Going all the way back to the laconic Spartans, the ability to be succinct in one’s communications has been to others a sign of strength and a well-appreciated gesture. But it’s a skill that’s never been more important than it is today, when people are bombarded with information and don’t have the bandwidth to digest long and convoluted messages.
My guest today is an expert in helping people get to the point, the founder of the BRIEF Lab, and the author of Brief: Make a Bigger Impact by Saying Less. His name is Joseph McCormack, and we begin our conversation with how his work grew out of his development of a communications curriculum for the military’s special operators. We then discuss how being brief is not just about conciseness but first about achieving clarity, and the high costs of not shaping our communications with these qualities — especially in a world where attention is a scarce resource. Joe explains why it’s actually harder to exercise verbal discipline than it is to use lots of words, and four techniques to make your messaging clear and concise. We then discuss how to apply these techniques to shortening meetings, condensing emails, and distilling how you describe your role when people ask what you do. We end our conversation with how to create more meaningful interactions during fluid conversations by actually preparing for these encounters, rather than simply trying to wing it.
If reading this in an email, click the title of the post to listen to the show.
- What are the costs of not being brief in your communication?
- Why concise messaging is so important in our modern world
- The illusion of “now”
- Why is it hard to be concise?
- What does it mean to map your communications?
- How to prioritize the information you’re passing along
- Why stories work so much better than rote information delivery
- Why you need to use the TRACs framework
- Using visuals as a boon and not a detriment
- Making meetings better
- Sending better emails
- How saying less makes good news more impactful, and bad news less disruptive
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- Noise by Joe McCormack
- How to Manage Inbox Overload and Actually Get Stuff Done
- Why People Do (or Don’t) Listen to You
- Thinking for Yourself in an Age of Outsourced Expertise
- How to Tell Better Stories
- 3 Simple Steps for Telling a Great Story
- AoM series on listening and craft good questions/responses
- One Mistake Never to Make When Leading a Meeting
- How to Run a Meeting
Connect With Joe
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Read the Transcript
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Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. Going all the way back to the laconic Spartans, the ability to be succinct in one’s communications has been to others a sign of strength and a well-appreciated gesture. But it’s a skill that’s never been more important than it is today, when people are bombarded with information and don’t have the bandwidth to digest long and convoluted messages. My guest today is an expert in helping people get to the point. He’s the founder of the BRIEF Lab, and the author of Brief: Make a Bigger Impact by Saying Less. His name is Joseph McCormack, and we begin our conversation with how his work grew out of his development of a communications curriculum for the military’s special operators. We then discuss how being brief is not just about conciseness but first, about achieving clarity and the high cost of not shaping our communications with these qualities, especially in a world where attention is a scarce resource.
Joe explains why it’s actually harder to exercise verbal discipline than it is to use lots of words, and four techniques to make your messaging more clear and more concise. We then discuss how to apply these techniques to shorten meetings, condensing emails and distilling how you describe your role when people ask you what you do. And we end our conversation with how to create more meaningful interactions during fluid conversations by actually preparing for these encounters rather than simply trying to wing it. After the show is over, check out our show notes at aom.is/brief.
Joe McCormack, welcome to the show.
Joe McCormack: Thanks for having me.
Brett McKay: So you are the founder of an organization called BRIEF Lab, and also the author of a book called Brief. And what you do is you basically you train individuals and organizations on how to be more brief and get to the point with their communication. And the backstory about how this all started is interesting, ’cause what happened was, several years ago, you got asked by US Special Operations Command. They came to you and said, “Can you create a curriculum about communication for us?” So what was going on there? What was the problem that US Special Operations Command was looking into you to solve?
Joe McCormack: Well, think about… When you think about Special Operations, they’re elite military people, and they do everything at a high level. And about almost a decade ago, I got really one of the most important calls, if not the most important call, of my career, which was somebody from their command called me and said, “Hey, we’ve heard about you,” and I was, at that time ran a marketing agency, “and we just need to be taught how to be more intentional, how to be clear communicators. And people expect us to do this, but nobody’s ever taught us how.” And what they were trying to do was fix it by public speaking, which wasn’t working. And they do everything at a very high level, but nobody ever taught them how to do it, and they started realizing like, “We need help here,” because in the military, they do briefings, and those briefings are, they’re trying to simplify complex things, they’re doing it with a time urgency, and obviously, there’s a lot at risk. And they’ve started seeing like, “Hey, this is not going well.” And they called me and I’m like, “Sure.” And that’s where the work started, and they started… They actually asked me to like, “You should write a book about this.” And that’s where Brief came from.
Brett McKay: How did the needs of US Special Operations Command… How has that shaped the entire… Your entire, I guess, philosophy or training that you do with Brief?
Joe McCormack: When it started, it started as just a unit asking for help. So it wasn’t like, “Hey, we want everybody to… ” It was literally, there were individuals and people that were communicating at pretty high levels, and what they wanted to be is consistently clear when they communicated, where they were taking out ambiguity, there was less misunderstanding, that it was easier for them to say or write, and the person says, “I get it, and I know what to do.” And that really was the genesis and what I started doing was designing courses and exercises and experiences to teach them to communicate like they shoot: With precision. So when they go on a range and they shoot, they’re not thinking, “Well, let’s see how this goes.” There’s a series of practices that they do to become very, very accurate. And what they asked me to do was, “Teach us how to do that when we communicate.”
