A podcasting journey evolves: meet the Podnosticators

Podcasting is an activity that I love. From my first steps into this field in late 2004, I now host and co-host three business podcasts. One of these is The Small Data Forum monthly podcast that started in May 2016.

Nearly seven years and 74 episodes later, Sam Knowles, Thomas Stoeckle and I, the three founders and co-hosts pictured above, have taken a step forward with the podcast to make our individual voices stronger, emerging into the light, let’s say, from behind the SDF podcast name.

We spent a long weekend together in Andalucía, a delightful part of Spain on the Mediterranean coast, where Thomas has a lovely hideaway villa in the hills above Málaga. Our ‘podcasting retreat’ also combined exploration and discovery of the culinary delights in this part of Spain. And as the picture above suggests, taken in Málaga, the weather was fabulous compared to Blighty in mid March!

But, as Sam notes in the episode we’ve just published that sets out our refreshed stall, we’re not about the weather. Rather, we continue our seven-year focus:

We take a sideways look at the uses and abuses of data big and small in politics, business, and public life with opinion and insights that challenge accepted wisdoms.

We think creating a name that embraces the meaning of that statement along with a sentiment that describes the three of us behind that statement is what we want to do now. And so the “Podnosticators” came to be.

In episode 70 we recorded on March 13 and published on March 20, we explain how this name came about and why we think it is a really good moniker for the emphasis we wish to present about the podcast and who’s behind it.

Thomas introduces the idea of “podnostication” and Sam dives into the origin of the name and how a googlewhack played a key role. He dives even deeper into the origin in an etymology-focused post on his website. Both wax lyrical on foxiness and hedgehogging.

While in Spain we recorded four episodes, numbers 67 to 70, all but one in a new short-form presentation of 20 minutes or less. This will likely be our production goal as we move forward that differs from the single long-form 45-minutes-plus monthly episodes: the shorter ones will likely be on a single topic whereas the monthlies address multiple topics. And short-form will be the norm. We’ll see how this plays out and will very much consider what listeners say. So do let us know what you think.

One related change concerns Twitter. Until now @SDFpodcast has been the handle that we use to communciate about episdoes, etc. That handle continues but now becomes purely a means to announce a new episode without commentary or narrative. So follow that handle to get automated content notifications by tweet (if you prefer email for that, you can sign up on the podcast website).

Our primary conversational handle is @Podnosticators – follow that if you want to hear opinion about topics and to add yours if you have something to say.

To our existing listeners, thank you for listening, I hope you like the new changes. If you haven’t listened to us yet, why not try us out with this episode 70? You can also read the complete transcript below.

Either way, let us know what you think.

(If you don’t see the embedded MP3 player above, listen on the Small Data Forum website.)

The Small Data Forum Podcast, episode 70: “The Podnosticators Edition”
Recorded in Ríogordo, Andalucía, Spain, on 13 March 2023


Thomas Stoeckle:

Good morning. Another sunny morning, Monday morning in Riogordo, Malaga, the last day of the Small Data Forum’s road trip to Andalusia in the south of Spain, where the three Podnosticators, Neville Hobson, Sam Knowles, and myself, Thomas Stoeckle, went to rethink how we want do this whole podcast thing that we have had going for about seven years now, putting the world to rights. And I think the joint mutual feeling was that we need to put more effort into putting the world to rights, because it really needs it. So therefore, we will continue with this short-format podcasting, but there will also be the occasional long one.

This particular episode is going to be about the idea of “podnostication”, where the word comes from, and without, I think, any further ado, apart from saying what we’re doing here, is considering what drives us, what lights us up, as Sam wrote in one of his books, one of the perfect dinner party introductions that go way beyond, “So, what you’re doing?” Many more lovely ideas in Sam’s books, but this isn’t a marketing exercise. Sam, over to you. Tell us where this word comes from.

Sam Knowles:

This is a sort of self-reflexive, self-indulgent, solipsistic, onanistic… We’re all navel-gazey, but we’re going to try and make it less navel-gazey.

