Veteran private investigator Brian Willingham offers a host of techniques for maintaining your A-game in a crowded field.
I’ve got an admission to make: I am kind of addicted to self-improvement. I’m not sure when this phenomenon started, but it turns out that I am not the only one – it’s a $10 billion per year business.
But what I am really obsessed with is making myself a better investigator, mostly because after 15 years in this business I have realized that there are no books or courses that actually teach what I do (which is why I made one—details to follow).
And because of technology and the changing landscape of the business, what I do today is almost entirely different from what I was doing 10 years ago.
So how do you keep up your skills and bring them to the next level?
1. Follow blogs.
Of course there is Pursuit Magazine, and there are dozens of other blogs out there worth reading, but PI Buzz, PINow.com, The Ethical Investigator, Guns, Gams & Gumshoes and Private Eye Confidential are at the top of my list.
2. Read books.
I’ve read more bad books than good ones, but here are a few good places to start:
- Open Source Intelligence Techniques: Resources for Searching and Analyzing Online Information, by Michael Bazzell
- How to Find Out Anything, by Don MacLeod
- Introduction to Conducting Private Investigations and Principles of Investigative Documentation, by Philip Becnel
- Sources and Methods for Investigative Internet Research, by Richard B. McEachin
- Spy the Lie: Former CIA Officers Teach You How to Detect Deception, by Philip Houston, Michael Floyd and Susan Carnicero
Whether you write novels or articles about your investigative methods, writing helps you synthesize your thoughts and provide more clarity.
4. Find mentors.
No matter where you are in your life, finding someone who can help you navigate your career path and avoid mistakes can be crucial to your success.
5. Attend conferences.
Not only do you get to hear the latest and greatest investigative techniques, but you also get to mingle with other professionals in the business.
6. Join the conversation.
You either love it or hate it, but the explosion of social media has provided the opportunity to engage with professional investigators from around the world.
7. Search for new investigative tools.
I am constantly looking for new tools to make me a better and more efficient investigator. Just the other day, I stumbled across Picodash, which helps drill down through Instagram posts and user data.
8. Commit to ethics training.
9. Practice your craft.
I know an investigator who likes to practice eliciting information from random people on the street. If you specialize in online research, you can try digging up information relating to a local news story. Or you can practice camera work in your own backyard. As they say, practice makes perfect.
10. Give a speech.
Sure, you may have all of this institutional knowledge in your brain, but have you ever tried talking about it in front of a few hundred people? Like writing, public speaking forces you to synthesize your thoughts and impart them succinctly.
11. Go to a trade show.
Years ago, when surveillance was a large part of what my firm did, I went to a number of trade shows, trying to figure out the best way to digitize our videos and deliver them to clients. There are trade shows for everything ranging from security to gadgets that might be helpful for you.
12. Become an expert.
It’s nice if you are good at a lot of things, but it’s even better to be great at one thing. Whether it’s becoming the foremost expert in the world on how to conduct criminal background investigations, how to use drones in an investigation, or extracting data from a Samsung Note 7 that has been burnt to a crisp, become the best at something.
13. Take whatever work comes your way.
Recently, a client asked if we could help them implement a vendor screening program. While that wasn’t something that we have done, it fits right within our skill set, so it forced me to think critically about the work that we do.
14. Get out of your comfort zone.
We all get stuck in ruts, doing the things that come easily to us. Why not try something that pushes the envelope of your skill set? Making yourself a little bit uncomfortable is the cost of learning something new.
15. Find tools to make yourself more efficient.
Being a better investigator is not just about having the right tools, it’s about being more efficient in how you handle your cases. After all, we are tied to the billable hour. So maybe that means coming up with a report template that cuts your report writing time in half, finding a better way to transmit your video to your client, or taking a class to help you type faster.
16. Talk to clients.
This seems counterintuitive: why would you talk to a client about becoming a better investigator? Because the only reason we exist is to help find solutions that assist our clients, and talking to clients is a pretty darn good way of figuring out what solutions need fixing.
17. Find a new solution to an old problem.
Surveillance can be enormously inefficient, so why not figure out how to perfect unmanned video surveillance? Or maybe a way of using drones to help with accident reconstruction planning?
18. Read up on laws that affect your business.
Some states are enacting GPS tracking laws, the federal government has released some restrictions on drone usage, and privacy laws are constantly changing. It also helps to polish up on laws that have been around for awhile, such as the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act (GLBA), the Drivers Privacy Protection Act (DPPA), and the Telephone Records and Privacy Protection Act of 2006 (which some private investigators seem to have forgotten).
19. Take an online course.
E-learning is a $107 billion business. Traditional methods of training are not going away, but more people are opting to learn from the web. However, I’ve never found a great online training program that’s been great for my specialty, which is why I recently teamed up with PI Education to produce a master course on what I do. (See teaser video below.)
20. Do the work.
If you take one thing away from this article, take note of this: Do. The. Work. It’s the single most important thing you can do to make yourself a better investigator. And what’s second is not even close.
Coming soon: Open Source Intelligence—A Master Class by Brian Willingham
About the Author:
Brian Willingham is a New York private investigator, Certified Fraud Examiner, and founder of Diligentia Group. To read more Willingham wisdom, check out his blog and his previous stories for PursuitMag.