And I had collected 20-some years of experiences doing this with executives at Harley Davidson and Mastercard and some big brands, and I worked in an agency in marketing, and I was… I knew how to be clear when you’re talking to your employees or your investors or your dealers or your customers, and I just translated that into developing a class or a course, and the response was immediate. They were like, “This is great, give us more.” And that’s validated and really drove the book and the BRIEF Lab as a business was created on that initial demand from the guys in Special Operations.
Brett McKay: Well, let’s talk about what are the costs. You spend a lot of time in the book talking about this, the cost of not being brief with your communications. Maybe give us some examples from your decades of work training people how to be brief, where they’re just a blowhard that just kept going on and on and it cost them, maybe sometimes not a lot, but sometimes severely.
Joe McCormack: I think one of the things that… There’s a lot of different costs, and I think when people start realizing the risks that they run… Communication for a lot of people was like, “Well, you communicate all the time, so you should know how to do it.” Well, communicating in an environment where there’s a lot of information is difficult, and that’s where I wrote a book called Noise, and it’s all about constant information overload, and there’s a million things going on, and how do you communicate in that environment? It’s difficult. And some of the risks that people run when they’re not clear… And I define brief as being clear and concise. It’s not just being concise. Because if that were the case, somebody asks you like, “Hey, how was your program?” And you would go, “Good.” That’s too short.
So brief is, in my definition, is clear first, and then making it shorter. So some of the impacts that people have is when you speak, you misdirect people. So you say something but they do something else, and then you blame them, or they tune you out. So when you talk, the more you talk, the less they wanna listen. That’s bad. If you’re in an environment where how you communicate gives you the ability to do what you need to do and people start tuning out or ignoring you, it weakens connections, it delays decisions. So I’ll hear from people… And I spend… When I spend time talking to people, they’ll be like, “Well, I’ll think about that. Let me get back to you.” Oftentimes, people do that because they’re confused. So they’ll delay a decision. There might be tension. You don’t get hired. If you’re interviewing, you might not get funding, you might not get support. So there’s a lot of impacts when people are bad at this.
Brett McKay: No, yeah, you gave some really good examples. The ones that stick out to me was like someone… And this probably has happened to a lot of people who are in sales, they talk themselves out of a sale. The sale is there, and then they just keep talking and talking and the guy’s like… The person’s like, “No, I don’t wanna do this anymore.”
Joe McCormack: Well, think about this, it’s like fishing. You catch the fish and then you pull it in the boat and then you’re done. Well, sales people just keep on talking and they’re like, “Do you wanna come on the boat?” And they just keep the fish swinging around and then they just fall off the hook. One of the impacts when people sell is over-explaining. Somebody asks you a question, answer the question, but you don’t have to give them 7000 words. And people are already… I think one of the biggest issues in our world today is people are over-saturated. Their glass is full or nearly full, so when you’re talking to them… One of the things that I focus a lot of our attention on at the BRIEF Lab is your audience is drowning, so don’t make them drown more.
And if they’ve got a half an ounce left in the cup, you can’t give them 10 more ounces. It just doesn’t fit. So you have to find ways to shrink the message down, to make it easier for people. And I found that people really appreciate it when you do. A simple example is, imagine you had a sales presentation and you had 20 minutes and the person’s like, “Well, I got it done in 10.” Nobody’s gonna be like, “Oh, I’m gonna start complaining ’cause it wasn’t 20.” They get time back in their calendar, you’ve lightened their load, it’s all that.
Brett McKay: Well, and so let’s talk about why you need to be brief. You’ve talked about executives, everyone’s inundated with information. Emails are coming in, there are social media posts, there’s blog posts, there’s so much stuff you’re trying to keep track of. So there’s that aspect. Being brief just lightens the load a little bit. But you also talk about something that’s also changing our culture. Because of all that information inundation, people’s ability to focus has also been weakening. So you have to get to the point a lot faster because they’ve sort of de-trained themselves to focus on things for a long time.
Joe McCormack: Yeah, sustained attention span… Attention spans are shrinking. People are paying attention to many, many things during the day. We live in a 24/7 news cycle. It’s people talk to talk, you have access to information constantly from your phone. It is… You are in consuming mode all day long, and it’s a noisy world. There’s a lot of things competing for your attention. So when it comes time for somebody to communicate, you have to be able to cut through the clutter because you won’t be heard. And this is, I think this is one of the things that people… They think, “Well, when I talk, people will listen to me.” It’s like, “No, they can’t.” It’s almost like they’re losing their hearing. I know it sounds like a dramatic analogy, but when the world is so noisy, it’s almost like people start to become deaf, or it’s harder to hear, harder to focus. So we have to adapt, and I think that adaptation right now is critical for us, absolutely critical. Because you can’t assume people’s audiences, the audience pays attention. That’s a false assumption.
Brett McKay: Right. And also, people just become more impatient, too. I know I have. When something takes… You think… I had this experience the other day. Something… I wanted something on the Internet for… I forgot what I was trying to access, but it took longer than it should have, which was like maybe two seconds, and I was like, “What the heck is going on here?” And I saw the little spinning wheel in my browser, and I was getting frustrated, and I was like, “Man, this is stupid.” But that’s the world that you’re living in, that’s the type of person you’re communicating with. Everyone’s like that.