So, Podnosticators came like one of those blindingly marvelous flashes of insight. We knew it had to be our name during the first night of our trip. Podnosticators. Well, let’s think. It’s obviously related to prognosticators, and, as your resident etymologist, I’ve gone back and had a look and seen where this has come from.

And I’m delighted it comes originally from Greek rather than from Latin. It comes via Latin and Middle French. But prognostic, [Ancient Greek 00:02:11], it’s a Greek word, very little change, that means foreknowing. And it was related to weather. It comes into prognosis, many who have ever been to a doctor and have got a chronic condition will know about the prognosis, but it’s about coming to know things before they actually come to pass.

Now, the sharp-eared of you will realize that you’re listening to a podcast. So what we’ve done is we’ve taken the prog-, slightly bastard etymology, chopping off a bit of one word and a bit of another, and replaced prog- with pod-.

So, we’re here to look at the uses and abuses of data, big and small, in politics, business, and public life, to try and see around corners, to try and find the light at the end of the tunnel, to try and get to more insight, more, as I would define it, profound and useful understanding. As Thomas says, the world has never needed guidance like it before.

We don’t think we have the answers, but I think we do think that we can ask some smart questions, get to some really interesting insights, these profound, useful understandings, and then we can tell, as we’re looking at data big and small, small B, capital S, we can tell human, empathetic, data-driven stories that can allow us to, at least for us, and we hope for many of you, to make sense of the world, and to not necessarily avoid making the same mistakes again and again, but to perhaps, once, to learn from history, or in this case, because we’re prognosticating in a podnosticating kind of way, we can maybe fail to make the mistakes that we might otherwise have made.

Before handing over to Neville, I just want to talk to you a little bit about going back to prognostication. It’s really fallen off in popularity since 1800. Google has this fantastic timeline when you look for an etymology. It was much more popular in 1800 than it was in 1900. It had a slow, downward gradient. Interestingly, in the 10 years in the pre-millennial tension years of the 1990s, it had a slight peak, and then it’s dropped off entirely.

And those who’ve seen the uses and abuses of data in the past 20 years of our 20 plus years of our digital world might think “Yes, that’s not surprising that people really haven’t been having foreknowing.” So, we’re not about weather, really. The weather’s very nice in Spain. We’re not about health and wellbeing. We’re about how data can be used and, well, that’s, I think, enough etymology.

Neville Hobson:

That was actually a pretty good explainer, I think. That puts it in great perspective, it seems to me, where the focus is not changed from when we started this podcast, but I see this as the three of us emerging into the light, let’s say, from behind the SDF podcast name, which is an entity, I suppose, by differentiation.

But we’re keen for the three of us, collectively and individually, known as the Podnosticators, to make our individual voices more obvious. The Small Data Forum podcast, how we communicated on Twitter, LinkedIn in particular, is, in a sense, a marketing brand, to differentiate it. And that’s been fine for the past seven years. But in our discussions about all this, we wanted to change that a bit to reflect more of the personal element each of us brings to the table, as it were, that collectively we will make this up.

And so it made a good sense to come up with a, dare I say, I shouldn’t really call it a brand name, because that’s not what we’re about, but we need an identifier, an identity that we can project with the same focus on what we’ve been talking about before.

So, I’m actually looking at the description on our website, which we’re going to update this, because this is when we started and it’s not changed, but we focus more about this mythical thing, I love it, called the sideways look. And that’s a differentiator for us.

We state quite clearly, we take a sideways look at all these things, in the context of data, big and small, the uses and abuses of data, big and small, in business, public life, and politics, or business, politics, public life, doesn’t matter which way round it is, but politics is a strong focus here. Public life gives us a broad remit to talk about anyone, ranging from Boris Johnson, Keir Starmer, and Gary Lineker. They’re all in public life, in one way or another, so we’ve got a rich source material that we can talk about. That’s important to us. We have opinions about all these things. So here’s the start of the next chapter in the evolution of the Small Data Forum.

