How researchers get heard
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POV: Are You From the Past, or the Future?

The Ghost of Christmas Past makes Scrooge remorseful.

The Ghost of Christmas Present makes him curious.

And the Ghost of Christmas Future scares the bejeezus out of him.

That’s the power of speaking from the future, if you’re believable.

(BTW: This new version of “A Christmas Carol” on F/X with Guy Pearce as Scrooge looks great.)

Point #1: Speaking from the present about the present gives you comparatively little leverage over the present, compared with speaking from the future or the past. (This is one of the demerits of Twitter.)

Point #2: Speaking from the past or the future with data and evidence is almost exclusively the dominion of the researcher. It’s a powerful advantage for you over everyone else who simply speaks from the present, from ideology or self-interest or identity.

Example #1: I have a client who resolved to speak often to her email list from the future, teasing out trends that few in her sector could see and gaming out what her sector’s responses need to be to reduce their risks. (She even named one series “Crystal Ball.”)

Within six months, the move has newly positioned her as a reliable early warning service for the sector — a visionary advisor.

Example #2: On the other hand, the three historians who host the Past Present podcast (tagline: “When Hindsight Becomes Foresight”) speak about the present and the future explicitly from the past, contextualizing everything from virginity tests to co-working spaces to the booing of President Trump at a baseball game. Past Present is up-to-the-minute precisely because it has a POV on that comes from well before.

Let’s plot the first two POV axes I mentioned in yesterday’s post — 1) Are You from the Past or the Future? and 2) Are You an Advocate, or are You Dispassionate?

We can picture speaking from the future as extending into the past slightly, drawing on trends rooted in the near-past to predict the future. Remember: we’re talking about your POV — your standpoint. It’s mostly about what you see coming, but that doesn’t rule out drawing on the near-past a bit. Here’s a hypothesis: speaking from the future is best done from an insider position, one more on the side of “advocacy” vs. “dispassion”; where speaking from the past, even though it can be used for advocacy, has a valence of dispassion to it. Email me and feel free to disagree:

I’m making that hypothesis because I feel the difference between speaking from the past vs. the future is one of trust — trust for you within your audience. That’s why speaking from the future is often most effective when it comes from those already identified as part of the tribe, such as my client. A posited future can be terrifying and evoke a reflexive negative reaction — unless you’ve already established credibility with the audience. Paleoclimatologists speak from the past. Climate modelers speak from the future. Guess who gets most of the arrows?

You don’t have to be a futurist or a historian to adopt a past or future POV. At the least, though, you should be intentionally consistent about the “tense of evidence” you’re using to make your argument. For instance, avoid mixing surveys of attitudes (a present tense of evidence) with studies that go into the past to map trends that you’re extrapolating into the future. Attitudinal surveys seem weaker next to trend analyses; that’s because, even though it’s all we have, snapshots always seems to us ephemeral and unreliable, compared with the set-in-stone past and the infinitely expandable and mappable future.