Brief: Make a Bigger Impact by Saying Less

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Published: 2/10/2014
Get heard by being clear and conciseThe only way to survive in business today is to be a lean communicator. Busy executives expect you to respect and manage their time more effectively than ever. You need to do the groundwork to make your message tight and to the point. The average professional receives 304 emails per week and checks their smartphones 36 times an hour and 38 hours a week.

Book Summary - Brief: Make a Bigger Impact by Saying Less by Joseph McCormack

Key Insights

We have all heard the expression less is more. Even so, we struggle to be brief: we talk too much, we share too much, and some of us even think too much. The average American consumes more than 100,500 words on a typical day. With this amount of cognitive overload, what do we truly retain?

It is only when we practice the principles of “succinct and savvy” communication that we become effective leaders.

Unless you are eating a peanut butter sandwich, be sure to cut the fluff. Brief: Make a Bigger Impact by Saying Less will show you exactly how.

Key Points

Only the Strong (Messages) Survive

In a world where information is flying at us from every direction, only the strong messages stick.

So, how do you make your message stand out amidst the noise?

To start, you speak succinctly and quickly, bearing in mind that the average human attention span is approximately eight seconds (the length of time it takes to speak one full sentence). Be direct and to the point.

Your total presentation time should never exceed 18 minutes or 10 slides.

An effective presentation starts with a powerful headline. The headline is the audience’s first impression of your pitch, so if it is not engaging, you lose credibility almost immediately.

One of the top headlines in the United States in 2015 was “A Hurricane Beyond Measure Approached Mexico”. Immediately after reading this, you know exactly what happened (a hurricane hit Mexico), and you are also left with questions that provide a reason to keep reading.

How bad was it? Was anyone killed? What caused this to happen?

While it can be tempting to gradually introduce information leading up to a “final reveal”, you could end up self-sabotaging by waiting too long to get your point across.

Trim the Fat

When you are done building your Powerpoint, cut out half of every slide you are presenting. If the key message still comes across with 50% deleted, the additional material never needed to be there.

And if you are struggling with what to delete, consider the following strategies:

Tell it--only keep information that supports your story

Map it--only keep information that supports your primary approach

Show it--only keep information that is visually appealing

Additionally, keep the “seven capital sins” of brevity sabotage in mind:

Cowardice--You are afraid of leaving out key information

Confidence--You are overly confident and do not need to practice or prepare

Callousness--You are not respectful of the needs or time of your audience

Comfort--You feel so comfortable speaking that you cannot stop

Confusion--You are juggling many different details in your mind and you cannot decide which details to share when

Complication--You are unable to explain your project/subject in a way that is accessible to the majority

Carelessness--You editorialize and offer commentary that is not relevant to your main points

Avoid these seven sins at all costs.

BRIEF Mind Maps

BRIEF is an acronym that stands for Background, Reasons or Relevance, Information for inclusion, Ending, and expecting Follow-up questions. By creating a mind map with this method, you are developing a visual outline that will concisely organize and explain your central points.

Consider the following example.

You have just developed a new kind of shoe and want to share the product with your company.

Background--After three years in development, we have finally perfected the sandal-sneaker!

Reasons--Sandals and sneakers have both been big sellers, historically, so we figured, why not combine them and see what we could do?

Information--We will be offering the product in three sizes and three colors, starting immediately.

Ending--After implementing this new product line, we expect to see a $20,000 increase in annual revenue.

Follow-up--How is this new model feasible, you might ask? Well, we have a private investor who is channeling funds directly into this project.

By using the BRIEF method in this example, you have effectively laid out the key points of your shoe project while keeping your summary brief and to the point.

The Power of Pictures--Show It

Research shows that the human brain retains 80% of what is seen, on average, but only 30% of what is read. A picture really is worth a thousand words!

Graphs. Charts. Videos. Illustrations. Animations. All can be effective tools in conveying an important message. Sometimes, a combination of visual imagery and words together is ideal.

Picture a graph without the words. You would have no idea what was being measured. Both the visual and the verbal (text) can be critical in defining a clear message.

Al Neuharth was a pioneer in journalism who wanted people to really read his newspapers. Initially, he found that consumers were often skimming long-winded, wordy articles, but when he focused on creating shorter stories interspersed with images, his reader engagement increased exponentially.

Tell the Story

When we speak, we want to sound smart. Therefore, we are quick to employ advanced language so that we appear sophisticated.

However, when we use terms that are not familiar to the typical consumer or client, we often lose our audience right away.

Instead, tell your story clearly and simply.

As such, focus on challenges, opportunities, approaches, and payoffs in order to create a concise and easy-to-follow storytelling structure.

When Steve Jobs introduced the first generation of the iPhone, he began his pitch by explaining why current smartphones were ineffective (opportunity/challenge). He then identified the strategies--such as guerilla marketing (approach)--that Apple would use to saturate the market before concluding with the end goal: an effective and innovative product (payoff).

Active Listening

These days, many of us attend weekly staff meetings with our Zoom cameras off and a rousing game of Candy Crush in the background.

So, how do we fight the urge to disengage when it has become easier than ever to do so?

We use the TALC method. TALC is an acronym for Talk, Active Listening, and Converse. Essentially, it is a formula for keeping your conversations on track (and brief!) by aligning them with your partners’ goals and interests.

When using the TALC technique, let your partner be the first person to talk. As they are speaking, demonstrate an interest in the words they use. Do this by avoiding multitasking, paying attention to key phrases, and using affirmative body language to show that you are engaged in the conversation.

When it is your turn to speak, offer a comment or a question about the current topic rather than redirecting the conversation towards another idea. This keeps the conversation focused and shows you care about what your partner is saying.

Demonstrate Respect for Peoples’ Time

Oftentimes, when you are asked to do a survey, you will be told upfront how long the survey is intended to take. This is good practice because it allows for transparency between the researcher and the consumer from the start.

Similarly, in presenting a message to a consumer, understand that peoples’ days are already packed with tasks and time is a valuable asset.

While you can’t always cut down on the length of a meeting, try putting a timer in the room--which was done at Google--so the people talking develop a sense of how long they spend speaking. Sometimes, you don’t realize when you are going on and on and on...and on…

The Main Take-Away

Think of your presentation as an elevator pitch and assume that after five minutes, your audience will no longer be listening. This way, you will be sure to put your most salient points first and leave the rest for the time remaining. You might even find that after saying what you have to say, you do not need to re-introduce the minute details, as they were extraneous information that would have ultimately detracted from your key point.

Use images and powerful headlines to connect with your audience while maintaining enthusiasm, honesty, and being responsive to your listeners’ needs.

Be concise, be quick, tell a compelling story, and most importantly, be brief!

About the Author

Joseph McCormack is the founder and CEO of Sheffield Marketing Partners, an organization that focuses on message and narrative development. Prior to entering the industry, McCormack graduated from Loyola University of Chicago with a BA in English Literature. He is fluent in Spanish and has traveled abroad extensively. Additionally, McCormack founded The Brief Lab in 2013 and has served as a long-time consultant for military executives and leaders. He lives in Chicago with his wife and children.

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