The tradecraft of a political analyst
My friend Peter Harling – whose fantastic essays have appeared on this site before before they moved over to his new outfit, Synaps – has put together a wonderful collection of advice for people in our line of work, that is researchers, academics, policy writers, journalists and others who do fieldwork and then write about their findings. He's done so for Synaps, where he is training young researchers from the region, but has decided to make his advice open-source. It's a treasure trove of excellent recommendations derived, among many things, from his many years as director for Iraq, Syria and Lebanon at International Crisis Group. I saw how effective he was at training analysts there (and it's a demanding place to work). There's a lot in there, so here are a few examples.
IF YOU THINK that you must type notes because you’ve had a few meetings, you’re wrong: we have meetings because we need notes. Our analysis is built not on impressionistic sentiments and recollections, but on a more tangible basis, which is the raw material of our craft: interview transcripts. Without them, you’ll remain vague and shallow.
Sharing with colleagues has value-added of its own. By trading meeting notes back and forth, everyone learns more and faster. You collectively build an institutional memory, which may be tedious to contribute to, but is a precious resource to benefit from. You help your manager keep up with the substance of your work, and therefore do a better job at supporting and mentoring you throughout the process of overcoming obstacles to fieldwork, framing topics, drafting your analysis and editing your output. And, finally, notes you circulate are usually more complete and structured than what you would keep to yourself – making for personal archives that you will find richer and easier to mine.
I think an interview, by nature, is a show that aims both to inform and to entertain. We often use the word “performance,” and that performance can be stronger or weaker at a certain moment. Doing an interview is like the theatre, or giving a concert: sometimes, you feel that your performance is flagging and that you are losing energy, and can only respond by intensifying your own efforts – your concentration surges. On TV or on the radio your audience is not in front of you, but you’re nonetheless in a struggle to retain its attention. You’re in competition with the remote control.
Finding the right melody and rhythm is also about working the vibes between you and your guest. If you really want to get at what’s interesting, you will have to use diplomacy, impatience, a more personal touch, and a mix of soft and tough questions.
You can find the whole collection here.