Nightingale’s Insightful Lessons

We all know Florence Nightingale as a British nurse who came to prominence during the Crimean War, and arguably the founder of modern nursing. But she was so much more than that. She was a 19th century insight manager.

Joe Stubbs

Global Brand Director at C Space

Joe Stubbs is C Space’s Global Brand Director. He’s a natural born rule-breaker (and resident provocateur) who never stops pushing the boundaries of our brand, marketing and design. Joe’s number one priority is to turn good ideas into great ones, then turn it all into bloody good work. He joined us as an intern, became a consultant, and built our well-armed, industry-leading creative services team. A decade later, he still doesn’t know how to use the kettle or the photocopier. 

In the winter of 1854, roughly 9,700 British soldiers were injured in and around what is now Üsküdar in Istanbul. 4,000 of these soldiers died. Only 400 died as a direct result of their wounds. Ten times more soldiers died from dysentery, cholera, typhus, malaria and typhoid – whilst in the hospital – as they did from being shot at by the enemy.

Put another way, during the Crimean War, British healthcare killed more British soldiers than the Russians.

In October 1855, Renkioi Hospital was opened on the Asiatic bank of the Dardanelles. The hospital was a wooden prefab, designed and constructed in England under the supervision of the famous mechanical and civil engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel. In the ten months the hospital was open, 1,300 patients were treated. Only 50 died. The mortality rate, as a result of infection, was reported to have dropped from 42% to 2%.

The innovation that saved lives in the Crimea was Brunel’s sanitised, prefab hospital. It was a remarkable product that saved many lives in the Crimea; designed in just six days and “taken to market” in less than 10 months.

So, how come you don’t recognize this story?

Despite being the Steve Jobs of the 19th Century, very few people associate Brunel with healthcare today.

The hero is, of course, Florence Nightingale – the mother of modern nursing.

Working at the hospital, she was closer than anyone in her organisation to the end user: the patients. She was able to collect data and then link that to behaviors, which she observed first hand. In doing this, she was able to remove herself from prevailing organisational and media hypothesis and uncover the truth: mortality was directly linked to sanitary conditions.

Florence, in this story, plays the role of the modern day insight manager. There are three things I think we can learn from her…

1. Create a brand around your insights

Whether or not it was intentional, Florence Nightingale cultivated a personal brand from the moment she arrived in Scutari (Üsküdar). This brand was adopted by popular media, which undoubtedly furthered the nurses’ cause back in England.

When we help clients launch long-term insight communities, we always encourage them to develop a brand to support the work. In its simplest form, this can be a logo or a customised site design – but where we have seen this done best, clients treat their insight program as a product. This product has a look and feel, a tone of voice, a consistent means of communication (be that through targeted email campaigns, animations, office displays or reports).

Creating a brand gives the audience a point of focus. Subconsciously, we all make assumptions about content and carry baggage associated with where this content comes from – a brand helps define these assumptions and challenges the baggage. It makes content easier to identify and helps manage stakeholder expectations around quality, consistency and the amount of time they need to invest.

2. Present the information in its simplest form

In 1858, shortly after the Crimean War, Florence Nightingale published a study called Notes on Matters Affecting the Health, Efficiency and Hospital Administration of the British Army: Founded Chiefly on the Experience of the Late War. The study contained a diagram — built on the foundations of William Playfair, the godfather of data visualisation and inventor of the pie chart — and presented mortality data from Scutari, 1854 through 1856. It distilled the study’s key findings into one clear and compelling graphic: the Diagram of the Causes of Mortality in the Army in the East (below).

It’s arguably the most powerful infographic of the 19th Century. It’s an incredible piece of marketing.


Florence was ahead of her time. In today’s world, few of us have time to sit down and read an entire deck or report. It’s optimistic to expect those around us to read a hefty document, process the key pieces of information then act on the two or three significant take outs.

The key is to identify the compelling truths that ladder up to business change – and then present these back in their simplest form. This could be an infographic, a short video, or an animation that lays out the actions and opportunities gleaned from insights.

3. Communicate a single solution based on your stakeholders’ primary needs

Reducing mortality in the Crimea was Florence Nightingale’s personal objective. This in itself is admirable – but this alone would not have necessarily secured buy-in from stakeholders. The Crimean War was the first media war. Initially, the British press had supported idealistic liberal interventionism abroad – but as the war progressed, the blunders of the army’s aristocratic leadership and clear cases of negligence became a source of embarrassment for the government. Public opinion shifted, considerably.

The British government suddenly had a brand perception challenge. As is the way with politics, this was bad news. The reason we all know the name Florence Nightingale is because of the PR value of her story. But why Florence?

Because she was able to link her insights to the needs of her sponsor, the British government. ‘If you support this hypothesis, fewer soldiers will die and you – the government – will be seen as creating action and driving change. People will stop blaming you. You will secure votes.’ A simple strategic positioning of the insight – that’s what allowed Florence to achieve her personal ambitions and save more lives.

When planning insight programs (regardless of whether they are short-term face-to-face projects or long-term online engagements), do everything possible to immerse yourselves in the challenges and priorities of the stakeholder. This helps you identify the ‘ah-ha’ moments. By understanding key sponsors’ needs, you can focus on making recommendations that get buy-in and create change.

Or, in some cases, save lives.

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