Notes to Young Foresighters

My friend and colleague Suzanne Stein, a professor in the MDes in Strategic Foresight and Innovation program at OCAD U, recently sent me back a list of tips I had hastily scribbled in my notebook and delivered to her students following a trends crit last autumn as advice on communicating trends research. Through a possibly Freudian slip, we referred to them as Tips for Firefighters (meaning Foresighters, but it was late...) After re-reading them as advice to myself, I thought I'd share them more broadly. 

The list isn't comprehensive, nor is it in any particular order, but represents thoughts on the process of developing and communicating trends studies, principally for corporate clients. They are the product of years of experience being either the only or one of a small team of people exploring the future for a big organization, and what's needed to properly, and hopefully effectively, get hard work and insights across to clients and stakeholders—rules of the road for communicating possible futures, if you will. A little inside baseball, a back-of-napkin reminder, but nothing that can't be said out loud. Your feedback is welcomed, as are any additions from your notebook.

Here goes:

Provide Context and a Solid Framework

The set up and presentation of overall framework is critical. Giving your client/user a concise, persuasive view into your overall mental model for trends you present helps cement your view in their mind. They hired you because they suspect you know something they don't, and your number one skill should be good synthesis. 

Make It Stand on Its Own

The presentation you deliver is an artifact itself. It may be reused, circulated, and needs to operate as a standalone communication device, and have obvious connection to others in the same project. If the whole body of work was left lying somewhere, would anyone make sense of it without you explaining it? 

Anchors and Waymarkers

Clear visual signaling will help keep a trend set together, and allow easier navigation within it. Setting up a system that allows trends to be tagged different ways can help in their manipulation. Provide navigation. Make effective use of visuals. Can you capture the essence of the trend in a few valuable visuals? Do they make the user pause and absorb?

Label Carefully

How you name trends is critical—it's micromarketing, for better or worse, and your insights are products. Give them good, memorable but not too cute names. Often the name will be the main artifact that stays with the user. They will sometimes remember the whole content based on it. It's an important part of setting your thinking up to be socialized internally.

Present Concisely

Presenting trends and insights to people who aren't your immediate client, or even to those who are, is often an elevator pitch. Digressions or overextension of thin examples can weaken credibility. Keep it short and sharp, using best examples, not just your personal pet topics. "It's happening everywhere" or "I've seen tons" are not good terms to substantiate an emerging trend, written or verbally. Often the only measure is well-informed intuition or a qualitative statement. If it's what you have, and you can stand by it, communicated well and with confidence, this is not a problem. 

When, Where, and How Fast?

Metrics and use of standardized descriptors are very useful. How fast is this changing? How big will the impact be? Will it hit here before there? Developing a way to measure and map change within your set of trends or insights is useful in helping audiences value the information relative to other sources and to their own stance (and possible vulnerability).

Never Swim Alone

Working in teams, with different points of view, is helpful. Someone should not be in the weeds, even if others are, so there is a clear head to evaluate the big picture, oversee continuity and ensure the integrity of the framework. Time to review is critical, thought not often available. Know this in advance and plan around it.

Be Bold but Be Aware

If you are going to be bold and provocative, stay with it, stick you neck out and leave it there. Don't retreat from something you feel strongly about. This is how new ground gets broken. Likewise, make sure you are careful with your personal bias. Just because you like something doesn't mean its useful or completes a pattern. Consult other sources. Accept other POVs. If there is debate, be informed about it.

Have a "So What"

Always drive to implications whenever possible. A trend or driver isn't important without the "so what,". It shouldn't be there if the impact, ripple effect or potential disruption can't be clearly described. Without an exploration of implications, people can't make informed judgements. 

Change is Wonky

Nothing moves in a straight line—the world is a chaotic place. Over-extrapolating, or plotting a trajectory from current or historical events without deviation is dangerous. Could this trend change direction? Is it about to undergo an evolution? Don't just draw straight lines—nothing really goes up and to the right, except in the world of investment bankers. You're not here to sell a future, but to help people anticipate possibilities.