How to make bold predictions in a terrifying time

The world is changing rapidly before our eyes. If you advise decision-makers, they crave your leadership right now. But it’s a terrifying moment — you can’t just charge blithely ahead, fast forwarding past a crisis that has affected all of us. Whether you call yourself an analyst, a thought leader, a public speaker, or an author, this is a challenging moment.

Here’s what you cannot and should not do: be silent.

From my own personal experience, this is a time for connection. My relationships with my contacts has always been businesslike. But in this moment, that has changed a little. The gratitude from my readers has choked me up. My clients need sensitivity and caring, and I have tried to provide it — even as I have lost significant contracts due to their financial challenges. I work with a variety of suppliers and partners — publishers, designers, copy editors, book producers, and bookstores — and every discussion occurs against the background of a broadening crisis that affects every one us. (I see that background vividly in my video calls — I see your study or your dining room and the children and pets and bits of disorder and personality that characterize your living space.)

But those of us who make a living based on our insights have a broader responsibility. Others can hunker down and do all they can to survive in the moment. We need to look further out and describe the landscape that our clients will emerge into after this is done.

I was first reminded of this late last month, when the great Forrester Research analyst James McQuivey was asked by the AP whether any companies would benefit from the pandemic. He cited Netflix. Some people were surprised that a Forrester analyst would offer an opinion on the aftermath of a crisis. But as I told a friend who pointed it his quote in a Facebook post, “Analysts gonna analyze.” Thinking strategically about the future is something of a reflex.

How and what to write about the post-viral world

Stuff is changing in a big way. If you analyze trends, here are a few that might matter to your clients.

  • How will the travel industry rebound? Will people who have learned to interact by video return to planes and hotels and rental cars in the same way they used to? Will anyone ever get on a cruise ship again?
  • Will work-at-home become the norm? How will this affect the way companies run? Will we all adopt collaboration tools like Zoom and Slack? Will the office real estate business collapse as we all work from home?
  • Our public schools were part rigid educational factory, part babysitter. They were essential to the way the world worked. Now families are finding out what it takes to educate and supervise their own children. Will they make new demands of the schools, the children, and the curriculum when the children return?
  • If colleges can do their work with online instruction, what will become of classroom teaching? Is there a hybrid online/on-campus model in our future? How important is dorm life and social life to the college experience?
  • Is the Internet built to handle everyone working from home, streaming entertainment, and connecting with video? How will the telecom industry adapt?
  • Is this the moment when social media saves us, or the moment when it proves how toxic it is?
  • How will this shift affect the major trends toward ride-hailing, ride-sharing, private ownership of cars, and use or avoidance of public transportation? It’s been great to see rush hour disappear. Will it return? (My client, the author Evangelos Simoudis, has written his own post-virus thought piece about the future of transportation, and it’s a good model for how to do such a post right now.)
  • How will the coming recession affect the previously burgeoning gig economy?
  • A lot of the future that was emerging before last month was based on sharing resources — shared workspaces like WeWork, ride-sharing on Uber, sharing spaces like Airbnb. Will fear of contagion kill the idea of sharing resources?
  • How will the medical emergency, the huge bailout, and the performance of leaders around the world change the way we think about government and its role?

This is far from a complete list. It’s intended only to get you thinking. Whatever space you are the expert in, the virus and its economic consequences are shaking up the world your audience lives in. It’s your duty to determine what that world could look like in the next six months or the next five years, and to write about it.

But this is not a typical time for such analysis. It’s not enough to be analytical. You must be sensitive as well. Here are some tips:

  • Start by being human. Don’t just charge ahead with predictions. Start by acknowledging the pain in a personal way. Evangelos talked about how his daily travels have shrunk from 30 miles to 30 steps. I talked about seeing my clients in their personal spaces. Acknowledge that things feel different.
  • Gather data. Data points emerge daily. I’m not just talking about virus infection rates. I’m talking about unemployment claims, stock swings, polls, survey results, GDP shifts, layoffs, hiring, small business creation rates, and so many data sources worth following closely. Analysis based in data is worth far more than random future projections.
  • Lay out your logic clearly. Anyone can make predictions now. What trends have you seen? How will those trends extend into the future? What is different now, and why? What is not different — what trends are still just as compelling as they were before?
  • Avoid the temptation of “the world has changed forever.” It is so easy to overpredict. After the 2001 dot-com stock collapse, it seemed like ecommerce was toast. It wasn’t. After 9-11, it seemed like no one would fly again. We did. After the 2008 recession, it seemed like no one would ever get a loan again. They got loans. But things were different — vacuous money-bleeding startups no longer get huge IPOs, we can’t take full tubes of toothpaste in our carryons, and we keep more toilet paper at home than we actually need for the next week. Office work is not dead. Airbnb is not a flash in the pan. Medicare for all is not inevitable. In these times, a nuanced and rational prediction is like a cool drink for a parched traveler — write one, and your clients and readers will be grateful.
  • Admit uncertainty. Anyone who imagines they know exactly what’s coming next is deluded. It’s very hard to see around the corner right now. This does not mean you should avoid bold predictions. But you should acknowledge when and how you can tell if your predictions are coming true, and when and how they may be wrong.
  • Stay on the case. Crises like this make reputations for bold prognosticators. But it’s not about being right. It’s about being persistent. Writing a post now is a good idea. Writing another post in two weeks, and another two weeks after that, is even more important. People want to know you’re looking out for them, and that means tracking changing conditions, gathering appropriate new data, and changing your perspective on what’s going to happen. Don’t be afraid to admit what you were wrong about.

Stand by your clients and audience. They will notice. And they will come back to you for advice — and even speeches — when things ease up. The right balance of prediction and support is crucial now. Analysts gonna analyze. And humans gonna human. You can do both.

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