Guest Blog: Mental Preparation for Interviews

August 31, 2016

In a previous blog, John hit the high points of preparing for elicitation interviews. But what he did not cover, as Carolyn pointed out, was the mental preparation of the interviewer before ever picking up the phone. While that will vary for every CI data collector, there are a couple of proven ways to get your mind in gear for this stressful task. These are not cumulative, but rather more of a menu. What they have in common in finding a way to relax your mind and to center it on the interaction during call, not on anything else:

  • One of Carolyn’s favorite tricks is to work on her persona for the call. She refers to this as developing her Diva. That means getting into the mode of determining what element of your personality you want to project on the call, and then focusing on it well before picking up the phone. Then, once you are on the phone, it is Show Time!
  • For John, the focus is on clearing his mind (no jokes here, please). To remove his attention from whatever else is going on, he sometimes plays a couple of online hands of solitaire or games of Mahjongg. By focusing for two or three minutes on winning these games, he tamps down any other immediate distractions he has.
  • In a book John just reviewed, Ellen Naylor, a mutual friend of ours, has a variety of suggestions, one of the most creative of which is practicing relaxation breathing exercises just before calling.
  • Another tip is to anticipate and shut off all distracting background noise, such as a radio in the office, as well as your smart phone, starting a couple of minutes before the call.
  • Also, consider shutting off the email entirely, temporarily, until you are finished with the call and its transcription.
  • Some people just get up from the desk and walk around, getting a cup of coffee, or a drink of water and then sit down and start right away.
  • If you do not know the person you are calling, before you dial, try to visualize what that person looks like. Then, when he or she answers, quickly try to update that image. That way, you are immediately focused on that person, and not on you.


John J. McGonagle and Carolyn M. Vella

Don’t Let Calling Do You In

To conduct an elicitation interview, you have to talk with someone. And to do that, you have to first contact them. Today, that still means either face-to-face or by telephone. It is very hard to do even a decent elicitation interview by email. Why? Because there is no emotional connection and using text exchanges may give the subject way too much time to think about you and your questions.

So how can you prepare for elicitation interviews on the telephone? Here are some starting tips, not complete, but good for the newbie to master:

  1. Do not be afraid or nervous. What is the worst that can happen? Someone will hang up on you? Forget about it. Move on.
  2. Do not do interviews until you have exhausted your secondary (desk, book, Internet) research. Use interviews for things you cannot get otherwise, for adding currency to dated data, and for figuring out what will happen, not just what has happened.
  3. What do you want to find out? Can you state it in one short sentence? Then say it out loud. Does it make sense? If not change it. Never read it from notes.
  4. Allow enough time. Even though you think it will take only 5 minutes, allow more. Maybe you will get lucky and the subject will be chatty. Do not turn off the faucet before it stops.
  5. Make sure you will not be interrupted by calls, fellow workers, etc. so you can take good notes.
  6. Be professional, and polite. First, smile while you are talking. It really works. Then watch your language. You will be surprised, perhaps even shocked, how much a “please” or “thanks” can get you. Even if a subject does not want to talk, ask, politely, if there is someone else that could help you and if you can use the subject’s name. Regardless, of what is said, “thank” the subject.
  7. Be patient. Maybe this is not a good time for the subject. If so, reschedule – right then – politely. If the subject is discussing something that is particularly useful, keep it moving, using little nudges, like “really?” and even dead silence. Silence can be very effective. It may make the subject slightly uncomfortable, maybe enough to add something more.
  8. Wind it up. When you have what you want, try to take the conversation quickly to something else, so that the final impression left in the subject’s mind is not the critical data you were seeking, but something else. Then, again, “thanks”.
  9. When you are done, hang up and then write-up your notes into a full document. Never put it off. You will forget something, maybe small (to you) comments, maybe an inflection that could be important later.
  10. Now go back to number 1.

Watch Out for this Pitfall

August 19, 2016

A recent book on governmental intelligence analysis reflects on how a variety of nations have analyzed their opponents and used intelligence to shape their understandings of those opponent. In it, many of the case studies highlight a major problem that all such intelligence operations have faced and still face: “the persistent failure, on the part of both policy-makers and analysts, to see a situation as the target state sees it.”[1] This failure, sometimes called mirror imaging, is caused by the assumption, by analysts as well as by their end-users, that the people being studied will necessarily think and will act like the analysts/end-users themselves would.

The same situation exists in CI.

Fortunately, unlike the case in governmental intelligence, a failure caused by mirror-imaging rarely risks causing catastrophic results. And, as in the case of governmental intelligence, it is very difficult to spot and to weed out. In the case of CI as well as governmental intelligence, all that is necessary for mirror-imaging to contaminate an intelligence assessment and/or decisions based on the assessment is that only one of the parties, either the analyst or end-user, suffers from this and that both are unaware of it. However, if it is recognized by the CI end-user, then it is sometimes possible for the end-user to negate its impact on decision-making.