Joe McCormack: It’s like… Yeah, it’s like instant gratification. I talked about this in one of my courses recently about… There’s almost like a sense of like, it’s the illusion of immediacy is the term that I use. It’s an illusion. It’s that everything I can have now. Well, if you look at technology, technology has trained us to, if I touch my phone, it does something immediately. Well, we transfer that to people. Well, if you’re not… If you’re talking and it doesn’t make sense to me, I’m gonna move on to the next thing. Is that good? No, but it’s what happens. People are trained by technology to have immediate response, and they expect that in the people they talk to, too. So what I’m teaching people is, there’s ways to manage people’s… To help people manage their attention.
This is… What we have to help people is, how do you talk to people? I can’t make the world become less noisy or quiet, it is inundated with information. So the question is, is how do you communicate in that world? And unfortunately, people aren’t being taught how to do that. That was one of the things that compelled me to help people focus and to get to the point. And when you start to do that, people feel relief because it’s like, “Oh, got it. I know what you’re saying.” You’re making a recommendation or whatever, and you’re helping people, and that’s good. That’s where… I think that’s where the relief comes from.
Brett McKay: Why is it hard to be brief? Why do people have a hard time with this? Which is kind of counterintuitive. You think saying fewer words would be easier, but actually saying more is a lot easier.
Joe McCormack: It’s a lot easier, and there’s a number of reasons why. If you think about the way people communicate, there’s an impulse when people communicate. The impulse is you start talking and you’ll figure out where you’re going. Imagine if you did that when you’re driving. I don’t know where I’m going, but I’ll figure it out. You’re all over the road. So there’s a number of reasons, I call it… There’s seven capital sins. People are… Cowardice is one. They’re afraid. If I just tell you something very direct, so I’m gonna beat around on the bush. Or confidence, people are really smart and they’re super confident. They can’t stop talking. Another one is callousness, they’re not sensitive to other people. They get comfortable, they’re just confused themselves. [chuckle] So they can talk out loud and they’re like, “I don’t even understand it. So if I keep on talking, it will make sense,” and it doesn’t. It makes less sense. Some people are just complicated, they don’t know how to be simple. And I think the last thing is careless. So there’s a lot of different reasons why people struggle with it, but the thing about being brief is, it’s not just about being concise, it’s first and foremost, being clear.
So what you say makes sense to people, and it is… I kind of equate it to comedy. Comedy is all about being funny. Brief isn’t about being concise, it’s about being clear. Comedy is about being funny. So those things are intentional practices. I do certain things, and when I do, it’s clear. And when I don’t, it’s confusing. And that’s really what’s at play.
Brett McKay: So I mean, it sounds like the reason why a lot of people can’t be brief is that a lot of times they just don’t even know what they’re gonna say or what they wanna say. They don’t do any prep beforehand, and it ends up, they just… It’s a word vomit, basically, whenever they do try to… They try to figure it out on the fly and that just… That’s never gonna work.
Joe McCormack: Well, people are busy, so one of the excuses is, “Well, I don’t have time to prepare.” Well, okay, imagine a comedian doing that. “I don’t have time to prepare my comedy, so I’ll see what happens.” It’s not gonna be funny. So in the world of being clear, preparation is really important and people don’t take enough time to prepare. That’s one really, really big thing. The other thing is just trimming. If you’ve gotta send an email and the email is, let’s say, three paragraphs long, could you make it two? If you just took a few more minutes, can you cut it down a little bit? Can you give me some bullet points, break it up a bit? I don’t think people think about the damage that they do, the noise that they create for other people when they’re not being clear and concise. If you’re not being brief, and this is my conclusion, you are creating noise for people. Meetings, updates, recommendations, pitches, progress reports, you name it, if you’re not preparing it, it’s probably gonna sound noisy and staticky.
Brett McKay: Well, let’s talk about some techniques that you train organizations on how to be more brief. And there’s four techniques you talk about in the book. The first one is map it. This is very military. You can see the military origin there. So what does map it look like? What are you doing in that, with this technique?
Joe McCormack: If you think about what you learn in school, like creating an outline, I learned this technique years ago called mind mapping. And mind mapping is visual outlining. And it’s just draw the pictures of what you’re gonna say on a page, big bubbles on a page. And I’ve developed, kinda map out, what’s your main idea? Put that in the middle. What are some support ideas? Put those in kind of bubbles around that main idea. And then, what are support ideas around those ideas? It’s creating an outline. What outlines do is… It’s so interesting. When we teach courses, people are like… I’m like, “What was the difference?” The difference is like, they say to me, “When you map it out, it becomes structured, organized.” And what happens with communications is it’s disorganized. Well, when it’s disorganized, my brain has gotta reorganize it. Well, people can’t do that ’cause their brains are saturated, so they don’t. So it’s confusing. So when you map it out, you create an order. It’s like things become easier to follow because they’re structured. So that’s the first one.
Brett McKay: And also, when you map it out as well, whether you’re doing a mind map or you’re doing sort of the typical outline you learned in school that… I still outline. When I write an article, I still outline, like 1, 2, and then sub-points A, B, C. The other thing that it does, it allows you to cut information. You’re able to see, “Well, do I really need this point?” Probably not.
Joe McCormack: Yeah, when you do an outline, in a traditional online, which is super interesting, is mind mapping is just a visual version of that. They’re not any different. Is when you start… If you think of point 1, sub-point A, then bullet point, you start to see layers of detail. And I have this construct I created, like level 1 detail is the most essential information. Alright, so that’s… Okay, in an outline, level 1, how many level 1 points do I need to make? Level 2 would be mid-level detail, and level 3 is full documentation. So I would describe level 1 is like the trailer, and level 3 is like the movie. When you create that level of detail, what you help people do is not get hung up on stuff that’s the minutiae. And outlines force you to do that. It’s like just what you said. It’s like, “Alright, do I really need to say that? No. Okay, I’ll just cut that,” or “No, I really need to say that.” Now, that’s essential information, and that’s what gets people to clarity is what’s moving essential from non-essential.
