In conversation with… Caroline Florence

I first met Caroline (the Founder & Director of Insight Narrator) on a blistering hot summer afternoon in this amazing rooftop bar in Chicago. We got on immediately.

She’s one of the very few people I regularly recommend because she’s such an amazing communications trainer, facilitator & coach.

What she does is vital – she helps insight teams and agencies learn how to find and communicate the story from the data.

Some of this wisdom has been distilled in her latest book, Data Storytelling in Marketing – which I can’t wait to read (out on 3rd June, you can pre-order using the discount code DSM20).

Over to Caroline.

What was your first ever job?

I had a paper around about 14, I think, but I very quickly delegated it to my brother and outsourced it.

My first sort of proper job was as a lifeguard. I used to swim competitively, but as soon as I realised I wasn’t ever going to be good enough to get anywhere with it, I did the Life Saving qualification. It was quite a good part-time job when I was at uni and in sixth form because you got paid better than working in a shop. I never had to save anyone, but there was a lot of whistle-blowing.

Who would you most like to share a coffee with or go for a drink with?

I struggled with this one because there are just too many people on the list.

One person I’d be really interested in talking to and having a coffee with is my great-grandmother. I’ve been doing some research on, completely going down a bunch of rabbit holes – I’ve gone back to the Tudors.

She was really interesting. She moved to England from Ireland, on her own, at the age of 20, after her parents died. Which is a big move for a working-class, single, Irish girl. I’d love to find out what it was like to do something that brave at that time. I know from my Nan she was quite forward-thinking; she was into the suffragette movement and I’d love to hear her stories.

What would you say has been the highlight of your career so far?

It’s got to be setting up my own business. Turning all the experience I had up to this point into my own business, and being able to develop that into a proposition that’s worked for 12 years. We’re still going strong and it’s a real privilege to be able to pick the type of work that I really want to focus on. And I get to work with so many different people and see the different talent in our sector.

Why did you decide to go on your own?

There were some practical reasons, if I’m honest, getting to a point as a mother and looking up within the organisations I’d worked in and not necessarily feeling that I wanted to be there.

There was a lack of inspiration, in terms of being able to do everything I wanted to do and not take a sideways step into a non-client facing role. I really wanted to be out meeting with people and doing client-facing work and still be able to manage my time.

There was also the desire to focus on the parts of the job that I really liked and be much more focused and disciplined around where I can add value.

There’s an issue in research and insight client-side teams, where you get to a ceiling quite quickly. So I knew when I hit that ceiling when I was being offered jobs within the business outside of insight. But I still fundamentally love the Insight work, research and all the analytics side of things. So working for yourself gives you more options.

Nature or nurture?

Bit of both definitely. If I had to choose, I would probably go nature, just because I’ve got two sons and they couldn’t be more different, even with the same parents. I do believe there is an element of nurture, in terms of their environment and being a parent to a second child. It makes you a different parent to the first and all of that. But yeah, they’re so different, so nature plays a huge part.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever heard or been given?

Many, many years ago, I worked for this really inspiring woman called Janet Hall. She’s not around anymore, unfortunately. But she was super ahead of her time. She’d worked in China before anyone else had imagined that as a feasible opportunity. She’d worked in the brewing sector and knew everything there was to know.

She said this to me once, and it’s always stuck with me so I use it in training all the time, “when you’re talking to my peers and you’re in meetings with my boss, I expect you to spend 2 times the meeting time preparing for that meeting. And that’s after you’ve prepared all of your content.”

At the time, I thought, preparing my content was my preparation for the meeting. But she was talking about knowing who I needed to speak to in advance. Who’s going to be an advocate? What questions am I going to ask? How am I going to facilitate the conversation to meet my objectives? All of these really important elements of the meeting, which I’d kind of just gone with the flow with up to that point.

I’d definitely been using my content as a crutch for how I would lead a meeting. She got me thinking about what else needs to be done to truly influence people.

What talent do you yearn for?

I would love to be able to sing because I am tone-deaf. We’ve got a real mixed bag in my family. My dad and my brother have absolutely wonderful singing voices, but I can’t at all, and I’d love to be able to sing in tune.

What’s your favourite brand?

I really struggled with this one. Because I was trying to think about what are the brands that have played quite a significant role for me.

I kept coming back to Disney. It’s just the sheer variety of the different things that they do. I went to Disneyland Paris last year. I assumed it was just for the kids and we’d have to suffer the day. But I was just blown away by how magical I found the whole experience. The whole idea of being able to dream and create all of these worlds.

They’re constantly evolving and bringing these imaginative characters and creativity into our lives. I think it’s a brand that does emotional connection and customer experience really, really well.

What book would you recommend to others?

I’ve recommended books quite a bit from a training perspective, and often the ones that I have recommended are ones that challenge what we do in our world a little bit. Books like the Tyranny of Metrics, for example, or Black Box Thinking and Gary Klein’s book Seeing What Others Don’t.

Then from a fiction perspective, it’s really hard to pick one that you think everybody should read, but the most recent book I enjoyed was from a series by Tim Weaver. It’s quite formulaic, but I find it quite an easy read at the end of a busy day. They’re missing persons, private investigator stories. And Karin Slaughter does a lot of the same as well. They’re pretty gory. I must admit, I probably have nightmares when I read this type of book.

What last impressed you at work?

I get impressed so often because I work with so many different people and parts of the sector.  I love challenging default behaviours and getting them to do things differently. I’m amazed quite regularly, where, within a short period of time, people can get to.

I worked with a strategy team a couple of weeks ago, helping them develop their story for a board meeting. I have a real thing about strategy documents, with the dreadful four pillars and the triangle visualisation!

We got them to think about it completely differently – to focus on the message and what was it that they were trying to do. They walked away with a completely new story to talk about. I was really impressed that they were able to let go of the strategy formula and focus on how to get people to understand and feel why they should do things differently.

What was the hardest lesson for you to learn?

Many years ago, when I was working at Royal Mail, there was a Senior Commercial Director. He gave me some tough feedback.

He called me into a meeting room and said, and I’m paraphrasing a bit here, “The problem with you, Caroline, is you think you’re right because you have all of this data.

At the time, I just thought, that’s not the way to give feedback and of course, I am correct when I make recommendations as I have evidence to back my claims up.  But it led to a really interesting conversation around how to engage and influence, especially with frontline staff within the business. People who work with the customers day in day and out and the conversations they’re having compared to what we were trying to communicate (in a really and functional way) about NPS scores.

It made me realise the disconnect between what they were feeling (from their day-to-day interactions) versus what the data was saying. It made me more open-minded about how insight gets socialised, used and how decisions are finally made.

At the time I remember feeling quite uncomfortable. But actually, it was brilliant feedback, though I’m not sure I’d deliver in quite the same way…

What would you want to do when you retire?

That’s the easiest one, travel, travel, travel, travel, travel.

I think I’d like to do voluntary work abroad and just immerse myself in different places. I just like to see and experience a variety of places. I’m sure there will be some pottering around and gardens and all of that sort of stuff as well. But, as long as we’re fit and healthy I want to be out there and seeing the world and experiencing life.


You can connect with Caroline here.



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