For the CI DIYers, the problem is actually more acute. If trained CI professionals can fall into the mirror-imaging trap, we must expect that the DIYer is at least as vulnerable. Unlike the CI professional, the DIYer does not have the possibility that the end-user may spot this problem and compensate for it. Why? Because the DIYer IS also the end-user.

That means that DIYers must exercise very great care to avoid this pitfall. Where is it most likely to arise is when a DIYer has to evaluate what the intelligence he or she has developed means for future actions. It is there that the DIYer must spot emerging mirror imaging. The tip-off is when you, the DIYer, reach a conclusion because “it is logical”, “it makes sense”, “it is crazy to do it”, “it will not work”, and the like. You are probably mirror imaging. Try adding the phrase “to me” to each of these, and you will see that you really are mirror imaging.

[1] Paul Maddrell, “Introduction”, in Paul Maddrell (ed.), The Image of the Enemy, Georgetown University Press, 2016, p. 3.

Can Secondary Research Alone Produce CI?

August 11, 2016

One of the weaknesses in DIY and other internally produced CI is the lack of data from interviews, particularly elicitation interviews. Unfortunately, there are a lot of reasons why individuals employed by the end-user of the CI end up trying to generate CI from secondary and internal primary sources only.  Here are several of the most common:

Some firms have formal policies banning virtually all – or all – direct communications with competitors. The rationale for these policies is to avoid any future issues about anti-competitive activities, such a price-fixing or market allocation schemes. But this kind of rule stops even such harmless ploys as calling customer service and asking about the availability of a new product – which is its job to tell you about!

Most internal CI staff, and virtually all DIYers, have little or no real training in, and little real experience in, interviewing, much less in the vital area of elicitation interviews. That means they generally avoid interviews, or, if they attempt them, they do not do them very well.

The sales force cannot or will not communicate regularly with those needing or generating CI. Why? Because of the attitude that this “is not their job” and they can see no way that doing this will help them in doing their only job – which is to sell. That often cuts off one easy source of some external primary data.

Some internal CI staff, such as those with library science and related backgrounds, feel most comfortable in the world of secondary, rather than primary, research. They are very good there, but there is more to be found by primary research that they do not try to access.

That means that a lot of internally generated CI is based primarily, or wholly, on secondary research. Does that mean it is not really CI? No – well, maybe.

If this research generates actionable intelligence, and it is communicated as such, then it is CI. But it is necessarily limited. Secondary research is great – up to a point. It can help you (or whoever is doing it) to determine where the competition is and where it is coming from.

However, taking that research and trying to determine where the competition is going and what it plans to do will inevitably produce poor results over time. And the further into the future the end-users of CI want to peer, the less useful the CI produced based solely on secondary research will be.

That is because the data allowing your analysis to determine where the competition is going and what it is going to do – the most powerful kind of CI – rarely lies documents, newspaper articles, web pages, or Facebook pages. It is still in the minds of people. And the only way to get that data is to talk with outsiders. So, if you want to make sure that the CI that you produce, rely on, or both, is up to that task, you must do primary research in addition to solid secondary research to develop it. There are no other options.


More on Your Mind and Work

August 2, 2016

I have, from time to time, engaged in small rants against the concept that multitasking and other forms of extreme mental work are not only not great ideas, they are in fact bad ideas. And I have also posted several related blogs on the positive benefits of taking mental breaks from work by doing other things to perform better back at work. (If you want to find them, search for “multitasking” and “your brain” in this blog).

I have come across additional support for my position which I will share with you:

From Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal: “Some of mankind’s greatest revelations have come only when scientists, researchers, even artists, have taken necessary breaks or detours after intensive concentration: the mind at play can sometimes energize the mind that’s at wits’ end.”[1]

From the Sage of Omaha Warren Buffett: ““Read 500 pages like this [pointing to a stack of books nearby] every day. That’s how knowledge works. It builds up, like compound interest. All of you can do it, but I guarantee not many of you will do it.”[2]

From founding father Benjamin Franklin: “Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.”[3]

From Verne Harnish, author of Scaling Up: “Nothing creative will come out of your efforts if you don’t allow your best ideas to incubate…You’ll be surprised by what comes out of your brain if you give it a rest sometimes.”[4]

Of course, as an intelligence specialist, you should always be aware how easy it is to find data to support your own preconceptions. VBG!

[1] Alan Levy, The Wiesenthal File, 1993, p. 123.

[2] (accessed 8//2/2016).

[3] (accessed 8/2/2016).

[4] “5 Critical Performance Metrics”, Fortune, August 1, 2016, p. 32. I thank the author for directing my attention to Franklin and Buffett.