Brett McKay: And the other thing that’s useful about an outline, I use… When I give a presentation or something, you can outline and you can fill in as much minutiae as you want, right? And let’s say time doesn’t allow for some of the stuff. Well, you still have your main points. You know you can hit one, two, three, and you’ll have a great presentation. It allows you to be flexible and adapt as well.
Joe McCormack: That’s precisely right. If you think of it like, if I’ve got five important things to say, and I say those five things, I’m good. And if the person has more time, I can say more, but I’ve hit those five key things. And that is exactly what people need to be taught how to do, which is say the most important things so the people get it, it makes sense to them. And then, if there’s more time, you can go deeper, but you’re not… You don’t defer, or default, rather, to the long version. You’re like, “I can explain it in a minute. I can explain it in 10 minutes. I can explain it in an hour. What do you have?” And then, that control gives people a comfort and confidence. And I’ve seen this with the people that we work with, and it’s really, really makes it so much easier for the audience at the end of the day.
Brett McKay: Alright, so outline. Your middle school teacher was on to something when she was teaching you outlines.
Joe McCormack: Yeah, that’s exactly… I say, “I’m the ghost of your 8th grade English teacher.” [chuckle]
Brett McKay: Right. Well, another technique you encourage or teach people how to be more brief is tell it, which is using stories. So how do people, when they typically explain something, if they’re not using storytelling, what are they doing usually? And why is storytelling better?
Joe McCormack: They’re talking theoretically. So they’re like, “Well… ” Let’s say that they’re describing their business. And let’s say that they own a hardware store, or they do IT support or tech support or something. They speak theoretically. “We are a provider of cloud solutions for the internet, da, da, da.” And the audience is like, “I think I understand what you’re saying.” But then there’s this moment like, “Let me give you an example.” Well, what that does to people that are, their minds are all over the place, is it helps ground the person for a moment. I’ve got an example of what I do. Tell me a story. Illustrate it. Give me an analogy. Anything to help paint a picture. It helps people so much because they’re trying to do that themselves, and you just do it for them. And that just… I’ve seen this so many times. Actually, ironically, I’m gonna give you a story.
We teach people how to do briefings, these short briefings in these units within Special Operations, and I’ll have people come up like, “What do you guys do?” And then they’ll stand in our courses and they’ll be like, “I do blah, blah, blah,” and then you’re listening and you’re like, “I think I understand.” And then I’m like, “Why don’t you give me an example?” And it’s amazing, when they give an example, how much clearer it gets. “Okay, I was on a deployment and we were in this country, and then I went here and then I talked to this guy, and then we did… ” You just illustrated in the story in 30 seconds what you guys do. If you prefer the theoretical version or the practical with a story, people always prefer the story, so give them a story.
Brett McKay: Right, yeah. And people remember stories more than a list of facts.
Joe McCormack: It is incredible. It’s like the Trojan… I liken storytelling to the Trojan Horse strategy of communicating. You can pack so many details in a story, and once you give them the story, the memory recall for the details is crazy. It’s crazy. And it’s so simple, but you gotta prepare it. You can’t just… Most people can’t do that on the fly. You have to think in advance, okay, if I’m gonna do a sales presentation or I’m going to a job interview, you gotta start thinking about some examples or stories, and those things can really, really help you.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I learned this in law school. I took a legal writing class, you have to. And one of the things you have to do, you have to write a brief. And when you start your brief, there’s a statement of facts, and you think like, “Oh, it’s a statement of facts, just list like X happened, blah, blah, blah.” But actually, what you had to do is you had to spin those facts into a really readable narrative, because the idea was you want the judge to not just kind of glaze over this list of facts, you want him to be engaged. And you also… The storytelling, you can kind of, I wouldn’t say manipulate, but you can frame the story in a way so it’s beneficial for your client or whatever. But yeah, it all comes back to storytelling.
Joe McCormack: Well, what’s interesting is magicians do this when they do magic. Many of them are telling you a story and the brain locks on to the story and you start listening to the story and the pieces start connecting. And they, in this case, magicians, they misdirect your attention to something else so you don’t see the magic. But the same thing is you’re doing this with a judge, the judge is… You start to… You’re helping manage their focus to connecting the dots, and it is… I’ll tell people like, “If you can use an illustration or an example, do it because people prefer it. Always give the audience what you want.” And I think one of the things people could do is just like, “Let me give you an example,” and just give them one. It’s so powerful. Storytelling is… It’s incredibly powerful.
Brett McKay: So another technique or tactic is something you call TALC tracks, and this is TALC, T-A-L-C. What’s this about? What are you trying to do with this?
Joe McCormack: I just formed a little simple acronym, which is, it stands for Talk, Active Listen, Converse. So the idea is, when people communicate, one of the biggest mistakes that they do is they… The analogy I use is a saying where it’s more like tennis and less like golf. When people talk, they just talk at you and they just pound the ball down the fairway. And communication is I say something and then I listen to your response, and then we converse and we go back and forth. It’s getting the audience, getting the person you’re talking to, into a conversation, and in creating this rhythm where I say something and you say something. It’s actually, it’s exactly what we’re doing right now, and it just… It’s those pieces of a person says something, I actively listen, then I comment, I converse back forth, back, forth. At work and also personally. You create balance in conversations, it’s like a game changer, really.
