The daily brief typically includes several assessments, often spanning the globe in its coverage. Intelligence leaders and briefers must decide which one to put first, and then how to order the others. Several considerations apply: Which item is most likely to inform the president for something on his schedule that very day? How would one piece lay the groundwork for absorbing the key message of a subsequent one? What topic is so complicated or contentious that starting with it could preclude even getting to the others?

That latter question was on my mind many days as a briefer. I learned over time — through plenty of trial and error — that even a 30- to 40-minute briefing session has its own momentum, its own rhythm, its own sense of balance. The recipients of my briefings routinely listened to the material that we had determined they needed to know, but I knew that they had also invested much time, energy and emotion in the policies that these intelligence judgments affected.