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Why what you don’t know is as important as what you do

15 Feb 2020

By Kristina, Gifted MD

Over the years I’ve worked with a lot of very clever people. This is inspiring and terrifying in equal measure.

In more simple, primitive times before Facebook, selfie sticks and microwavable baked potatoes (proof surely, that the concept of progression is subjective) I had a lengthy discussion with a statistician about a press release I was drafting on his report about lifestyle habits.

The dialogue obviously began with an acronym. This is the meat and drink of discerning expert circles; to not respect the code of the intellectual would be most unsatisfactory – like not standing up for the national anthem. Or having cheese without wine.

“You haven’t put in that it’s an MSOA,” he says, reeling the letters off in a quick-fire succession of academically-laced bullets. He sounds perplexed.

He wasn’t the only one. I racked my brain for what an MSOA could possibly be in the context of lifestyle. In other terms, all the fun stuff involving booze, sugar, burgers and too much television that will get you in the end with a combination of sedentary-based, square-eyed saturated-fat-focused commitment to Channel 5 documentaries and takeaway curries.

Medium Sized Obese Adult? Major Salty Object Addiction? Most Saturdays On Alcohol? Something to do with cheese….? Think Kristina think!

It’s that moment many will be familiar with: “Impending Fear Of Looking Stupid For Not Knowing That.” Or IFOLSFNKT. Maybe.

The moment of truth.

At this point us mortals, apart from the late Stephen Hawking and perhaps that man off Pointless who seems to know everything, are at the crossroads of truth versus pretence.

Put another way, we either confess to not having the first clue about what somebody is saying…or go down the other path and pretend you completely understand everything.

The latter can be authenticated (sort of) by furiously nodding, making the occasional “mmm” sound, or even a little titter of laughter (but only ever in response to a titter, otherwise you’re on dangerous ground) to demonstrate you are absolutely, undeniably in the Tent of Wisdom rather than out in the cold with people who couldn’t do equations at school and thought Pythagorus was a snake.

“Oh mmm yes absolutely, the MSOA should definitely be referenced! Speak soon!” I say brightly. Ha! I am totally IN THE TENT. I’m pretty much there in the middle with all the clever people that play chess, complete The Times crossword and answer the questions on University Challenge like it’s dabbing numbers at Mecca Bingo.

It’s fine. I’ll just Google it.

Now all is clear. It stands for Middle Super Output Area! Brilliant! I’ll put that in.

Well I would, if I knew what on earth it is, assuming it isn’t anything to do with with Lord of the Rings.


This is the problem with the path towards tent-based misplaced unity. It’s a bit like turning up to play tennis with a cricket bat.

And so comes the next, inevitable stage of conscious recognition that Google cannot help you with. The follow-up phone call.

“Hi, me again! Could you just explain what a Middle Super Output Area is please? I’m not quite sure journalists will understand what that means.”

There is an audible titter. But I can’t titter back and make any consensus-based mmming noises, because I am no longer in the tent. I’m over at the other side of the field, tiptoeing backwards towards Mecca Bingo.

Finding common ground.

After 20 minutes I have concluded that an MSOA is a region. But the statistician says that technical it isn’t. It’s an area absolutely defined by some form of geographical boundary but it’s unequivocally NOT a region.

We compromise.

“Region” is used in the press release but we link it clearly to an editorial note about the mystical, magical world of MSOAs. So statistical experts, analysts and Gandalf will rest easy in their beds and the press pack won’t phone up asking what an MSOA is because Google was no help and their readers won’t have the foggiest either.

I also explain about news hooks, which it turns out he thought were just links to other stories.

As specialists, we all bring something to the table that ultimately makes for a better outcome.

And specifically as communicators it’s our job to help interpret often complex detail into a simple, clear message, a skill that is often seen as easy but can be ferociously hard. Another skill is knowing how to interpret 95 per cent confidence intervals, but that’s not my forte. Over to the other tent for that business.

We should never feel stupid for asking what may feel like simple questions because most of the time, other people will be wondering exactly the same thing. And some of those people may be too afraid to ask. Intelligence comes in many forms. There’s probably an acronym for that.