Brett McKay: And how does that help structure your conversations for brevity?
Joe McCormack: If you think about like, I’m talking to a person and I’m listening to how they’re responding to me, is gauging if they’re hearing anything at all. You assume that people hear you, but how do you know? And the answer is, by their response. Well, if you didn’t give them a chance to respond, then you don’t know if they heard you. So I think in basic conversations, let’s say that you’re going to your boss and you’re making a recommendation like, “Hey, boss, you got a few minutes?” And your boss is like, “Sure.” And you walk in your boss’s office and you’re like, “Hey… “, and then you just start talking about all these things you’re gonna do, and your boss doesn’t have… At some point, your boss might just like, “Alright, I don’t know what this person is talking about,” and then they can’t… You gotta stop it, break it up a bit. Say a few things, stop, see what your boss says. It’s like playing tennis. Say something, she says something back, then you say something. And then you get a conversation, then you’re actually on the same page, having the same conversation. And that, people miss that more than they hit it.
Brett McKay: Alright, so we talked about map it, so use an outline, tell it, use stories when possible, or actually just use stories all the time, anything can be spun into a story. TALC it, so use TALC tracks, so pay attention to your audience, get feedback, look and listen for their feedback of what you’re saying, and then the final one is show it, and this is using visuals. This can get tricky, though, ’cause a lot of people, they’ve all heard… They’ve all experienced death by PowerPoint, right? Where they’re in some presentation and there’s a visual slide for every sentence the person is saying. So how do you use visuals in a way that attract attention and doesn’t cause people to… Their eyes to glaze over and stop paying attention?
Joe McCormack: You just have to think and sometimes there are… Can I draw a picture? Do I have a whiteboard? Do I have a flip chart? Can I draw a diagram? There’s a book about how to illustrate stuff on the back of the napkin, kind of stuff. Sometimes even going back to the story, I can verbally describe it, just is there any… Is there a picture? Pictures are worth a thousand words. So if I’m doing a PowerPoint presentation and I got a couple of slides, give me a big image, a prominent image, not just, don’t try to jam a million bullet points on a page. Is there some visual that can carry the day and your presentation? So these are just anything you can do to help the audience see it, is the point.
Brett McKay: Well, that’s a good point. The bullet points, don’t put your outline of your speech on the PowerPoint slide, and you push the button and the thing you’re saying shows up on… Slides into the… Flies into the screen. Like that… When that happens, why are you even talking? I can just read this.
Joe McCormack: Yeah, I think when you look at this whole thing about being brief and the book Brief and this business, teaching people how to communicate, certainly presentations are a moment, but that really doesn’t take up a lot. There’s a lot of stuff written on that actually, like how to do a TED Talk. I think what people struggle with a lot more than that, because that happens kind of few and far between, unless you’re obviously in the presentation business, there’s a number of other moments that people just struggle with that they don’t even think about, like the drive by. I walk by my boss’s office, or I pick up the phone, or I’m sending somebody an email, or I’m in a program or a project, I’m making a recommendation, I’m running a meeting. Meetings are a big one where it’s not clear, it’s really not brief, they’re long, they’re noisy.
And that one for people, they just… They’re just like, “Well, this is, I guess, what we do.” That’s why people love the movie Office Space. They feel like a sense of meeting the Bobs. It’s like there are moments where like, yeah, presentations are one of them, but there’s a lot more other moments where people can prepare like, “Alright, I’m gonna run a meeting. What’s the meeting about? Who’s coming? Why are we here? What are we gonna talk about?” Like they’re preparing an agenda in advance. It’s amazing how few people send agendas before meetings and they expect the meeting to have… Be on time, be clear, get something done. It’s insane. So that’s a new one that I’m trying to tackle, which is, how do you run a meeting? You’re running them on Zoom. How are you preparing for it? I’m just making sure people show up. So those are other areas where people need to be clear and concise in meetings.
Brett McKay: Well, yeah, let’s talk… I’d like to spend the rest of this conversation talking about specific instances where we can apply these principles we’ve been talking about, and meetings is one of them. I mean, everyone hates meetings, you have whole section of the book on how to make meetings briefer. And as you just said, the number one thing you do is just have an agenda. Most people, when they have a meeting, there’s no agenda. Or if there is an agenda, it’s very vague. It’s like, “Well, we’re just gonna do a status update.” And it’s like… And you’re there for 45 minutes while everyone goes around the room saying what’s going on. And that’s just a complete… That’s a complete waste of everyone’s time because that could have been exchanged via an email or a document, and just that wasn’t even… There was no planning there, so you just wasted 45 minutes of everyone’s time.
Joe McCormack: When you think about like if you got a meeting invitation and then you got a notification that it was cancelled, what would be your first emotional response?
Brett McKay: “Yes. Oh, that’s so great.”