So, welcome to the Podnosticators. Go to Twitter, Podnosticators is our handle.

Thomas Stoeckle:

Thank you, thank you both, and thank you for being part of this journey for the last seven years. It takes them back to the beginning, when we first met to be the Small Data Forum, my then employer asked me to do what is called a fireside chat in the business. Not that you necessarily do fireside chats in the morning, but maybe it was a breakfast meeting meets fireside chat. And it was meant to be all about big data, and how big data is being used in business for insights and all these sorts of things.

And I said, “Can I please not call this big data? Because that’s what everybody says. I want it to be about small data, because what makes a real difference in using data is narrowing it down to the bits that really matter, and that turns big into small.” And that was the beginning.

Now, when we started out, and I think this is quite significant in a way, as the Small Data Forum, in front of this audience of potential clients and so on, it was very much a scripted exercise. Here are three things we need to discuss, and then here’s Neville’s opinion, and here’s Sam’s, then I add something to it. We took this format into our continuous podcasting. We’re now beginning to do something different, and both of you alluded to that, and it’s much more about the dynamic between us, and the emerging, dare I say, wisdom, insight? Whatever, that comes out of that dynamics.

Neville Hobson:

Careful, careful, Thomas. Getting carried away.

Thomas Stoeckle:

The “what lights us up” thing, one book that I want to mention in this context is Nate Silver’s The Signal and the Noise, which came out, I think, in 2010?

Neville Hobson:


Sam Knowles:

[inaudible 00:08:52].

Thomas Stoeckle:

Which gave me the idea of the… Or introduced me to the concept of the hedgehog and the fox; the curious fox, the open-minded, curious, potentially empathetic fox, and the close-minded, single-minded hedgehog. There’s a purpose for both in life and solving problems and so on, this goes back to Samuel, of course, tell us… Archilochus, third century before Christ, maybe? That is an important concept, has become a really important concept to me. I personally identify strongly with the fox, perhaps a bit too much. Sometimes hedgehoggy qualities would also suit me.

Another book that I want to mention, then I hand over to Sam again, is Harry Frankfurt’s Bullshit, which was also published in probably around 2010, ’12? Which, in a way, is closely related to this whole idea of the hedgehog and the fox, and Harry Frankfurt, as a philosopher, defines the term “bullshit”. And the way he defines it, I don’t have the definition in front of me, but for me it’s very, very close to something that you would describe as plausible deniability. It’s not about blatant lying, it’s about bullshitting in a way that you can always get away with it.

And when I read that book first, way before 2019 and when Johnson became Prime Minister, the print edition of the book that I have has several exclamation marks on various sides where I wrote, “Johnson” exclamation mark, exclamation mark, exclamation mark. So, why am I mentioning this? Now, we talk about ChatGPT, we talk about politics, Johnson, and so on. Plausible deniability, fake news, hallucination.

I think this is all really important stuff in making sense of the world, and this is what the Podnosticators want to cut through and get a better idea of where we are, where we might be going, and where we perhaps should be going. Sam?

Sam Knowles:

Really interesting you mentioning Bullshit, because in the longest of the podcasts that we recorded in Spain going out Tuesday, or went out last Tuesday, I made reference towards the end to an article from The Times Higher by Colm O’Shea at New York University looking at the perils of using ChatGPT, because of its convergent thinking rather than divergent thinking approach. And the fact that it gives gist rather than vivid explanation. We will definitely include a link to the article in the show notes.

But that actually, gist and summary and boiling down from however many sources in the way that the algorithms currently do, and this is O’Shea’s considered opinion, leads to a bland synthesis, not an insightful joining together, but in fact, what he calls bullshit. So there’s a nice circularity there.

