Write Like a Spy (or How to Write to Get Decisions)

When it comes to writing expertly and persuasively, there's no better writer than the intelligence analyst. Their reports have to be both succinct and captivating because everyone from the Pentagon to the President will be reading them.

In this article, we're going to share tips on how to write like a spy. Not because you are a spy, but because your ability to write intelligent reports will change someone's life!

Ready to get started?

Writing Intelligent Reports

The Basic Intelligence Writing Skills...

Short is the word that defines all intelligence reports.

  • Short words. 
  • Short Sentences.
  • Short Paragraphs.
  • Active Voice.

This sounds like common sense, but in reality? We're all verbose. This means we have to edit, edit, edit. And just when we think there's not enough content left? We need to edit some more.  Brevity is clarity.

Your At a glance Guide to writing like a spy

Outline Your Way To Intelligence Writing...

Intelligence writing is a learned skill. No one is born with the capacity to write excellent intelligence reports. No Analyst's kindergarten teacher ever said to their parents, "Your child uses really persuasive language and created a finger painting to convince me to throw water-filled balloons at the first-graders". This means they've learned the basic skills we're going to outline in this article and then refined them. In other words, they've learned to BLUF

What is Bluf?

According to Wikipedia:

Bluf stands for Bottom Line Up Front.

BLUF (bottom line up front) is the practice of beginning a message with its key information (the "bottom line"). This provides the reader with the most important information first. By extension, that information is also called a BLUF. It differs from an abstract or executive summary in that it is simpler and more concise, similar to a thesis statement, and it resembles the inverted pyramid practice in journalism.

BLUF is a standard in U.S. military communication whose aim is to make military messages precise and powerful. It differs from an older, more-traditional style in which conclusions and recommendations are included at the end, following the arguments and considerations of facts. The BLUF concept is not exclusive to writing since it can also be used in conversations and interviews.

Source https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/BLUF_(communication)

Note that last line? BLUF is not an exclusive writing concept, but one that can be used in interviews AND conversation. This means you can practice it at any time!

Let's look at the 3 steps to intelligent reports...

Step One: What's New?

Answering ‘What's New?’ includes your BLUF statement. You can expand upon it by adding in any new developments. If there are no new issues, why are you writing the report? What's new is the change that you're seeing or hearing about. You can add the right context. This section should capture the essential elements and hint at the outcome you're looking for. 

Step Two: Why's it Happening?

This section of your intelligence briefing is to give your reader a tiny bit of background to prompt their memory. You can mention any historical context here if needed. Remember: brevity is clarity.

Finish this segment with what will happen to others. What's the impact locally, nationally, and internationally?

Step Three: Why Do We Care?

In intelligence reports, this part is about the outlook and the impact on your nation's policies. Are there opportunities to advance them, or will there be negative repercussions? Showing the reasons you should care, along with the situation, helps the report reader formulate the overall decision-making process. In marketing, this is known as the "what's in it for me" moment, and it's on everyone's mind. 

Writing to Get a Decision

The above 3 steps are the framework of your intelligence report. You'll find this amounts to around 400-500 words or a sheet of A4 or Letter-size paper. Yes, that means a 12-point font with 1.5 line spacing, for those of you that need to know. But that's not all you need... 

You need the following 5 elements as well in order for your spy report to get considered for something other than an outright “No”!

How decisions are made from intelligence briefings
  • How important is this briefing to the person who’s reading it?
  • Is it on-message? Is this accurately reflected in the title and the opening paragraph?
  • Are you providing facts or possible outcomes? Which ones should you be providing and which ones do you need to delete?
  • Are you making a compelling argument? Are you logical and coherent? Is your tone balanced and objective? Have you provided sufficient evidence to prove your point?
  • Have you provided a report that's concise and free of typos? Does each sentence advance your story or hold it back?

Does Any Of This Sound Insane?

The final check you need to make is the sanity check. If it sounds insane, then it probably is. Where can you adjust your language so it's less sensationalist and more factual?

Grammar & Style For Intelligence Reports

Grammar and style for intelligence reports are different from how you may be used to writing. We've pulled these tips from the Analysts Style Manual (see sources) and you can see the differences in how dates and measurements are expressed. If you saw a real-life intelligence report, you might think that the date is wrong, or “what the heck is the metric system?”. However, the grammar is not incorrect for this type of document.

  • When it comes to deciding on capitalization, the best advice is: “If in doubt, don’t.” Do not, for example, capitalize the first letters of the words explaining an uppercase abbreviation unless the term abbreviated is a proper name. INF (Intermediate-range nuclear forces), but: USPS (United States Postal Service)
  • Capitalize a common noun when it forms part of a proper name but not when it is used alone as a substitute for the name of the place or thing or when it becomes separated form the rest of the name by an intervening word or phrase. Social Democratic Party, the party Atlantic University, the university. This rule does not apply to certain well-known short forms of specific proper names. For example: the British Commonwealth, the Commonwealth of Panama (or Suez) Canal, the Golan Heights, the Heights
  • Although the reader comprehends numerals (figures) more readily than numbers spelled out, typographic appearance and other special reasons often call for spelling out some numbers rather than using figures. Numbers of 10 or More. Except in the first word or a sentence, put numbers of 10 or more in figures (not in spelled-out words.) Sixteen days of traveling left him exhausted. Re-word to: He was exhausted after 16 days of traveling.  US Dollars. Dollar amounts should be written with USD preceding the number. All money values should be expressed as USD. The drugs were valued at USD 5 million. not 4.5 million euros
  • Foreign Money. When there is no option but to use foreign currency values, use figures for all except indefinite amounts. [Typographic limitations may preclude the use of symbols, although many computer fonts include the more common foreign currency symbols, such as British pounds (£ ) and euros (€) and yen (¥). ] The Israeli-British talks set the unit price at 1,250 pounds sterling (3,065 Israeli pounds). But: Meals in London will cost a few pounds more (sterling is understood).
  • Write a date without internal punctuation and with day, month, and year in that order. The United States declared its independence on 4 July 1776. Switzerland’s Independence Day is celebrated on 1 August.
  • Metric System. Since November 1976, use of the International System of Units (commonly called the metric system) has been standard in CIA intelligence reports. The Intelligence Community makes certain exceptions for which metric units are not used.  Among the most common of the excepted units of measure are the nautical mile (nm) and the knot (kn). These units (or Mach units, if appropriate) continue to be used for certain weapon system parameters.
  • Punctuation is based on meaning, grammar, syntax, and custom. The trend should always be towards less punctuation, not more.
  • The Oxford comma is used and accepted. 

Ready to Write Like a Spy?

Business writing is a skill that will last a lifetime. It's well worth learning, and we'd like to help you with that through our Essential Business Writing Skills course kit. You might not need the writing skills of a spy, but they're very useful in every day business where you have to persuade people to make a great decision. 

Essential Business Writing Skills

Teach Yourself. Then teach your audience.

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P.S. No intelligence sources were compromised in writing this post. 


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