Joe McCormack: Right. You’re like, “This is great, I just got cancelled.” Think about how bad it is that the first response is… That’s like, okay, then compare it to like a bunch of your friends invite you out to a bar and they cancelled. You’re like, “Oh, man, they cancelled that thing? That’s terrible.” So how would you make a meeting useful? Well, number one is if it could be an email, don’t have it. If you can be in the position of authority, don’t have it. Or if you are gonna… If it’s a necessity, prepare an agenda. And I liken meetings to having like a dinner party, people over at your house. Alright, so who are you inviting? What kind of food are you serving? When does it start? When do you have cocktails? When does dinner come on? Is there dessert? What’s the flow? Take five minutes, 10 minutes and kind of write out the agenda like, “Okay, this is what the meeting’s about, this is why we’re… These are the… This will… ” At the end of the meeting, how will you know it’s successful? Could you have a minimal level of success? I just led a meeting here at our offices in North Carolina with a bunch of colonels. It was a room full of… It was 10 colonels, and they asked me to run this meeting.
It was a pretty intense meeting. It was about… It was an entire morning. And I was asked by somebody in Special Operations to run this meeting. And the topic was pretty intensive, and I had a lot of very, very high-ranking people in the room. I spent time preparing an agenda and I sent the guy that was the meeting owner my agenda. “This is who’s coming, this is what we’re gonna talk about, these are the agenda topics.” And at the end of the meeting, if the meeting doesn’t go where we want it to go, what’s the minimal level of success? In this case, we would identify 10, a list of 10 things. And I did that, and it was so funny ’cause I bumped into a guy that was in the meeting, he’s like, “Man, that was really great. Like, that was actually productive. We got stuff done.” Well, think about the question you asked me earlier about what’s the risk if you’re not brief, or you’re not clear and concise? If you run a bad meeting, people don’t trust you, they don’t wanna go to your meeting, nothing gets done, morale sinks. There’s a lot of risks with bad meetings and it’s something that people gotta fix.
Brett McKay: With meetings, my philosophy has always been, like you go to a meeting with specific problems you’re trying to solve that can’t be solved via email. Or if you try to do it via email, it would take like 50 or 60 or 70 emails. That’s dumb, that just takes every… You’re splitting everyone’s attention, you’re sucking everyone’s bandwidth. Instead, just get everyone in the room for 20 minutes and say, “We’re gonna talk about X problem, and the goal is to have an action point on how to solve this problem at the end of the meeting.” And you have to tell everyone that, so everyone comes in with those ideas to try to solve this problem. And you can usually crank it out or get things resolved 15, 20 minutes instead of belaboring it through tons of back and forth emails, or like a long email, or a long meeting where there is no set agenda to solve this particular problem.
Joe McCormack: Yeah. I mean, think about it like, I talk a lot about getting to the point. And this is what people struggle to in meetings is, “In 10 words or less, tell me what the objective of the meeting is. What is the point of the meeting?” That is hard for people to do, because they’re like, “Well, we wanna talk about things.” It’s like, “Okay, but what is the objective of the meeting? What are you trying to do with these people in this amount of time?” If that’s not clear, it’s hard to be clear, because you don’t accidentally land on the point. That’s why people go in down rabbit holes and they get distracted, then people dominate the agenda, and it becomes mayhem, it’s just mayhem.
So what I’ll tell people is, “Sit down and write out in 10 words or less, what is the objective of the meeting.” Do that. “To identify the three causes of retention in the company, or to finalize the 2021 budget, or… ” Be very specific. And then why do we need to do this right now? And to your point, it’s like you’re absolutely right, meetings are for discussion, primarily for discussion and decision, not for information dissemination. So if you’re just sharing information in a meeting, there are better ways to do that. You can use Slack, you could use email, you can do a pre-read. But when we come together, we talk and we make decisions. And that for… People love that. If you do that, I’ve seen the before and after, is people are so encouraged.
Brett McKay: Well, let’s talk about emails, ’cause people are just inundated with emails, executives are inundated with emails. How can you write an email in a way so that people… The person you send an email will actually take action on it and not just put it in the trashcan or spam?
Joe McCormack: Okay, so the first thing is, what’s the point of the email? Don’t underestimate the importance of the subject line. So that’s the first thing I’m gonna look at is, what’s the point of the email? In that subject line, what are we talking about? People generally misuse that. It’s very generic: “Follow-up,” “Note,” “Thank you.” The second thing is, what’s the call to action? What do you want me to do? Is this for my response? Is it for my action? What do you want me to do? “Answer yes/no,” “Give me your response by… ” People are very… They have to be clear about the point of the email and what you want me to do with it. And if you’re just disseminating information and you don’t want them to do anything, then tell them. “I don’t… This is purely… ” acronym, “FYSA, for your situational awareness. You don’t need to do anything, you just need to know.” That’s fine, just tell me. Is this for your action? Do I want your feedback? Generally speaking, there’s like, “For your awareness,” “For your feedback,” “For your decision.” [chuckle] Tell me, what do you want me to do? And people don’t do that, and it’s very, very hard to respond to them. And then you just delete them, or just ignore them.
Brett McKay: Alright, so yeah, don’t bury the lead in your emails.
Joe McCormack: Oh, yeah, killer. Don’t bury your lead. Tell me what the point of the email is. And put some bullet points and write them, try to make them shorter, but write them like you would want to read them. A big block of text. Did I take time to prepare it? Before I hit send, ask myself, “If I’m receiving this email, is it easy to know what the email’s about and how to respond?” If the answer is yes, send it. If the answer is no, don’t send it. ‘Cause it’s just noise for somebody. I get emails from people that are like… And a lot of them are marketing campaigns. But I’m like, “You guys are in marketing and you’re writing emails that are so easy to delete.” [chuckle] They’re so easy to delete, ’cause you don’t… It’s just like, “No.” So, an email is another, is one. Another one that people struggle with is role definition. What do you do? It’s a question that people get all the time.