On hedgehogs and foxes, you’re right, Archilochus, quite right, sixth century BC, but don’t worry [inaudible 00:11:52] about that. He was one of the lyric poets. Hedgehogs and foxes, hedgehogs and foxes, that was picked up by Isaiah Berlin, the head of Wolfson, founder of Wolfson College, Oxford, wrote it as a joke, really, and was rather taken aback by how seriously it was taken. I think it’s a very useful distinction, nice distinction.

But, in the same way as being foxy, being interested in lots of things, asking open questions, there comes a moment when it’s important to ask a closed question. So if you’re a prosecutor, if you’re a police investigator, you will use open questions. The police have this fantastic formula, the TED formula, tell, explain, describe, encouraging defendants, witnesses, and victims of crime to open up, to give a narrative account. But once it looks like they’re going to get to where they need to get, then closed questions have a role.

In exactly the same way, being foxy, being curious about everything, having this endemic sense of curiosity, and going around and finding out all sorts of things, all sorts of perspectives, really, really matters. But also there comes a time when we can be hedgehoggy, and I think three of our podcasts have been very hedgehoggy.

One, we’re talking just about the Podnosticators and what that means. Another one, we talked about Gary Lineker and the BBC, and a third we talked about the PR industry missing the boat. So, I think our emergence is we’re embracing both our inner fox, because we are, I think, by nature, quite foxy, the three of us, we three Podnosticators. But also, I think we’ve also learned to embrace our inner hedgehog, that when we’re just going after food, we’re just going after food. So there we go.

Neville Hobson:

I like that, embracing our inner hedgehog. That sounds superb. That’s very good.

Thomas Stoeckle:

It’s a bit prickly. It’s a bit prickly. [inaudible 00:13:43].

Neville Hobson:

Prickly topic, yeah, I know. Nevermind. [inaudible 00:13:44].

Sam Knowles:

The inside’s fine. It’s the outside.

Neville Hobson:

So, that’s really great. I think you’ve summarized that very nicely. All I would add before closing is to say to our listeners, not much will actually change in the overall topic areas we talk about. What might shift is the focus, in some ways.

So for example, we’ve always said from the very beginning that we want to make big data more actionable, more valuable for marketing and communication professionals. That’s still true, but others outside marketing and communication, there’s something for you here as well. And it’s not necessarily if you’re keen on politics, although there’s that too, the sorts of things we address have a communication flavor.

Sam mentioned the episodes we recorded and published during our retreat in Spain this past week. The myopia in the PR industry is a very good one about AI, but not just AI, and Thomas brought that bit to the table. If it had just been me talking about it, it would’ve probably just have been about the tech.

Hence the three of us bring different perspectives to these topics, which is terrific. We will build on that, you will see in future episodes.

So, that brings us to the conclusion of this short-form episode that lets you know about the Podnosticators. And I’m going to, as always, pass the ball back to Sam to conclude… To Thomas, actually, to conclude us in his inimitable manner.

Thomas Stoeckle:

Thank you very much, Nigel… Neville. So, one little thing that will change in the outro is that now we are going to refer to our new Twitter handle, @podnosticators. There’s also a LinkedIn page coming, in production. We continue to be at smalldataforum.com, where all the show notes and the links to the podcast will be uploaded, and probably additional material, we’ll probably build that one out a bit more as well. And then also, of course, there are the complementary but different channels that Sam and Neville use: nevillehobson.com, Neville’s website; insightagents.co.uk, that is Sam’s professional persona.

So, this is going to be the temporary end of SDF podcast on tour… Podnosticators on tour. We will probably be back out here at some point. I think it was a good one. Thank you everybody for listening, stay with us, tell others, and us, what you think, and spread the word about the Podnosticators.

Thank you very much.

[Episode transcribed by humans at Rev.com.]

Neville Hobson

Social Strategist, Communicator, Writer, and Podcaster with a curiosity for tech and how people use it. Believer in an Internet for everyone. Early adopter (and leaver) and experimenter with social media. Occasional test pilot of shiny new objects. Avid tea drinker.