was coming."
Anecdotes are not always evidence
There is a particular challenge with anecdote skew. He had a discussion on his show about statins. A renowned academic presented evidence based on experience of 7000 patients that suggested statins worked. One caller rang in stating very embarrassing physical and digestive issues that his mother had, which they put down to the statins and the debate was over. Of course, we will never know whether she might have had some other condition which might have caused this, but the perception stuck. This happens every day on so many issues.
Less time to focus
Add to this that due to mobiles and social media, people’s attention span is getting shorter, then spending 11 minutes debating the effectiveness of statins is going to be difficult, let alone a complex issue like the state of the NHS.
For experts, this is a challenging time. With wider sources of information, people can take control and bring in their own experience and this can be a good thing for democratising debate, but there needs to be a balance
Experts need to make the case
For me, personal experience is strong but not enough. Expertise is needed, but experts need to train themselves to be at their best all the time, to continue learning and not be defensive when personal experience shows other results to theirs.
I also feel that the power of the anecdote, the personal experience of the person, be they right or wrong, needs to be respected, but politely challenged. You can bring the respect of sensible rational debate to this, if experts are prepared to use case studies of real people, rather than relying on statistics. It’s not the 7,000 statin users that wins the day, it is the strong case studies of 10 or five or even one, who said their life has been positively changed as a result.
A good case study also supports a clear message of cause and effect, of process, it shows the lived experience of the issue being discussed and makes the experts case stronger. This isn’t dumbing down the message, but making it lived based on real experience.
The experts are still needed, but they need to work harder, to communicate their view.
And by the way, experts can also have experience: as a friend said to me today, the astronauts are real experts, they just happen to been to the moon as well.