Brief by Joseph McCormack


Brief by Joseph McCormack

Read the summary below and get the key insights in just 10 minutes!



[text_block style=”style_1.png” align=”left” font_font=”Raleway”]

Communications consultant Joseph McCormack presents valuable tips on how to convey information leanly and meanly. Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote: “It is my ambition to say in 10 sentences what others say in a whole book.” Or take an almost perfect example of a telling message that is “short, sweet and to the point”: champion boxer Muhammad Ali’s short-short poem, “Me? We.” Amid today’s information overload, lean messaging is essential if you want people to get your point. getAbstract recommends McCormack’s manual to anyone seeking to communicate concisely and clearly.


In this summary, you will learn

  • Why brevity is important,
  • What “seven capital sins” work against brevity,
  • What four practices support lean, clean communications, and
  • What methods you can use to communicate succinctly.


[text_block style=”style_1.png” align=”left” font_font=”Raleway”]

Blah, Blah, Blah…

Today’s constant barrage of information leaves you totally exhausted. Many people claim to feel as if they suffer attention-deficit disorder. Roger Bohn and James Short of the University of California at San Diego report that Americans collectively manage approximately 1.3 trillion hours of information above the information they manage at work. The average American “consumed 100,500 words on an average day.”

If you have something to communicate, be brief. Get to the point immediately and get your message across quickly in the clearest, most cogent way – before something distracts your overloaded readers or listeners.

“When you want to get more, decide to say less. Those who want to succeed – even thrive – in an attention-deficit economy are masters of lean communication.”

“Deep Brevity”

As you practice brevity, don’t equate it with superficiality. Your goal should be deep brevity – being “succinct and savvy.” If you’re not efficient, people won’t hear what you want to communicate. Despite the importance of brevity, few people speak directly, clearly and concisely.

“When you think you have an hour and you wait to deliver the good stuff until the end, you’re too late.”

Besides just liking to talk, this failing stems from the “seven capital sins” that sabotage brevity:

  1. “Cowardice” – You need to communicate about a subject involving numerous perspectives and ramifications. You feel you must fully explain each of these aspects. You are afraid to leave anything out.
  2. “Confidence” – You know the subject so well you could easily go on for hours.
  3. “Callousness” – You fail to consider others’ needs or to respect their time. You drone on, which is the last thing people want.
  4. “Comfort” – Once you begin to speak, you feel so at home that you don’t shut up.
  5. “Confusion” – Your mind juggles umpteen diverse details. Trying to blurt out all of this information at the same time is a mistake.
  6. “Complication” – You believe your subject is too complex to explain briefly.
  7. ‘Carelessness” – You are intemperate in your commentary and say something you shouldn’t say. That wastes time.

“If you are giving people progress reports, being brief requires that you give them what they are looking for – not all of the other details and information they really don’t care about.”

Strategies For Brevity

Make brevity second nature. Make your communications short and sweet. Make habitual brevity part of your “mental muscle memory.” You can use four proven strategies to make brevity the signature element of your communications style:

“Whereas we remember only 10 % of what we hear and 30% of what we read, we remember a whopping 80% of what we see.”

1. “Map It”

Before you communicate, plan your approach. Never improvise. Outline your primary ideas on paper. Mapping helps you to be succinct. Plan the way your ideas will connect. This works for any type of communication – even a telephone call. Write out your four most important points.

Outlining delivers important benefits. It fully prepares you to communicate effectively. It also organizes your thoughts, which will help you get all of your points across. If you make a roadmap, you’ll have a clear understanding of what you want to communicate. You’ll be ready to provide needed context, and you’ll feel confident that you can share a compelling, complete story.

“Narrative mapping synthesizes volumes of information into a visual outline that produces a logical, strategic, highly contextual and relevant story.”

2. “Tell It”

Everyone loves to hear a good story. People remember stories, in marked contrast to the “corporate speak” that characterizes many business communications today, and which doesn’t engage people at all. Rather than boring people and turning them off, use narrative storytelling as a primary component of your communications strategy.

“From blogs and microblogs to Twitter, Instagram and beyond, there has been a growing emphasis to make communication easier and shorter to produce and share content online.”

Storytelling helps you be “clear, concise and compelling.” It conveys your points quickly and in the most commanding fashion. In 2007, Steve Jobs debuted the inaugural iPhone at MacWorld in 2007 by telling a story. He began by saying, “Every once in a while, a revolutionary product comes along that changes everything, Today, Apple is going to reinvent the phone.”

Jobs explained that Apple was a special company that developed products to meet people’s most “fundamental need.” All stories require a “villain or a conflict.” In Jobs’s story, the villains were Apple’s competitors who manufactured hard-to-use cellphones. Jobs finished his story by explaining that the iPhone would prove to be one of the world’s most groundbreaking products.

“Like Apple, businesses that embrace stories can make quick connections that last. Those that feel stories aren’t appropriate leave people hungry, confused and irritated.”

For effective storytelling, keep your story short. Long stories bore listeners. And “don’t fall in love with fables.” For an effective communication, “Once upon a time” won’t cut it. Instead, quickly communicate your subject’s core information, “why, how, who, when, where and what” in a compelling, universal tale.

“People are eager for stories. Not dissertations. Not lectures. Not informative essays.” (Kendall Haven, Story Proof )

Your associates may want to use a narrative storytelling technique, but they might not know just how it works. To help your team, don’t just instruct them to use narratives. Instead, help them learn how to tell stories.

Start by teaching them the elements of the “narrative map”:

“Brevity is your weapon – and it starts with the résumé. Trim it, highlight your successes and put them in context.”

