How researchers get heard

For This New Year, Ask the Big Questions

No one makes New Year’s resolutions anymore (probably for the best). Now everyone seems to have switched to making New Year’s predictions — definitely for the worse. The prediction space is crowded and polluted. But you’re a research-based authority with smart stuff to say about the year ahead. Should you add your list to the pile? Or wait until February to re-emerge, like a groundhog?

New Year’s predictions have always been cheap content: cheap to make (15 minutes of brainstorming); cheap for audiences to absorb and discard; cheap for the predictor to quietly abandon by early March in a back-alley orphanage of the website. On top of all that, as Matt Yglesias points out, our social commons are now awash in faux predictions — noisy declamations without rigor or analysis, predictions that are really just proxies for group signaling or ploys to gain attention through alarmism. Yglesias calls this kind of prediction a “bad faith rhetorical device in punditry.” One might also say: These predictions don’t care about the future — they just try to win the present. Experts who make them blur together instead of becoming more distinct.

So why not just sit out making New Year’s predictions? Because for a couple weeks at the start of every year, many people allow themselves the time and temperament to think bigger and look ahead. It’s an opportunity. How should you use it?

Last year I lauded the top 10 global political risk stories the Eurasia Group put out via their excellent Signal newsletter as groundbreaking authority content for a new year. If you’re going to make predictions, take real risks that people remember, I wrote. Well, when I went back to review how well that 2020 list held up, I was disappointed. It wasn’t that Eurasia missed the pandemic (of course they did) or that they got the US political unrest as their #1 story. It’s that the list felt so over in retrospect, so “yes” or “no,” so “it happened or it didn’t.” It felt intellectually sterile. No conversation.

Here’s an alternative: Write a list of three to five big questions that you see your audiences facing this year.

First criterion: These are real questions, not trojan horses for your own hobby horses. They’re on the minds of your audiences, or bubbling just below the surface. They’re emerging as pivotal for their sectors. They ​should be answered this year —​ sure, they could be pushed off another 12 months, but that would be just kicking the can down the road again. And your audiences will have a lot of opinions on these questions, including whether they’re the right ones on which to focus. The act of asking these questions kicks off a bigger conversation about larger directions the sector needs to take. 

Second criterion: For each of these questions, you could write a good to great op-ed about what should happen. That doesn’t mean you will —​ but you could.

You’re right: That’s not a 15-minute list. It’s a little bit of work. 

Asking these questions positions you and your research organization as a different kind of thought leader —​ one at the center of conversations. Because you as often start conversations with a question as with an argument.

For your content, flesh out each of the questions in three to four sentences — what’s the context of the question, why will or should it be of moment this year. You might want to include how you’d like to see it answered, but in doing so you shouldn’t foreclose the uncertainty of the now.

After that, write a short paragraph with your red herrings for 2021 — the trends, events, and people everyone thinks will make a difference this year and you don’t expect to make a blip.

Send it privately to all your inner circles — your network in the sector, your organization’s board, your funders and donors, your media contacts. If it sparks more conversations than you’ve ever had with these people, you’ve asked good questions. You’re leading. Then think about posting a version of it for public consumption. (Send me your list as well if you want my quick thoughts on it — several of my clients do versions of this list to great impact with their audiences.)

Bottom line: Make predictions and ask questions to start conversations that last the whole year, not five seconds in an inbox.

Happy New Year.