What I Learned Writing for the President’s Daily Brief

Alternative Perspectives

Becky Root currently serves as the Program Manager for Concentric Advisor's Global Intelligence team. She has almost two decades of experience as an intelligence analyst and manager. Becky spent about 15 years at the CIA, covering issues including Afghanistan, Pakistan, and counterterrorism. She is also a certified executive coach and enjoys working with individuals and teams who are looking to grow their leadership competencies and reach their personal goals.

View all articles by Becky Root

EXPERT INSIGHT — As an analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency for 15 years, I spent a great deal of time writing for the President’s Daily Brief, also known as the PDB. The PDB is considered the premier, all source product authored by the intelligence community. The President and his key staff receive the PDB seven days a week, 365 days a year and it contains articles on the top national security issues facing the United States. The writing and editing process for the PDB is rigorous because you are producing a document for the most senior level officials in the U.S. government.   

So how can the security community take the lessons learned from writing a high-level policy document for senior U.S. officials, and apply them in the services that we provide in the private sector and for our own clients?  Here are a few of my key takeaways:

Identify the question your report is trying to answer, and why your clients should care. For the PDB, this is called the key intelligence question and it frames the entire report. 

  • When thinking about your own clients, ask yourself some of the following questions when drafting key products–What are you trying to tell your client?  Why are you telling them now? Why does this matter to them?  What might happen next? 

Choose the best information and know when to stop. PDBs are often completed on a tight deadline. The reports are short in length–often just one page–to tell the President everything he needs to know at that moment, on a given topic.  That does not leave much time to write the report, and in many cases, it leaves even less time to add a great deal of research to your PDB. 

  • Depending on the topic, you probably have more information than you know what to do with. After spending time on research, it is important to identify the most important information for your client and develop an information cut-off time. Time management tools such as time-boxing and devising methods to quickly organize your research and findings can help with this skill. Remember, your client is paying for your analysis–they do not need to see all of your homework and examples.  

Bottom line up front–nail that BLUF. PDBs are constructed with a bottom line up front (BLUF) organization–the what, the why, and what’s next/outlook. This information is contained within the first sentence of your document, not buried later in your piece. The BLUF is clear and concise and is understood quickly. How can you add a BLUF to your key documents? 

  • Consider the following questions when constructing a BLUF sentence–what is happening now? Why is this occurring?  What has changed? What are possible next steps? What opportunities does your client have to mitigate or enhance the current situation? 

The shorter the better, but do not forget your tradecraft. Again, PDBs are short products, typically just one page. The President and his staff are busy, and intelligence professionals strive to provide the most information they can, in the least amount of real estate on a page. 

  • Your customers are busy too and often do not have time to read a lengthy memo. If they fail to take away your key messages, you have not helped them. This puts a premium on the need to be concise and clear. Always ensure your customers are not confused by your prose or arguments and provide strong evidence and examples where possible.  Attention to detail is important–even minor grammatical errors and formatting mistakes can put your credibility at risk. 

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Be flexible with edits and coordination–did you have more than five rounds of edits? Writing for the President is an extensive process with many rounds of reviews to ensure the intelligence community is providing the best and most accurate community product. Even if you authored the PDB article, it is not your analysis that is delivered to the President, it is the intelligence community’s analysis. Everyone has a stake in the report. Finding ways to adapt to changes and keeping the lines of communication open when working with your colleagues and managers is essential to ensuring the PDB gets out the door on time. How could you do this for your own clients and products? 

  • Remember to edit your own work before you send it forward for review. Do not rely on your colleagues and managers to fix your mistakes. Your colleagues may also have suggestions that differ from your own–keep an open mind and do not take differences in coordination personally. If you disagree with anyone along the way, have clear arguments and evidence to back it up, and allow space within the report to detail any disagreements if necessary. And always take ownership if things go awry. Remember you represent your company to your client. Unless you are working for yourself, it is not your own personal analysis, it is your company’s product. 

The presentation is often just as important. PDB authors brief the briefers for the President and other PDB recipients the morning the PDB book is delivered. These presentations are often just as important because it allows for further explanation of the articles, addresses any lingering questions, and allows for discussion of new or updated information. What might this look like if you provide a briefing for your own clients?

  • Make sure you deliver your key points right away and remember your BLUF–if a client has to cut a meeting short, did they take away your key points? Are there any disagreements or sticking points that need to be discussed? If your client has a question about your report and you do not know the answer, tell them you will get back to them–make sure your client knows you are taking their questions and concerns into consideration.

Be prepared for any follow-up–what’s next? Things change. Your product might be overtaken by events as soon as it is published. How would you handle any late-breaking changes for your client?

  • Anticipating client needs and providing opportunities for the future allows our customers to prepare for alternative scenarios and mitigates surprise. Be prepared to provide clarifications if necessary, and always be ready to update your product and analysis if required, particularly regarding anything crisis-related or might have a direct impact on your client. Offer follow-up support, to include a briefing, to address any new developments or additional questions from your client.

Read more expert-driven national security insights, perspective and analysis in The Cipher Brief

Alternative Perspectives

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