Conceptualizing Your Products

September 20, 2023


When you think about framing your intelligence product, what steps might you take to ensure your report is concise and clear, and answers your client’s questions in the most direct and easy to understand manner? 

Key Intelligence Question 

Most poorly written intelligence analysis lacks focus. Analysts often get so engaged in collecting and sorting data they miss the forest for the trees. If an analyst does not take the time to reflect on a client’s needs and questions, the resulting analysis could prove inadequate and waste your time, as well as that of your client. You do not want to leave your reader left wondering, “What is the point of the product? Where are we going with this story? What is the key argument?” 

A well-crafted piece of analysis is tightly focused on a single message–your Key Intelligence Question (KIQ). The KIQ guides analysts in their research, monitoring, and analytic production. 

  • Sometimes you determine a KIQ based on the breadth of reporting you are examining for your client. You will need to take all of that information and construct the key takeaway for your reader. 
  • Other times the KIQ is provided by your client or manager. In this case you must understand exactly what is needed. Do not be shy in seeking clarification, particularly if a question feels broad or poorly formulated. If direct clarification is not possible, put yourself in the mind of your client(s) and ask “What exactly do I want to know? What is my primary concern or interest?”
    • For example, prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, intelligence analysts were frequently asked, “Where are the weapons of mass destruction (WMD) hidden in Iraq?” This question assumes WMD exists–an assumption later proven false. If the analyst was uncertain WMD existed, the best strategy would be to ask broader questions, such as “What is the status of the WMD program in Iraq?”

A good KIQ should have the following characteristics:

  1. Relevant–what is the emerging issue, problem or challenge of greatest interest to your client? 
  2. Timely–is there an action-forcing event that warrants alerting the client to this issue at this time? Does the client need to know something before meeting with someone in the near future? Is there a decision-point that must occur in the coming weeks? Have we gained critical new insights that we need to relay to our client?
  3. Actionable–what are the implications for the client? What is the “so what”? Will this require action by the client? Are there any implications if the client does or does not act? Does the client have the power to influence the outcome significantly?
  4. Answerable in more than one way–can the question be answered by a range of possible answers or hypotheses? Are there any hidden assumptions or key uncertainties that could affect the outcome?
  5. Precisely worded–is the issue framed precisely, in context, and in a way the client will understand? 


Before beginning to write a paper, it is helpful to avoid the temptation to jump in and start drafting. Instead, take a little time to conceptualize your draft and think about AIMS (Audience, Issue/Intelligence Question, Message and Storyline). Its purpose is to prompt analysts to consider up front who the paper is being written for, what key question should be addressed, what is the key message the reader should take away, and how best to present the analysis in a compelling way. 

  • Audience–identify the primary audience for the project. Are you writing a short, tightly-focused article for a senior customer, or a longer piece with more detail that will serve a more tactical or operational customer set? Is there more than one primary client? 
  • Intelligence question or issue–see above.
  • Message–what is the bottom line you want to convey to your client in one sentence? What is your elevator speech or key point you would express to the client if you had 30 seconds in an elevator together? 
  • Storyline–with your key message and bottom-line in mind, can you present the message in a simple and direct way to the client? Can you create an overall package with a succinct line of argumentation that flows easily from one paragraph to the next and tells a compelling story? Can you illustrate this storyline with equally compelling pictures, charts, videos or other graphics? *Something else to keep in mind–if your analysis has changed or is changing, be clear about what is different and why. 

References: “Critical Thinking for Strategic Intelligence,” by Katherine Hibbs Pherson and Randolph Pherson, and “Structured Analytic Techniques for Intelligence Analysis,” by Richards Heuer and Randolph Pherson.

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