What Browsing Wikileaks Cables Taught Me About Report Writing

Whatever your thoughts about Chelsea Manning and Wikileaks, I believe that the Diplomatic Cables which the leak released is a veritable treasure-trove of information that is of immense use for anybody that wants to integrate effective debriefing and report writing as part of their (civilian) workflow duties.

For those who haven’t had exposure to military or intelligence community environments — and that includes me by the way — they represent a large repository of real reports written by professional report-writers for an important audience (the US State Department). They are therefore at least potentially instructive.

Here are a few tidbits I have picked up from perusing them. I try to integrate them into my day-to-day workflow as I summarize meetings, calls, and other engagements with clients.

Use Document Header Tags To Standardize Your Reports (And Improve Their Searchability)

Did you know that the US military has its very own system for writing email headers designed to make it more efficient for users to scan through their inboxes?

US military members use keywords that allow recipients to get a sense for the contents of an email just by scanning the subject line (SIGN, as a tag, requires the signature of the recipient, for instance).

A cable from Wikileaks which, in raw content view, contains tags in the header area. Image: Wikileaks

When writing summaries of meetings — minutes effectively — you can include a few ‘tags’ that can make the documents more discoverable in whatever file storage system you’re using. Come up with a system and then standardize on it.

Write Your Reports While Your Memory is Fresh

While Wikileaks readers aren’t privy to when the cables that were ultimately leaked were authored (as in how soon after the events to which they refer) the general sense from reading them is that they’re authored in a fairly time-sensitive manner.

I find this concept useful when summarizing the outcome of important meetings too. Memories fade and capturing the information close to when it happens is often more reliable.

How does work in the comparatively boring civilian contexts in which you may also operate? I’ll often record important Zoom meetings and then automatically transcribe the meetings through Rev, but type up a quick précis with my main takeaways from the encounter while that’s going on in the cloud.

In the language of the military and intelligence communities, an important interpersonal meeting can be a valuable source of human intelligence (HUMINT). If I have a particularly useful business lunch I’ll often type up a quick “cable” and file it away in my Google Drive. While I don’t literally model my report format on a diplomatic cable, I find the concept of diligently “debriefing” to my incredibly useful.

Follow Journalistic Convention — Use The Inverted Pyramid

Journalists are typically taught to use the so-called inverted pyramid structure when typing up their articles. The most pertinent and newsworthy information is included in the top paragraph — also called the lede — and progressively less important information follows.

The opening paragraph of a Wikileaks cable

Whenever I’m typing up meeting summaries, I try to follow roughly the same format. That way, if I want to just scan my recollection of a conversation I can skim the first paragraph and stop reading if the contents are not of interest.

Create (And Stick To) A Format That Works For You

Many of the Wikileaks cables are engaging and well-written recounts of the interactions between US embassy officials worldwide and their foreign interlocutors.

They weave succinct accounts of political narratives with the actual new information received during an information with counterparts or government officials.

The cable writers will often stick to a tried and tested format that best presents and summarizes the information they have gleaned.

Effective report-writing is an art — but one that can improve your own organization. Writing up synopses of key meetings can be a useful way to make sure that action items are actioned, deliverables due get tracked in a project management tool, and information received is memorialized.

The US embassy cables contained in Cablegate, The Carter Cables (series) and The Kissinger Cables provide instructive examples for anybody interested in seeing some good examples.

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Daniel Rosehill

Daniel Rosehill

Daytime: writing for other people. Nighttime: writing for me. Or the other way round. Enjoys: Linux, tech, beer, random things. https://www.danielrosehill.com