#NatSecGirl Squad: The Conference Edition White Paper — Communicating with Non-Experts

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Editor’s Note:  On November 15, 2018, #NatSecGirlSquad hosted a conference in Washington D.C. at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.  Over the coming months Divergent Options, as a partner for this event, will be deviating from our traditional content and publishing a series of white papers in various formats that capture each panel at this event.


Panel Title:  Communicating with Non-Experts

White Paper Authors:  Sarah Martin and Tabitha H. Sanders

Background:  On November 15, 2018, #NatSecGirlSquad hosted its first all-day conference at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS)-Americas headquarters in Washington, DC. As a membership organization, #NatSecGirlSquad was founded by Maggie Feldman-Piltch to foster “competent diversity across the national security apparatus.” This event represents the core of #NatSecGirlSquad: holding purposeful dialogues to disentangle complex issues and provide solutions to policy concerns that are often overlooked in other spaces. #NatSecGirlSquad was proud to host this conference with the help from its sponsors: IISS, Divergent Options, Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, the Center for New American Security, the Yale Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, GirlSecurity, and additional support from the International Counterterrorism Youth Network.

The purpose of this White Paper is to concisely present the ideas and topics discussed during the first panel, “Communicating with Non-Experts.” This panel was moderated by Quinta Jurecic, the Managing Editor of Lawfare. Commentary was provided by Beverly Kirk, the director for outreach in the CSIS International Security Program and director of the CSIS Smart Women, Smart Power Initiative; Valerie Insinna, air warfare reporter for Defense News; and Phil Walter, founder of Divergent Options, a non-politically aligned national security website that does not conduct political activities.

Executive Summary:  National security is a difficult subject to parse even when the audience also works in the field. Each sector – or even department – has unique jargon and objectives; each person has their own position, interests, and styles of learning. When talking to individuals outside of the field, the challenges become tenfold. Despite its complexities, national security is too vital an area to ignore or communicate poorly. To kick off the conference, this first panel allowed speakers the space to reflect on the challenges that arise when trying to talk to non-experts.

Each panelist agreed that understanding the audience and the briefing objective are essential to conveying information. Phil Walter emphasized that one should identify not only who the audience is, but the means by which they learn. Beverly Kirk of CSIS found that the best way to engage an audience is to meet them where they already are—namely, social media. She noted that the trick to translating complex information is to “simplify without dumbing down” or patronizing the audience, which can sometimes have a negative effect. Valerie Insinna of Defense News added that building credibility is one way to build trust among an ambivalent audience, and one crucial way to do that is to acknowledge mistakes.

Another element echoed among panelists was the resistance to acronyms and industry jargon. As Walter pointed out, Beltway industries have developed strong tribal instincts, and the usage of jargon can be an active gatekeeping mechanism. Phil Walter noted that this can be a form of gatekeeping between the various “tribes” of DC, noting that various governmental departments have a tendency to use different phrases for the same issue. At the same time, Jurecic noted that jargon can also be a quick way for someone to indicate expertise in a subject, thereby gaining trust. However, overuse can alienate an unfamiliar audience. There is a real danger to assuming common knowledge when speaking with people across industries—or even government departments. Walter advises against “throwing around” acronyms, and relying instead on common life experiences to help bridge gaps.

A twenty-minute discussion launched from questions posed by the moderator and the audience, drilling into the particulars of the opening remarks.  

Opening Remarks:  Quinta Jurecic set the tone of the conversation by reflecting on the current moment and setting the stakes. There are two opposing, but equally strong trends now—a deepening mistrust towards Washington, and a growing appetite for knowledge from Washington. As the Managing Editor of Lawfare, Jurecic noticed that her audience had grown from attracting those already familiar with national security to include people from outside the field. These trends can make the already-difficult task of decoding national security to non-experts a near-Herculean endeavor. There is a balance to strike between asserting one’s expertise and shunning those who are less familiar with DC’s lingua franca of acronyms.

