An Intelligence Analyst’s Guide to Communication

What I learned while advising U.S. policymakers can help you be more effective and confident with clients.

by Abigail Keyes

Points of improvement: Step back and critique your physical and verbal cuing to become a better instructor.

What can a group fitness instructor or personal trainer learn from an intelligence analyst? A lot!

In my 8 years as an analyst and writer for the U.S. intelligence community, I learned how to convey important information quickly and efficiently to some of the country's top policymakers. Sometimes I had to tell them, politely, that they were wrong. No pressure!

Other times I didn't have an immediate answer for a tough question. With clients who made foreign policy decisions that affected global politics, it was imperative that I deliver information quickly and accurately. The stakes were high-one misinterpreted message could have led to a string of poor policy decisions (Petersen 2011). I also learned a lot about how to manage egos, including my own.

Thankfully, my work today as a group dance and fitness instructor isn't quite as stressful, but I still call on much of what I learned as an analyst to be engaging, humble and accurate. Whether I'm working with a client one-on-one or leading a ballroom with over 100 participants, these analytical, briefing and communication skills have helped me more than I ever expected. Here's a sample of what I learned during those years that might help you sharpen your professional edge.

Convey a Friendly Sense of Confidence

As an intelligence analyst, I learned quickly that lack of confidence undermines a briefing's bottom line. The same principle applies in the fitness studio. Your non-verbal communication can show clients you are knowledgeable and friendly.

EYE CONTACT

The first thing you learn when giving intelligence briefings is the importance of making and holding eye contact, and this is just as important when cuing clients. It helps them feel seen and appreciated, especially if they're new, and that encourages them to return.

Research has found that public speakers who make regular eye contact with their audience are perceived to be more persuasive (Sundaram & Webster 2000). Some public speaking coaches suggest looking around the room in a Z pattern to keep the eyes moving (Collins 2004).

BODY LANGUAGE

If you're at the front of a large group fitness class, you're probably leading with the exact movements your clients will follow. But with a smaller group such as a Pilates reformer class or in personal training sessions, you're likely standing, giving verbal and physical cues to your client. Research suggests the best cues convey friendliness and interest-think casual smiling, light laughter, open body posture and a slight lean forward in the body (Sundaram & Webster 2000).

Also, avoid folding your arms across your chest: This can make you appear closed off or even frustrated. Good posture exudes confidence, so pull back your shoulders and stand tall. When observing a client, stand with your hands clasped behind your back to show you are confident, yet open.

VOCAL TONE

If you have a naturally higher-pitched voice, you might want to practice lowering your pitch. Researchers have found that adults with lower-pitched voices are more likely to get leadership positions (Anderson & Klofstad 2012; Klofstad et al. 2012), and that people associate lower-toned voices with authority and trustworthiness.

If you have a higher-toned voice, avoid ending sentences with a questioning inflection, which can also undermine your authority. You need to sound sure of what you're saying, and that might take some adjusting of your casual speaking voice.

Communicate Quickly and Clearly

Intelligence analysts must get their point across to busy policymakers quickly without ambiguity. Fitness leaders must do the same, particularly in a group class where the instructor's voice competes with music.

PRECISE, CLEAR SPEECH

Group fitness instructors should verbally cue their classes in and out of movements quickly and clearly. Make sure your class interprets your words the way you intend them, particularly with difficult movements or ones that might pose injury risks if they are not done using proper form.

It's also important to speak a bit slower and enunciate more than you would in your daily conversations (Collins 2004). Often if we're nervous or enthusiastic, we can speak so quickly that our audience can't understand us. Even if you're teaching with a headset microphone, crisp consonants and vocalized vowels ensure that your clients hear every cue and correction clearly.

COMMON TERMINOLOGY

When working with clients, especially beginners, stick to nonmedical terms about anatomy. Instead of "femur," for example, say, "thigh bone." Or instead of "iliopsoas," just use "hip flexor." Save the anatomical talk for your colleagues.

VISUAL AIDS

Policymakers love graphics, and so do clients. Research shows that using visuals while teaching significantly improves learning and retention of new information (Collins 2004; Stokes 2002). When appropriate, make printouts or use other visual references such as posters or books to show specific muscle groups or bones to supplement your teaching. Even better: Make something your client can take home.

Get Better at Answering Questions

When clients ask questions during a class, make sure to repeat the question so everybody can hear it before you begin your reply.

When leading a group class, or even working one-on-one with a client, be sure to answer questions quickly and precisely. The client isn't paying you to wax poetic about how fascinated you are with the structure of the glenohumeral joint or the latest peer-reviewed research on workout recovery!

We must continually educate ourselves on developments in our field, including breakthroughs in sports medicine, kinesiology and workout recovery. But sometimes a client will ask a question to which we won't have the answer.

One of the first things I learned as an analyst was that it's all right to not have all the answers. Some people would rather create an answer or talk around a subject rather than look uninformed. But in reality, clients will respect you more if you admit when you need to do some research and get back to them.

Studies have found that children who want to impress adults around them often make up answers to a question if they don't know the right answer (Waterman et al. 2000). Of course, we don't want to be perceived as a child but as a leader! Also, remember that what you say is being heard by clients and maybe even repeated. Upholding your credibility is of utmost importance.

Say what you know, and admit what you don't know. Then follow through, get the right answer and remember to deliver it in the next session.

Teaching Is a Roundabout

Teaching is not exactly a two-way street; a better analogy is a roundabout. While we're imparting our knowledge to our clients, we are also learning from them. We must regularly reflect on which cues are most effective, and what descriptions truly stick with our clients. We are also constantly learning, adapting and polishing our methods to make sure our clients understand and integrate our guidance quickly and safely.

Instructors succeed when their participants truly learn something new or look at old information in a new light. Intelligence officers also must ensure that their briefings shift--or elaborate on-their clients' perceptions or viewpoints, hopefully so they will make the best decisions for the citizens of their country. And while the fate of the nation isn't at stake when you lead your group fitness classes, you owe it to your clients to be engaged, inspiring and informative.

Video Yourself

Have you ever watched a video of yourself speaking? I had to as part of my analytical training. I still reflect upon those videos in the studio, even though the first ones were pretty cringeworthy. I've also watched a lot of videos of myself in my roles as a fitness and dance instructor and have learned from them to be a stronger communicator. Watching videos of yourself teaching a class or even a private training session can be a fantastic tool to evaluate your body language, vocal projection, cuing and overall energy (Sherin & van Es 2005). It's easy if you have a mobile device; just make sure the camera captures your whole body. If you work in a studio with a mirror, place the camera in a back corner where it can record your body in the mirror's reflection. Before you do, though, make sure that your device has enough storage and battery life for an entire class. And definitely get your students' consent before recording, even if they're not in the frame.

Later, watch the footage, ask yourself these questions and decide where you can make improvements.

  • Do my instructions make sense?
  • Am I speaking clearly at all times?
  • Do I look confident yet relaxed
  • How much eye contact am I making?
  • Am I looking at everyone in the room?
  • Are members picking up my cues right away?

Meet our experts

AFM_author_Keys Abigail Keyes, Abigail Keyes is a writer and researcher with a background in performance studies and wellness. She holds an MA in dance and performance studies from Mills College, and she has taught dance, fitness and somatics on five continents.

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