Joe McCormack is the author of “BRIEF: Make a Bigger Impact by Saying Less,” and “Noise: Living and Leading When Nobody Can Focus.” He founded the Brief Lab in 2013 after years dedicated to developing and delivering a unique curriculum for US Army Special Operations. He actively counsels military leaders and senior executives on effective, efficient communication, and produces the podcast, “Just Saying.” In this conversation, he shares the keys to thinking clearly to get to the root cause of a problem and explain the way forward, simply, concisely, and effectively.
[2:45] Joe is the sixth of nine children in his Irish Catholic family. His early career includes a period of aerospace marketing in the aviation field before he started a marketing agency.
[4:28] Joe’s executive message about communication is “Less is more.” You don’t need to say much but what you say needs to count. Leaders tend to overwhelm people with information. Be more careful and calculating to be concise. You want to say more but people can’t hear it.
[6:16] Joe explains why people say too much; a lack of time to prepare, the fear of not giving enough information, the fear of looking stupid, and the fear of failing to handle every contingency. It’s never just one of these things; it’s all of them.
[6:45] People need to consider, “What does my audience need?” They don’t need six paragraphs. They’re craving brevity. They want two. Give the audience what they want: two well-written paragraphs. More paragraphs will dilute the message and diminish your impact.
[7:54] When Joe wrote Brief he considered what was the most essential thing to say in the shortest time given. But don’t be too brief. Say what is necessary. When you learn the skills, you can use brevity consistently. There’s a payoff for people that have the skillset.
[10:30] Joe asks people three questions about executive summaries:
- “Have you ever heard the term ‘executive summary’?”
- “Have you ever had a developer deliver one?”
- “Has anybody ever taught you how to build one?”
People’s answers are normally, Yes, Yes, and No. If they say Yes to the third, Joe asks them how to build one. They don’t get it right.
[11:33] Three questions to answer that will make a great executive summary:
- “What are you talking about?”
- “Why are we talking about this right now?”
- “So what now; what next?”
[13:26] Joe teaches people the habit of briefly summarizing their message. It’s different than just knowing it. It’s a habitual way of thinking, speaking, and stopping from talking.
[15:09] Fortune 500 corporations and Special Operations are alike in some ways. They both have high standards and expectations and they need to deliver, either for ROI or mission success. In the military, there is a lot of training. Corporations are starting to adopt more training. Since COVID-19 businesses are looking to attract talent. Communication and collaboration are how businesses work.
[16:59] Collaboration works in moderation. Microsoft came out with a recent study that shows what people want most from their workplace is autonomy. They want to be left alone to think, and then when they collaborate, it’s better. If you don’t give people time to think about a problem, they come up with an answer on the fly. Deep problems don’t get solved on the fly, but only after thinking and then talking.
[22:18] When planning a meeting, take 10 minutes of quiet. Then sit down and create an agenda of what you want to talk about; think about it, write it, and edit it. Then send it and follow it. It works.
[23:09] There’s a time for collaboration, talking, and doing, and there’s a time for thinking. You have to figure out in your role, and what that time allotment is. Once you get that, you’re not doing too much or too little, you’re doing your job. Joe heard of a CEO who said, “I don’t think at work; I’m in meetings all the time.” The CEO needs time to think at work.
[25:34] As leaders, you need to make a quiet appointment with yourselves for a set amount of time every day. During the appointment, write down things that you need to be thinking about; “How do I get feedback from my employees?” or “What’s wrong with my current work situation?” Make the appointment and don’t miss it.
[28:42] Joe’s 15-minute podcast, Just Saying, comes from the classes he teaches to Special Operations teams about concise communications that are effective.
[30:15] Joe’s book, Noise, is about the correlation between clear thinking and lowering noise levels. If you don’t manage the noise, your thoughts are scattered. If your thoughts are scattered, your speech is scattered. Ineffective leaders are scattered because they haven’t thought about what they are doing and why they are doing it. They start by talking. Clear thinking leads to concise communication.
[31:56] When addressing a problem, ask yourself how much you think about it and how well you think about it. Do you dedicate enough time to thinking about your business? Are you constantly getting distracted in your thinking time? If you do 20 minutes of quiet every day, your thinking will be better. You won’t excel at it at first, but make it a daily habit and you will get better at it and get focused.
[34:49] Tips from Brief: You need Awareness: It’s important to be clear and concise. Discipline: Talk and stop talking when needed. Decisiveness: Know when to act and then act. Jim calls these traits a virtuous circle and compares them to the skills of a running back in a football game.
[39:37] People have different ways of thinking. Some people need to think about stuff more and some people are quick to answer. There are strengths and weaknesses to both types of people. Make sure the people around you know your processing style.
[41:15] Joe shares a success story. A client was able to frame and reframe what he was doing, why he was doing it, what the value was to the organization, how he was doing it, and how he was measuring the impact in a presentation to the board. They didn’t cut a dime from his budget. If you can’t state your work in those clear terms, people will default to thinking it’s not that important, and you will get cut.
[44:05] Joe tells of a military client. The skill of being clear, concise, easy to understand, and easy to follow is valuable. In the middle of a briefing, a general asked Joe’s client, who was presenting, “Where did you learn to brief like that?” If everyone else is terrible at it and you’re good at it, all of a sudden, you’re the tallest person in the room. It takes time to prepare for that.
[46:21] When Joe presents to a group he focuses on the audience and how they are alike. The common denominator is they all want the shorter version! They may want to know more but they all crave a clear and concise answer. He provides a clear and concise answer. If they want more, he provides a clear and longer answer. Then, if they want more, he provides the clearest and longest explanation.
[48:06] Jan and Jim spend a lot of time helping people to focus. A previous guest of the podcast, Brian Caulfield told them “Sell the problem, not the solution.” No one has time and everyone is selling a solution. Joe’s Brief method is a recipe for managing time and figuring out the root cause of a problem.
[49:25] Joe’s challenge: Take time and quiet to think about it. Schedule it. Use quiet to your advantage, however much you need. Then talk. Think before you speak. And then do something. Those are separate things. You think about it quietly. You lower the noise. You start to get a root cause. Then you can say the most important thing (not the things). Then watch people say, “I got it! Now I know what to do.”
[52:13] Closing quote: “Brevity is the soul of wit.” — William Shakespeare.