  • “Focal point” – This is your “headline,” or main narrative element.
  • “Setup” – This explains the main marketplace challenge that your organization plans to address.
  • “Opportunity” – This is the “aha moment” when you make things change by explaining how your organization is responding to this moment in the market.
  • “Approach” – How does the tale develop? List the people involved or explain the who, why and when.
  • “Payoff” – Begin and conclude your story by explaining how your audience or company will benefit.

“Good interviews…are short and to the point. You make it easy for your potential employer to understand who you are, where you’ve come from and why you’ve been successful.”

3. “Talk It”

People dislike long monologues. A light, conversational, to-the-point style engages people more than formal speechmaking. Your job is to keep the people on the other side of the conversation actively involved. This is an uphill struggle when you are the only speaker. Set out to establish “controlled conversations” in which both parties willingly engage in an exchange.

Avoid three commonplace conversational mistakes:

“To be brief is to create a compact quality of expression.”

  1. “Passive listening” – You allow the other party to expound without saying anything.
  2. “Waiting my turn” – The other person says something and, without really hearing, you say something. This common practice is rude, and it leads to having two people talking past each other in two separate conversations,
  3. “Impulsively reacting” – A single word sets you off, and you immediately respond.

“I think that ideas…have to be extremely brief. Three words are better than four, or four words are better than six.” – Kristi Faulkner, president and founder, Womenkind

4. “Show It”

Dynamic images can help you deliver your message in the most powerful way. Visual communications are always stronger than unadorned text. This is particularly true in today’s high-tech world, where computer screens and monitors dominate. Pictures, graphics and other visuals engage readers and command their attention. Visuals deliver more information than words in a compelling, efficient editorial package. Efficiency is a signal characteristic of brevity.

The USA Today approach, which has had a profound effect on editorial communications – and is directly responsible for the burgeoning field of infographics – provides a sound example of the power of graphics and visuals. By incorporating strong graphic elements into its editorial format, USA Today makes its stories shorter while delivering maximum impact and information.

“When we fail to be clear and concise, the consequences can be brutal: wasted time, money and resources; decisions made in confusion; worthy ideas rejected; people sent off in wrong directions; done deals that always seem to stall.”

“Truths, Implications, Plans/Practices” (TIPS)

Refer to these “less is more” tips to keep your communications brief, clear and to the point. They will help you engage your audience, whether it’s one person or 10,000:

  • Brevity’s basic requirements – You need plenty of planning, preparation and discipline. Respect your audience members and never waste their time.
  • “The elusive 600” – Humans can speak at a rate of around 150 words per minute, and the mind can process around 750 words a minute. A listener’s mind can wander while you speak. With any distraction, your audience members’ focus can drift. To command their attention, be brief and direct.
  • “Why Why Why” – Communicate with a why, why, why approach. Get to the point immediately. Hit it hard and revisit it throughout your presentation. “Why” is the core of your message. Your audience will find it impossible to understand what you are trying to say if you don’t supply reasons. Solidify your “why” by including the phrase “And this is important because…”
  • Use headlines – Don’t make people guess what you are trying to communicate. Take a tip from the newspapers and include a big, up-front headline that makes everything clear.
  • Trim, trim and trim – You never want to just spill every thought that enters your mind. Edit, and then edit some more.
  • Shape what you communicate by listening to others – Make sure your message will be relevant to your audience.
  • “The power of three” – The best way to organize your material and to secure the attention of your audience is to group everything into threes. This gives your audience an easy way to manage the information you present.
  • “Cut it in half” – No matter how much speaking time is allotted to you, use only half of it. This is a great practice for all your communications, but especially for meetings.
  • Be authentic – You will never go wrong when you speak in your true voice.
  • “Paint a picture” – People think visually. Your audience will respond better to what you say when you use anecdotes and stories to get your idea across.
  • Don’t be a “motor mouth” – Many speakers don’t know when to shut up. Introduce intelligent pauses into your delivery.
  • Skip the written notes – They make you seem artificial.
  • “Don’t get too comfortable” – You’re fooling yourself if you think that the longer you are in front of your audience members, the more they will hang on your every word.
  • “Nobody cares unless you do” – Be passionate about your message. If you don’t have emotional involvement with your material, don’t expect your audience to care.
  • PowerPoint – Keep your slides to an absolute minimum (10 or less). Don’t stuff each slide with a lot of dense information. Include images to spice up your text.
  • “Make sure no assembly is required” – The more comprehensible you make your information, the more successful you will be. Today, people can’t focus; they find it hard to pay attention for more than 10 seconds at a time.
  • “Put it on a cracker” – Serve a brief summary up front, like an snack on a cracker, by explaining what you intend to communicate. This gives you an opportunity to determine if your audience is ready, willing and able to digest the “verbal meal” you plan to serve.
  • “What’s in it for me?” – People won’t invest their attention unless they receive some kind of payoff. Tell your audience right away what they will gain by listening.
  • Presentations – When you begin, most of your audience thinks, “How long is this going to last?” Take a tip from TED Talks: Keep your presentation to 18 minutes or less.
  • Meetings – Don’t fritter away the valuable time of the people who work with you or for you. Establish strict meeting time limits.
  • Emails – Just as you must do with meetings, keep your emails short. This demonstrates respect for your colleagues.
  • Sales pitches – Involve your prospects right from the start. To get a discussion going, stay away from monologues. When it’s time to deliver your pitch, be ready to present it in two minutes or less.
  • Commit to being “clear and concise” – You will always have a more positive impact on your audience if you show them you respect their time. The best way to do that is to keep it short.


About the Author

[text_block style=”style_1.png” align=”left” font_font=”Raleway”]

Joseph McCormack is founder of the BRIEF Lab and consults with executives on how to disseminate their messages.


[text_block style=”style_1.png” align=”left” font_font=”Raleway”]

Get key insights from 15,000+ non-fiction books at