In my last blog post, I urged analysts to become three-dimensional experts, and now I’m adding another critical piece of expertise-related advice: your customer’s level of expertise should be just as important as yours in driving how you present your analysis. You must gauge your customer’s level of expertise and then modify your language accordingly. I’ve worked with plenty of analysts who were deep experts yet frequently failed in their primary mission of informing decisionmakers because of an inability—or unwillingness—to speak or write at a level appropriate for their audience. When analysts get this wrong, they either communicate at too complicated a level, leaving their customer confused, or they speak too simplistically, which risks insulting their customer.
When gauging your customer’s expertise, the first factor to nail down is their ability to handle details and jargon. What type of language will they understand? Can they grasp the technical terms and shorthand you use with fellow experts, or do they require more general language and careful explanation? Do you have to avoid some terms and concepts altogether?
Acronyms are a special subset of jargon that I consistently see analysts get wrong, particularly in acronym-loving government agencies and in military and technical fields. Far too frequently I’ve sat through briefings where the presenter never defines key acronyms and leaves me wondering what they’re talking about. Always spell out your acronyms the first time you use them unless you’re absolutely certain all your customers know them.
Getting your customer’s expertise level right also relates to their need for context and backstory. How familiar are they with the issues you’re covering? Do they know the relevant history, or were they perhaps part of that history? Will your customer see the implications of things you’re saying as obvious, or will you have to spell things out for them? If you underestimate their need for context, you’ll leave customers confused and frustrated at the missing pieces in your product. If you overestimate it, you risk stating the obvious, which implies you don’t think your customer is as knowledgeable or experienced as they actually are. I occasionally saw analysts explain the basics of a foreign country to customers who had been stationed there for years. Such cringeworthy misjudgments of expertise can lead to embarrassment and offense.
Finally, your customer’s level of expertise relates directly to their ability to challenge you. Do they have enough expertise to dispute your analysis? One of the most demanding customers to have, particularly if you are briefing them, is a fellow expert. Dealing with customers with similar training and experiences can be quite tricky because they often take great pleasure in picking apart your arguments. They don’t necessarily do it to be mean; they just can’t help themselves, and I say this as a confessed nitpicker.
As a new analyst, I supported an Assistant Secretary of State who had been working the issues I covered for decades longer than I had, knew the foreign leaders I was writing about, and had served multiple times in the region I covered. Her expertise allowed her to challenge my analysis and placed a premium on my tradecraft and use of evidence.
As I discuss in my course, Strategies for Success as an Analyst, to speak at your customer’s level of expertise you must see your analysis through their eyes. It’s your responsibility to adjust your level of complexity to fit their capacity to understand and to moderate your level of detail to match their threshold. Usually this means making your analysis more accessible to a nonexpert. Some senior analysts I’ve worked with resented having to, as they put it, “dumb down” their products for a customer lacking their in-depth knowledge. Don’t have this patronizing attitude, ever. It implies your analysis has a value of its own regardless of a customer’s ability to understand it or interest in using it. It does not! If they don’t understand and believe your analytic argument and find it relevant, you’ve wasted everyone’s time and failed as an analyst.
Turning something complex into something understandable is far more than “dumbing it down” and in fact requires a great deal of sophistication and skill that many analysts lack. As Albert Einstein once said, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”
Gauging your customer’s level of expertise obviously places a premium on actually knowing something about your customer. I’ll talk about how to tackle that challenge in my next post.