It’s either too brief like, “I file papers,” and they think that’s funny, or they give you the long version. So explaining what your elevator speech is. That. And there’s a simple way of fixing that. Tell people first what your title is, “I’m the managing director and founder of the BRIEF Lab.” And then the next thing is, what are you responsible for? “I’m responsible for setting the direction of the company and writing books and recording my podcast.” Then give them a couple little examples of what you do, and then an end. That’s it. Short, sweet. What is your role definition? And people… Anybody who works at a company should have this down to 30 seconds. What’s my title? What am I responsible for? What are some of the things I do? And what’s the impact I have? That’s it. Short, sweet. And you have to prepare it. You can’t do it on the fly, you have to prepare it. That’s another area.
Brett McKay: Right. That’s a recurring theme. A brief communication requires preparation. It requires… You actually have to kinda spend a lot of time to be brief, which is sort of counterintuitive.
Joe McCormack: And why this is and it’s really… It seems so obvious. People are like, “Yeah, you gotta be brief, you gotta be clear, you gotta be concise,” but it takes time. And here’s the thing. I’m taking time to make it easier for you. That’s the point. I’ll spend a half hour preparing a five-minute update. I had a conversation with a guy. I don’t know what administration it was, if it was the current administration or president or the prior president. He prepared 40 hours for a five-minute briefing, 40 hours. I’d done work with his organization, 40 hours for a five-minute briefing. Do we spend five minutes preparing before we give our boss an update? No, we just go in there, “How’s your day?” “Good.” “What’s going on?” And you start talking. Preparation is everything. That’s what professionals do. Clear communicators prepare, amateurs don’t.
Brett McKay: Another situation that you go into the specifics about in the book and how brevity can be useful is delivering good news, but also delivering bad news. How can saying less actually make good news more impactful and bad news less impactful?
Joe McCormack: One of the things that I… I saw this once, and it was really amazing. I was participating at a national marketing summit for Harley Davidson, and they asked me to speak. And they did something called a shoutout. I might be getting the name wrong, but it was a shoutout. It was all the marketing people from the whole company. And what they would do is really, really cool, is between the agenda items in this conference, they would do a shoutout. Imagine, like, “Hey, my name is Bob and I wanna do a shoutout to Sally.” And then the room would get quiet, and then Bob would tell the entire organization why Sally needed public recognition. The longer that was, the less effective it was. The shorter and more concise and clear, the more impactful it was. Because people could hear more in less. Say what it is that she did and why it was so impactful, but don’t give a speech. And I saw that and I’m like, “Yeah.” Good news? Just say it. “Your impact on this was singular and you did this and this.” Bam, done.
Same thing for bad news. You gotta fire somebody? You gotta give somebody a performance review? It doesn’t mean you need to be a blunt object, but you need to make it shorter, because you wouldn’t want it to be longer either. Imagine somebody calls you in their office and they’re like, “Hey, Carlos, you got a minute? I need to talk to you about something,” and then it turns to 15 minutes where the person’s just giving him… Going on and on and on and on. No, that’s not… You wouldn’t want that, so don’t do that to somebody else. Make it shorter, prepare it. Say like, “Here’s the deal, Carlos. You need to know about this, ’cause it’s important. You don’t show up to work enough. You need to show up to a meeting five minutes early instead of two minutes late,” or whatever, whatever the issue is. “But I’m telling you this because I want you to be better, and somebody’s gotta tell you, and I just told you, so I need you to fix it and let’s talk about it in a week and see how you’re making it better. That’s all.” And then it’s like, alright, done. Versus being the hammer. Both of those… They’re two sides of the same coin, really.
Brett McKay: Yeah, and I know with bad news… I think I have the tendency and I think a lot of people have the tendency, when you’re delivering bad news, you think, “Well, if I just say more, it will like make people feel better.” Right? ‘Cause you’re just like… But actually, I think a lot of times, you’re talking to make yourself feel better. [chuckle] ‘Cause…
Joe McCormack: This is like the person pulling the band-aid off saying, “If I pull it off really slow, it’s not gonna hurt as much.” [chuckle] And you’re like, “Wait, I just did it and it’s really, really painful.” But no, it’s like you… When I counsel people when you’re in this moment of delivering bad news is you first have to think about it before you do it, and then you have to think about what you’re gonna say. You can’t be deciding that in the moment, because what happens is if people don’t know what they’re gonna say, and then they’re fumbling over it and it makes it longer. So what I would recommend to people is, alright, let’s say that you have to give somebody… This is an extreme example of bad news, but let’s say you have to… Somebody is gonna fire somebody. These are conversations, by the way, that people remember 20 years later, so you should prepare for it.
As the deliverer of the bad news, what I always tell people is, first ask the person, “Hey, do you have a minute?” and then set the condition, “What I’m gonna tell you is difficult. It’s hard for me to say.” So the person is… It’s almost like you’re tightening your stomach before you get punched, so the person knows bad news is coming. And then you might say to a person, “I don’t need you to respond right now, I just need you to hear what I’m gonna say.” So then the person knows that you’re really not inviting them into a conversation, you’re just telling them the bad news. And then you write it out, but you’ve said this before, you’ve practiced saying this, so you’re not saying it for… ‘Cause there’s a lot of power, and then you tell them the bad news. You’re like, “We are cutting your position from the organization effective immediately. The reason why is because the company is not making enough money. And I’m really sorry to do this to you, but today is gonna be your last day, and I’ll give you some more information on this in the next hour in terms of a package,” whatever. And you prepare it, but it’s short, sweet, empathetic, and it just makes it better. And I don’t wanna deliver that either, but somebody is… But preparation I think, again to your point earlier, is absolutely critical.
