By Joseph McCormack
(John Wiley, 234 pages, $29)
To be effective in a world of information overload and distraction, you must be brief.
That’s the essential message of a new book by consultant Joseph McCormack, a specialist in message development. At one level, it’s all you need to know about Brief, and I could have stopped writing at the end of the last paragraph.
But he doesn’t stop with that point, as there always can be more to be said. So his message is actually more elaborate. We need to be brief, understand how to do that, and understand what brief means in different contexts. We also need to accept his opening comment that if you think you already are brief, you’re wrong. Most of us can improve.
He sets out an intriguing concept, which he labels “the elusive 600.” People speak at about 150 words a minute, yet we have the mental capacity to consume about 750 words a minute – five times what is typically spoken. While you are speaking, the targeted recipient of the message has extra mental bandwidth to play with other thoughts. That person can become distracted, as other ideas pop to mind, perhaps triggered by your words. You need to gain and hold their attention, for which brevity is essential.
Brevity, he stresses, is about more than actual duration. It’s about how long a presentation appears to the audience. “It’s not about using the least amount of time. It’s about making the most of the time you have,” he writes. “It’s a balancing act of being concise, clear and compelling. All three need to be in harmony.”
He cites seven reasons why we struggle with brevity:
Cowardice: We drown people in possibilities in order to avoid taking a stand.
Confidence: We know the material so well we could talk about it for days – and do.
Callousness: We don’t respect other people’s time. We ask for a minute of their time with no intention of honouring that request.
Comfort: Once we get talking, it’s comforting, so we roll on and on.
Confusion: Lacking clarity, we think out loud.
Complication: The issue we’re dealing with is intricate and we don’t believe it can be explained simply. But our job is to simplify when everyone we approach is so busy and distractible.
Carelessness: We don’t filter what we say, just letting words spill out.
He urges us to heed the advice of our high school English teacher on the importance of outlines. Professionals believe that’s beneath them, he notes, particularly before a big pitch or meeting. “It’s a huge mistake to make, especially when you consider the vast amount of information you have to handle, distill, and disseminate in these situations,” he writes.
He suggests trying “mind mapping” to get your ideas organized before writing a report or making a presentation. Usually that involves unleashing the ideas in haphazard fashion on paper to find links and structure. He offers a model, a BRIEF map, which allows you to improve communication by simplifying complex messages into a one-page visual outline.
At the centre is a box, labelled BRIEF, in which you put your headline message. In the example he uses, of a project update to the CEO, “The project is on schedule.” The boxes around it are:
B, for Background/Beginning: How do you start, which means focusing on the context – the reason you are there. In the example, it’s explaining that a question by the CEO prompted this update.
R, for Reason: Why are you speaking right now? Why is it urgent and relevant to the recipient of the information? Why should they pay attention when so much else is on their mind?
I, for Information: What is the core information you want to share? Don’t go overboard. In the example, the presenter settles on three bullet points: Where has there been progress? Is the project still on schedule? What specifically is needed?
E, for Ending: You must figure out how to conclude your report. In the example: “I will get you a price summary and the new timeline tomorrow.”
F, for Follow-up questions: You need to consider questions that might be asked and develop answers. Considering follow-up questions in advance might allow you to make your BRIEF map clearer and tighter – not more elaborate and longer.
“Brevity is all about preparation and preassembly,” he insists.
Beyond that, he urges you to consider concise storytelling to maintain attention. As well, reduce the amount of time you allocate for meetings, rather than routinely allocating an hour when 40 minutes might be sufficient. Also, leave a smaller digital imprint, exercising self-control in your e-mails. He points to one executive who writes e-mails on a smartphone and limits each message to what will fit on a little screen without scrolling, keeping him from rambling on.
If you try the long version of Brief, you’ll find the book well-organized, with lots of tips to make your messages more compelling.
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Ed Catmull, co-founder of Pixar Animation Studios, distills the principles of innovation he learned in Creativity, Inc. (Random House of Canada, 340 pages, $32), written with journalist Amy Wallace.
In Austerity: The Great Failure (Yale University Press, 219 pages, $29.25) historian Florian Schui shows how arguments for austerity have been grounded in moral and political considerations rather than economic reality.
Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter