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13 November 2007

Understanding intelligence consumers

One of the persistent myths that we find too often in intelligence shops – particularly among editorial and production management staff – is the idea that an intelligence consumer cannot internalize complex concepts and ideas, and thus requires extreme levels of simplification. Where exactly this myth first originated is lost to time, but that it continues to dominate the thinking of those who ought to know better is perplexing to say the least.

There is a vast difference between simplicity of expression and complexity of thought, and all too often the search for the former renders incomprehensible the latter. One sees this especially in products which emphasize the removal of common terms of art – despite the utility such short phrases bring to both consumers and producers when referencing a body of other works. The use of such terminology does not excuse the author from placing them into a relevant context, and using such context carefully within the structure of the products argument. However, all too often editors and others involved in coordination reject such expressions of brevity with blanket dismissal, citing perceived military origins of a phrase in many cases (as much of intelligence’s activities derive from war fighting origins, no matter what the current application), or as “excessively” technical. This is a grave disserve to the reader, who if they are not acquainted with a key concept associated with an intelligence issue, should be introduced to that background rather than left to assume understanding of a distorted turn of the phrase.

More and more, the results of this tired old trope become a primary reason why many consumers cite finished intelligence as irrelevant to their actual responsibilities – all the moreso when those consumers hail from segments of the community’s readership that may typically not have previously relied upon finished intelligence as part of their decision-making processes. Given the increasing levels of education demanded of even middle management, let alone the kind of experiences a typical senior might lay claim to, it is understandable that they would reject any attempt at intellectually coddling at the same time they are expected to be informed by a product. After all, it is not uncommon to be briefing or writing for a consumer with post-graduate education and longstanding experience grappling with difficult legal, business, and public policy issues. And given the number of lawyers that now make up the ranks of senior government and industry leaders – it is difficult to insist that an individual who might in another context be expected to rapidly skim and comprehend the most challenging of legal briefs must somehow never be troubled with a product written at a level higher than the typical newspaper’s 8th grade education standard.

This also contributes, in our view, to the reasons why consumers typically emphasize the value of many forms of “raw” and other internal intelligence reporting. These latter products tend to be authored for the primary readership of other intelligence professionals, and is therefore not “simplified” in the fashion one comes to expect from the editing and production process. It is no wonder then that many consumers – in some cases now more experienced than the analysts and other staff which serves them – prefer the “roughs”.

In the end, the manner in which a finished product is best crafted demands that the author understand the reader – and not simply rely on old maxims of some journalism editor’s style guide, applied without real consideration.

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