Brett McKay: And something you bring up in the book too, is that a lot of conversation or communication that happens in a workplace is fluid, it’s not happening via email, it could be happening around the water cooler or you’re walking, just sort of in the hallway, in passing. And even in those moments, you make the case that you should be prepared to be brief in those conversations. If you only have someone for two minutes, you have to be ready to give them a pitch or say something that’s first clear and then concise.
Joe McCormack: Yeah, I worked… I’ve worked in a lot of different environments, but you’re always… People are bumping into each other and they’re checking in, they’re seeing what’s going on, and you have to be ready. So I would always be thinking if my customer called me, what would I say? If my boss stopped me in the hallway, what would I say? If I… These are moments that I know are going to come. What do I have for them? I wanna give them a little nugget like, “Hey, making a lot of progress on that project, or I need your help with some research.” Just be ready for that. If the phone rang, how would you… What would you say? I think people… They just wait for formal settings to do that, but business is a lot of… A lot these… It’s very informal, it’s very fluid, and being ready for that just makes you more valuable to a person like, “Alright, this person is like Johnny-on-the-spot, every time I bump into them they’ve got something for me, whether it’s good news or bad news or an update, they’re ready with something.”
Brett McKay: And as I was reading this book, this book is primarily directed towards work life, but this stuff can also be applied to your personal life. I was thinking communication with your kids. Your kids are inundated with information, their attention span is minuscule, so you have to be concise with them if you want them to listen. Well, not concise, you have to be brief, clear and concise with them in order to communicate with them.
Joe McCormack: If you think about being a parent, it’s like giving instructions to kids, doing your homework, being clear, conversations around the dinner table, the quality of that stuff goes a long way, and we just talk past each other. This book, Brief, is really about the quality of the communication, it’s clarity, it’s how intentional. I don’t say things to say them, I’m thoughtful when I communicate. And obviously that’s the home, family is the most… The personal life is… The conversations I have with people on the phone, am I listening to them? How was your day? And being able to answer that in a thoughtful way, telling kids things that they need to hear that are heartfelt, thanking people. Those things go an enormous way, and I think one of the things… I’m happy that you said that it’s outside of work, ’cause it’s not all about my job, it’s like what is the quality of my communication with people that I care about?
Brett McKay: Right. And again, even then it requires preparation. I think we have this idea that communication in our personal life, it just sort of… In order for it to be authentic, it has to just spring up naturally without thinking about it, it just happens on the fly. But really, my most meaningful conversations have been where I’ve thought about what I was gonna say before I talked to the person. Like something that my… I’ve noticed my wife does and I’m really impressed that she does this, Kate, is if we’re about to go have… We’re gonna see some friends we haven’t seen in a while, she’ll make a list of things she wants to check in on with those people. And it’s great ’cause the conversation is… It’s a lot more meaningful and I enjoy those conversations more when… With a structure and an outline to it.
Joe McCormack: You know that the… Doing things like your wife is doing is… Requires people to have time during the day to stop and to think and be thoughtful. So those… People like that, you wanna be around because they’re thinking about you before they even start talking to you. In the book Noise that I just wrote that just came out about a year ago, one of the things that I really recommend that people do is they schedule quiet time every day, because we’re so… Our lives are so busy and we’re… Jump from Zoom call to Zoom call, and it’s just… We’re living in this crazy world, and it’s like there’s no time. And to lower the noise, we have to have quiet, and in those moments of quiet, we can think, “Okay, what are the things I wanna check in on?” And it has almost a two-fold benefit. It helps me and my brain lower the volume, but it helps me become thoughtful. And who doesn’t wanna be around a person that’s thoughtful? I’m thinking about other people, about what matters to them. And when I do that, I’m lowering the noise for them, but it only comes from quiet. You need some time of quiet where you can prepare where I’m sure she’s gonna spend a few minutes to do that, doing it on the fly is difficult.
Brett McKay: Well, Joe, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and the rest of your work?
Joe McCormack: So the easiest place to go to is thebrieflab.com, so it’s T-H-E-B-R-I-E-F-L-A-B.com. And we have resources, we have a podcast, we’ve got plenty of tools that people can download. The book is available on Amazon, there’s a lot of places. The book Brief, also the book Noise. And yeah, that’d be the easiest place for people to go.
Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Joe McCormack, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Joe McCormack: The pleasure’s mine.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Joseph McCormack, he’s the author of the book Brief. It’s available on amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. You can find out more information about his work at his website thebrieflab.com. Also, check out our show notes at aom.is/brief. You can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.
Well, that wraps up another edition of the AOM podcast. Check out our website at artofmanliness.com where you can find our podcast archives as well as thousands of articles we’ve written over the years. And if you’d like to enjoy ad-free episodes at the AOM podcast, you can do so on Stitcher Premium. Head over to stitcherpremium.com, sign up, use code MANLINESS at checkout for a free month trial. Once you’re signed up, download the Stitcher app on Android or iOS and you can start enjoying ad-free episodes of the AOM podcast. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate it if you take one minute to give us a review on Apple Podcasts or Stitcher. It helps out a lot. And if you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member who you would think would get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay reminding you not only to listen to the AOM podcast, but put what you’ve heard into action.