Phil Walter was the first to speak, and he provided a practical framework to consider when preparing for a briefing to a non-expert. As a military veteran and former Intelligence Community employee, Walter pulled from his own experience preparing for and executing information briefings and discussions. He laid out his routine in a step-by-step process: first, identify the context of the conversation; second, understand the values and incentive structures of the organization or individual being briefed; third, tell a story; fourth, don’t discount the audience’s concerns. Finally, he emphasized, is the importance of trying to end the meeting on a high note. To best identify the context of the conversation, determine the purpose of the brief by asking the following question: is it to inform, to influence, or to ask for something? Note the difference between the statements: “It is going to rain today,” “I think it’s raining; you’ll want your raincoat,” and “Do you think it’s going to rain today?”

The essence of Walter’s remarks rested in his second point. There are elements outside of the speaker’s control that must be identified and mitigated when preparing the briefing. One in particular is organizational culture, specifically the individual values and incentive structures. The various branches within the constellation of the United States federal government have different expectations and objectives; each contractor or other mediary have their own forms and figures to adhere to. For instance, members of the legislature must be cognizant of their political relationships, at-home elections, and committee budgets—restrictions that Defense Department personnel are less encumbered by.

“It’s not about talking the way we like to talk, it’s about talking in a way that the audience receives it.” — Phil Walter

Walter also mentioned recognizing the audience’s personal preferences. If they prefer visuals, make sure to provide graphs and images. If the person wants straight text, a few footnotes, and even fewer bullet points – know this, and fill in the gaps. Additionally, elements surrounding the time and day of the briefing will affect audience reception and ought to be accounted for. A morning versus late afternoon briefing might require different adjustments, and speaking to a legislative aide during budget season or recess will yield varying degrees of success. The impact of the briefing will depend on outside factors that, while out of the speaker’s control, the effects of which can be mitigated. “If you can,” Walter said, “bring snacks.”

In terms of substance, Walter urged members of the audience to ground their briefings in a narrative. “Tell a story,” he said, as it is difficult for most people to connect the minutiae of policy. Touches of well-placed and well-timed comedy can not only lighten a somber mood, but can be more memorable than a graph. Walter advised speakers not to disregard their audiences concerns, even if the questions seem “bad” or superfluous. It is still important for the speaker to answer them, and to do so politely. The adage from high school is true: there is no such thing as a silly question. Walter concluded by telling speakers to try their best to end on a high note. The primary goal of any briefing is to pass along knowledge, but the second goal is to convince the room that they want to continue the relationship, and to “bring you back.”

Beverly Kirk shifted the discussion to drill into the packaging of the message. Kirk explained that CSIS works to produce not just written reports, but a variety of content: commentaries, critical questions, videos, and podcasts. The most effective way to communicate with anyone, Kirk said, is to “put the information in a format that they use or that they’re most likely to use, and to make it easy to find.” This means taking advantage of the “new media” —social media and podcasts, in addition to the maintenance of traditional websites. Many people in the industry might look upon social media as the place where “the kids” are, and Kirk agreed, but she was quick to add that, “The kids need to know what we’re talking about.”

With these different methods of packaging the message, the idea is to draw out the essence of those reports to inform and to entice the audience to seek out the original text. “Most people do not take the time, whether they have it or not, to read a twenty-five or thirty page white paper,” Kirk said frankly. She told conference attendees about a video her department at CSIS put together on the threat posed by North Korea. It distilled the complex and controversial issue into maps and graphics and “made it all make sense.” While the visuals might not be something often considered in communications, especially when the default might be to explain the situation in words, it is crucial to modern messaging, because it helps create a story.

“Put the information in a format that they use or that they’re most likely to use, and to make it easy to find.” — Beverly Kirk

Kirk also emphasized the importance of contextualizing for non-experts. Too often, a non-expert audience might be dismissed as not being interested or engaged. However, Kirk countered that most are receptive to information when they better understand how the issues impact them. “When I’m home in Kentucky, I’m explaining what I do in DC,” Kirk said, “and when I’m in DC, I’m explaining the people that I come from. I talk to both sides the same way.”

With a background in journalism, Kirk said the 4 Ws—who, what, where, when, and how—are a good metric to form an explanation. She urged attendees to steer from the jargon or acronyms that are ubiquitous in the field. Such language signals that the speaker is conversing among themselves, but not engaging new audiences. She pressed for people to take the time to explain, to “simplify without dumbing down.”

