Keep it concise - Canadian Government Executive
Bookshelf with Harvey Schachter
June 30, 2014

Keep it concise

Brief
Joseph McCormack
John Wiley, 234 pages, $29.00

 

Before a presentation, uncertainty and fear can lead us to try to include all the information required to answer all the questions recipients might have. There’s also a temptation to pack in as much detail as possible, to show the extent of our research, knowledge, and hard work in preparing. This can be doubly tempting in a hierarchical environment, where bosses, perhaps from several layers, are evaluating our effectiveness.

But Joseph McCormack, a specialist in message development, says that’s exactly the wrong thing to do. Instead, be brief.

“Executives are busy and your rambling presentation gets lost in their daily flood of information,” he writes in his new book, Brief.

“You cannot afford to miss the boat on brevity. It’s the difference between success and failure. And if you think you’ve already got it covered, you’re wrong.”

We all know intimately about the flood of information we struggle, Noah-like, to navigate every day. Everyone around you – all those people you might present to – have their own overflow to contend with. And you must be mindful, not arrogant, in believing your material is so important it will captivate them. Maybe, on occasion, the situation does make your material vital for them to focus on. But if you’re honest, not all that often.

As well, you must contend with the phenomenon he calls “the elusive 600.” People speak at about 150 words per minute yet we have the mental capacity to consume about 750 words a minute, five times what is spoken. While you are talking, therefore, the target of your message has extra mental bandwidth of about 600 words to play with other thoughts. Recipients can easily get distracted, as we know from when we’re in the listening seat. Other ideas come to mind, perhaps triggered by what is said or perhaps not even related to the topic – what will be for dinner tonight or will there be enough time to squeeze in a run after work if this endless presentation doesn’t stop soon? You need to gain and maintain their attention, for which he says brevity is essential.

Brevity is about more than actual time, he adds. 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 says. “It’s a balancing act of being concise, clear, and compelling. All three need to be in harmony.”

You may see yourself in the seven reasons he says we struggle with being brief:

• 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 unfortunately do;
• Callousness: We don’t respect other people’s time. Our needs are more important than their needs, in our mind at least;
• Comfort: Once we get talking, it feels good, so we roll on and on;
• Confusion: Uncertain and unclear, we think out loud;
• Complication: The issue we’re dealing with is complicated and we don’t believe can be explained simply. But we need to push beyond that belief. When people are busy and easily distracted, as they inevitably are when they cede us time to present, our task is to simplify; and
• Carelessness: We don’t filter what we say; words just pour out.

He offers many salves. It starts with remembering the advice our high school English teacher gave on the importance of outlines. Professionals believe that’s beneath them, particularly before a big presentation. “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 observes. Outlining can help you to be prepared, organized, clear, contextual, and confident.

He proposes mind mapping as a form of modern outlining. But whereas each mind map people normally draw can morph into a different pattern, depending on how the thoughts emerge, he recommends a consistent outline pattern he calls a BRIEF Map. On one page, with a Brief Box in the middle and five boxes around it cued to the letters in the word BRIEF, you organize your thoughts.

You put your headline message in the BRIEF box, the central theme. In the example he uses of a project update to a boss, that message is: “The project is on schedule.” The boxes surrounding it are:

B, for Background/Beginning: How do you start, which focuses on the context – why you are there. In the example, it’s stating that a question by the boss actually led to this update.
R, for Reason: Why are you speaking right now – why is it urgent and relevant? Why should the recipient pay attention when so much else is on their mind?
I, for Key Information: What is the core information you want to share? Remember not to go overboard – this is about being brief. In the example, the presenter settles on three bullet points: Where has there been progress, is the project still on schedule, and what specifically is needed?
E, for Intended Ending: You must figure out how you ideally hope to conclude your report. In the example, it’s “I will get you a price summary and the new timeline tomorrow.”
F, for expected Follow-Up Questions: You need to consider any questions that might be asked and develop solid answers. He argues 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.

Ideally, you should cast your presentation as a story. Narratives capture attention in a world of corporate-speak. But story, he stresses, does not mean rambling. You still must be short and to the point.

Don’t get hung up on fables or trying to emulate Joseph Campbell’s ideas on mythology. “We’re not talking about ‘once upon a time’ here. We’re talking about a corporate narrative that explains why, how, who, when, where, and so what. These stories must tackle and decode business issues, strategic decisions, new trends, and complex market dynamics – while making all of it personal and intelligible,” he writes.

If that sounds easier said than done, he offers another outline, a narrative map, to help. It starts with a focal point at the center of the page and a series of boxes around it in which you fill in details:

• Focal Point: This is the central part of the narrative, like a newspaper’s headline on a story, explaining and isolating the main point.
• Setup or challenge (this bubble is atop the focal point on the page, with the remaining boxes clockwise around the focal point): What challenge, conflict or issue is your organization addressing? Why does this problem exist and what is contributing to it?
• Opportunity: What is the implication or opportunity for your organization? This can help to pinpoint how you might address the issue.
• Approach (three or four boxes, each labelled Body, which will allow you to develop your message): What are the three or four key characters or elements of your story? Think how, where, and when, which will usually provide guidance.
• Payoff: What is the conclusion, the payoff at the end of the story, for the proposal you are outlining? All good stories need an ending. What will be the benefits?

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

The book extends beyond those outlines to also look at how to make your meetings briefer – and your emails. He tells of one executive who writes emails on a smartphone and limits each message to what will fit on a little screen without scrolling, preventing him from rambling. You may not want to go that far, but remember, brief is vital, brief is compelling, and brief is a winning strategy, even in emails.

About this author

Harvey Schachter

Harvey Schachter is a writer, specializing in management and business issues. He writes three weekly columns for the Globe and Mail and The Leader’s Bookshelf column for Canadian Government Executive, and a regular column and features for Kingston Life magazine. Harvey was editor of the 2004 book Memos to the Prime Minister: What Canada Can Be in the 21st Century. He was the ghostwriter on The Three Pillars of Public Management by Ole Ingstrup and Paul Crookall, and editor of Getting Clients, Keeping Clients by Dan Richards. A McGill commerce graduate, Harvey spent more than 15 years in a variety of positions at The Kingston Whig-Standard, including editor and planning and promotions manager. He won two National Newspaper Awards for his writing and a national Owl Award for a marketing program he created at the newspaper.

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