The incoming Biden administration will require analysts across the Federal Government to adjust their products for a new audience. With the change of administrations comes a change in upper-level officials who demand a steady stream of information and analysis. Typically, an analyst needs to provide plenty of background to new customers as they ramp up their knowledge, then present increasingly complex analysis as the officials’ knowledge grows. The transition to the Biden administration will be different because many of the officials already have served in the same or similar positions, meaning they will have a much higher level of expertise than incoming officials typically do.
A quick Google search shows that several incoming Cabinet officials will be experts in their roles. For example, Secretary of State-nominee Tony Blinken served as Deputy Secretary of State and as Deputy National Security Adviser, as well as National Security Adviser to Biden when he was Vice President. He obviously is extremely knowledgeable about the world and the national security bureaucracy, so analysts can safely assume that he will understand the complexities of most international issues. Similarly, Secretary of Agriculture-nominee Tom Vilsack served in that role for two terms under President Obama, so he is already an expert in agricultural issues. This is crucial information for any analyst supporting these customers or similar officials.
The private sector is no different. Typically, you can assume a reasonably high level of understanding at the upper levels of management. Writing for or briefing a new C-Suite customer is no different than supporting a government official, and it’s just as easy to learn the backgrounds of those officers. Many companies post press releases when mid- to high-level employees join. Most people these days, whether at the C-Suite level or below, have LinkedIn or other professional social media profiles that contain valuable insight into their backgrounds and expertise. A little research can go a long way toward successfully serving such customers.
Presenting the right amount of information to the customer based on his or her knowledge level is a bit of an art, but it’s critical to your credibility as an analyst, as Chris mentioned in his post yesterday. Is your customer an expert or a novice? How long has he or she be in that or a similar position? You don’t want to talk down to your audience, nor do you want to leave them guessing what you mean by presenting material beyond their current level of understanding. As an analyst, I twice made the mistake of miscalculating customers’ expertise, both times underestimating their knowledge. These mistakes easily could have been avoided—along with my acute embarrassment—with the one extra step of learning my audience’s background and adjusting my remarks.
So, what do you do if you are addressing an expert, or what if the audience is a mixed bag of experts and novices? If you are providing a written product, you could offer background in text boxes, facing-page articles, or appendices. This would allow audience members of varying levels of expertise the chance to read as little or as much as necessary for them to understand the issue. If you are briefing, you could focus on the requirements of the highest-ranking officer while providing handouts of background materials for other attendees. Flexibility is key here: be prepared to ditch your prepared talking points in favor of a conversation, based on your lead customer’s preferences.
If you’re not preparing yourself by learning about your customer, you’re not fully prepared. Although having a thorough comprehension of your subject matter is critical, properly gauging the needs of your new customers is almost as important.