A Strong Title Delivers Your Bottom Line

The title of an intelligence product is a shortened version of the thesis; it delivers the product’s bottom line. A title should contain as much of the who, what, where, when, why, and how of the thesis statement as possible while still being concise. Titles are written in the form of an incomplete sentence. They use active voice. And they are generally written in the past tense because the analysis has been completed and/or the events the analysis describes have already occurred. If you have a well-constructed title, your audience will grasp the central concept of your product without reading further.

Here are the titles of three publicly-released intelligence assessments from the IC along with their thesis statements, comments, and suggested title revisions.

  1. Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections,” published 6 January 2017

Thesis statement: “Russian efforts to influence the 2016 US presidential election represent the most recent expression of Moscow’s longstanding desire to undermine the US-led liberal democratic order, but these activities demonstrated a significant escalation in directness, level of activity, and scope of effort compared to previous operations.

“We assess Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election. Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency. We further assess Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump. We have high confidence in these judgments.”

Comment: The title does not convey the assessment’s bottom line. It more closely describes the work of the analysts in preparing the assessment.

Proposed revision: “Significant Escalation in Influence Activities As Russia Sought to Sway 2016 US Presidential Election”

2. “Assessing the Saudi Government’s Role in the Killing of Jamal Khashoggi,” published 2 February 2021

Thesis statement: “We assess that Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman approved an operation in Istanbul, Turkey(,) to capture or kill Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.”

Comment: As with the previous example, the title better describes the work of the analysts, rather than to present the analytical core of the assessment.

Proposed revision: “Saudi Crown Prince Approved 2018 Operation in Istanbul, Turkey, Targeting Jamal Khashoggi”

3. “(U) Domestic Violent Extremism Poses Heightened Threat in 2021,” published 1 March 2021

Thesis statement: “The IC assesses that domestic violent extremists (DVEs) who are motivated by a range of ideologies and galvanized by recent political and societal events in the United States pose an elevated threat to the Homeland in 2021.”

Comment: This title is moving in the right direction. It has a who, what, where, and when, but it excludes the analysis. Why do analysts anticipate a heightened threat of domestic violent extremist activity in 2021?

Proposed revision: “Domestic Violent Extremists, Galvanized by Recent Sociopolitical Events, Pose Elevated Threat to Homeland in 2021”

(Note: The title is written in future tense because the author is making a prediction, which is not recommended.

Finally, writing titles in intelligence products is different from journalism in that intelligence products tell the whole story up front, rather than enticing readers with partial details or provocative* headlines.

*This appears to be a contemporary practice in journalism. It may be influenced by the increasing amount of online journalism that is more dependent on site visits for revenue.

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