Imagine you are at your desk ready to draft what you know will be a significant intelligence product. The content is timely and relevant to an important intelligence issue. You have received and collected reporting through a number of sources and methods. You have analyzed that reporting rigorously with a diverse set of analytic techniques. The sources have been reviewed for reliability and the information for validity. You have your key findings and judgments scrawled sideways on pieces of scrap paper with coffee stains and illegible notes following weeks of work. You are ready to start writing your product.
As you open the word processing program on your computer you quickly realize you have a big problem. Then you start talking to yourself. “Where do I even begin?” “How do I convey all of this information and intelligence to my audience?” “Will I be able to accurately communicate what I mean and what my analysis found?” Writers from all backgrounds and professions experience this “block” at one time or another. It’s natural but can be frustrating and debilitating for an analyst on a tight deadline working with nuanced, fragmentary information with gaps and unknowns.
Perhaps the worst thing an analyst can do in this situation is start by thinking of or writing a title. You can bias yourself and unravel all of your (hopefully) objective and impartial analysis by subconsciously driving your writing to align with a “filler” title that may be an inaccurate description of a product yet to be written. We’ll talk more about this later.
So where should you start? I’d like you to consider a different approach the next time you’re in this situation. Instead of worrying about a title, formatting, or perfect prose at the beginning, try this: tweet or text your key findings, judgments, and/or executive summary directly on paper to get started. Here’s why.
The impact of social media tools has been revolutionary in many ways. Twitter specifically has given a voice to liberal movements in closed societies, victims in devastating natural disasters, and people who find themselves caught in the middle of fast-breaking, newsworthy events. In these situations time is of the essence and space is in high demand. You have to get as much information out as soon as possible in a limited work area and stressful conditions.
Tweets and texts are intentionally brief by design, and are often written either on the run (during a busy day) or literally on the run (from repressive regimes or imminent disasters). Users have perfected the art of sending the who, what, where, when, and why in only a few lines. As a result, short 140-to-160 character tweets and text messages are packed with useful information and lots of to-the-point details that reduce ambiguity and increase value.
How does all of this apply to drafting an intelligence product? Analysts need to deliberately practice consolidating large amounts of information into finished products that are often only one or two pages. It is a type of writing that can take years to develop, particularly for new analysts who come from academic backgrounds where flowery language and 20-page requirements are not uncommon. This technique is a way to get analysts into the mindset of writing intelligence reports where every word should have a reason for being in the document. It will push analysts to drop unnecessary words they don’t need and highlight the ones they do, thereby increasing clarity to avoid vague or weak language.
Don’t over-think the beginning of your draft intelligence product. Just write like you would a text or tweet to a family member or status update. Get the information on paper first so you can work with it. You’ll find that those short, free-written messages include a lot of details about the facts and findings of your analysis. Now that you have something on paper and made it past your writer’s block, you can clean it up and add some context.
Tweets and texts also tend to lower our guard when it comes to stuffy grammar rules or punctuation so that we can cut through the editing and review process and go directly to the exactly what we are trying to communicate. Remember, we can make our texts and tweets aesthetically appealing and grammatically correct later when bringing sections together and crafting the full product. That’s why we peer review.
Worrying too much about word choice, appearance, and grammar early in the process causes analysts to lose track of what is more important: clearly conveying their analysis and key findings. It’s the same with PowerPoint and people fumbling with perfecting fonts and colors rather than focusing on substance. It’s a different form of procrastination that won’t result in your writer’s block simply going away.
To conclude, the progression in our communication is a steadfast subject for academics and private companies. We as a society have moved from parlor rooms to talking on landlines and cells phones, and now many of us prefer texting and tweeting quick bursts of raw information. In fact, there are tutorials on how to text and tweet successfully and make the most of your 140-to-160 character limit. Intelligence analysts can learn valuable lessons about communicating their Bottom Line Up Front (BLUF) using these communication tools.
So next time you’re having writer’s block in the middle of a tight deadline, text or tweet what you’re trying to say just to get your thoughts on paper. You might find that your writing and analysis is clearer, more accurate, and to the point. Take a look at the following reports for more.
Texting Trumps Talking in U.S., Just Not as Ad Platform
Why text messages are limited to 160 characters
We Have Met the Enemy and He Is PowerPoint