As a journalist, Valerie Insinna speaks to quite a general audience. When asked how she walks the line between writing a piece that is understandable to a general audience, while also informing the expert who seeks context and background, she admitted it was a frequent challenge. Her advice was three-fold: don’t rely on jargon, tell a story, and try to grab people’s interest.

“Don’t rely on jargon, tell a story, and try to grab people’s interest.” — Valerie Insinna

Authenticity is a difficult note to strike, but Insinna argued that her experiences tells her that audiences are quite responsive to those who acknowledge they are wrong. “Even if you’re not a journalist,” she said, “being open to feedback is important to making sure your ideas are heard.”

Discussion:  To respond to their comments, Jurecic asked the panel how they might make an idea accessible without losing its nuances.

Kirk responded with a variety of starting points. She said that one must approach such conversations- be they in person or on paper- with the enthusiasm and conciseness as though one were speaking with their best friend. Begin with, “You won’t believe what happened today!” as that will help identify the discussion’s key points and framing.  Like the best friend, one should begin by speaking to the person who doesn’t understand the issues, and then returning to the narrative to weave in critical and complicated factors. She cautioned, though, that reaching simplicity is not a simple task, and remains a critical skills despite being the hardest part of the craft.

Turning then to the audience, the panelists took a number of questions and used the opportunity to build on their earlier comments. One audience member, identifying as an employee at the Department of Defense, questioned the advice of the panel to explain information as simply as possible. Her issue sparked a larger conversation about the line between communicating concisely and “dumbing down” complex information.

Sometimes, though, the issue with communication is not necessarily a disagreement over facts or partisan issues, but can stem from a deep distrust of the national security establishment. Military affairs and security topics are undoubtedly divisive, and it can be difficult to talk about these issues with those uncomfortable or hostile to them. Phil Walter proposed practical measures—taking the effort to diagnose elements of national security that someone might not be familiar or comfortable with. The ultimate goal, he said, is to find common ground, however minute it may be.

Kirk acknowledged that speaking to an audience entrenched in a set of ideas is one of the greatest challenges any outlet faces today. She admitted that she has yet to figure out a way to “break through that wall” of bias, but she advised that the best thing to do is to “find people where they are.” More and more, information is bifurcated into silos to such an extent that, even when people are getting the right facts, it can be a challenge to get them to trust it. The best way to combat preconceived bias, she argued, is to stick to the facts and the data. Echoing Insinna’s earlier comments, she also advised that if the information isn’t immediately at hand, it’s better to say so. Transparency builds trust, which in turn builds accountability.

A student from the George Washington University asked for the panel’s endorsements for good national security sources. Kirk recommended her CSIS colleagues Dr. Kathleen Hicks and Heather Conley, especially the book Conley co-wrote with James Mina, Martin Vladimirov, and Ruslan Stefanov, The Kremlin Playbook. She also plugged anything produced by the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Insinna recommended the Bombshell podcast, and to read Defense media. Walter offered Rational Security, and noted how much he enjoyed the mix of jovialness between the hosts and the seriousness of their topics. Jurecic plugged the Lawfare blog and podcast as well.  

In closing, one audience member lamented that they didn’t feel that it was enough to make audiences understand an issue, but that they wanted to motivate them to do something about it. For content producers, researchers, and members of the media, Jurecic reminded that no single article or podcast episode will be the silver bullet for an idea that you’re pushing. The best thing is to keep pushing out these ideas, knowing that “they’ll return with a vengeance.” Keep getting good stuff out there, she advised.

Takeaways:  This panel offered an in-depth look at the challenges and methods by which people in national security are working communicate to ever-wider audiences. While the current moment has made it more difficult to have conversations with these audiences, to impart knowledge and to gain trust, there remain five key points to remember when preparing a briefing. The first is to tell a story, as it is easier for most audiences to process narrative threads than raw data. Second, to understand how the audience is approaching the issue, and to meet them where they are, whether on social media or in the conference room. Third, when errors happen—and they will—it is best to admit them and to make open and transparent course corrections. This is where authenticity and trust are built-in an otherwise skeptical audience. Fourth, write simply, but do not condescend the audience. Fifth and finally, the panels urged those in attendance to keep making good content.


This article appeared originallly at Divergent Options.



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