Joe McCormack

 OGB Podcast #26 – Brevity is The Soul of Wit… and Effective Communication


Scott talks to Joe McCormack, author of Brief: Make Bigger Impact by Saying Less, about the importance of brevity in communication. Joe is an author, speaker, and consultant who has worked with executives, military personnel, and many others to hone their ability to communicate efficiently in critical situations.

With attention spans shrinking and ever-growing demand for that limited resource, communicating briefly is an essential skill for the modern human being. For some, communicating with brevity is a matter of life or death. For others, it may make the difference in nailing an interview, or securing an important contract with a client. Whatever your reason for communication, brevity should be your chief aim.

Tune in to hear their discussion! 

Show Hightlights

  • Scott introduces Joe
  • Joe discusses why brevity matters
  • Joe and Scott define frustration as unfufilled expections
  • People’s attention span in everchanging technological landscape
  • Why the U.S. Military benefited from Joe’s program
  • How spending time revising leads to clear communication
  • Great Books that are short and witty
  • Buisness and writing books that have been influential for Joe
  • How to stand out with efficient communication in buisness

Resources/Articles/People Mentioned In The Podcast


Scott Hambrick: Welcome to the onlinegreatbooks podcast. Today, I’ve got a man that’s coming on, his name is Joe McCormack. He’s written a book called Brief. Making A Bigger Impact By Saying Less. Iwas introduced to Joesph through our friend Malahcy Walsh. Malachy has done a couple of podcasts with us, one about his career in marketing and how the Great Books have helped that. Another one about writing. He is keenly interested in writing, and he told me Ijust needed to know Joseph. The tagline of his book is to make a bigger impact by saying less. He shows us how to speak and write with brevity so that we are more able to be heard and more respected when we speak and write. Joseph has been doing this stuff for 20 years in the business world, in the marketing world, and he also has spent many years in the special forces universe how to speak and communicate briefly. for those people, speaking and communicated concisely and letting their ideas be known is a matter of life and death, and joseph helps him do that. so let’s get to this short show. Well, tell me, Mr. McCormik, why does brevity matter? 

Joe McCormack: Brevity matters because people are overwhelmed with information and if you can’t learn how to communicate clearly and concisely, you run the risk of people not being able to hear you. It’s a skill that people expect you to be able to do, but nobody teaches you how to do it. And, Ifind in my experience in working with people that if they can’t get their point across pretty quickly, people tend to move on to the next thing. Kinda like what you do with technology, swipe and go to the next screen, swipe and move on. It’s unfortunate but it’s the reality and people have to adapt. 

Scott Hambrick: I’ve read your book Brief, that seems to be the crutch of your argument, that you’ll get lost in the noise. Icertainly agree with that. Even if I didn’t lose them in the noise, I want to hear this person out, or I’m going to read this out, that they often can’t make their point even when I give them the gift of my attention. That’s the part that drives me crazy. 

Joe McCormack: It drives a lot of people crazy. I’ve heard this definition of frustration is to find unfulfilled exceptions. So you expect, I’m going to give a person my undivided attention tell me what’s on your mind, what’s going on, whether it’s in a professional or personal setting. And they can’t deliver. Part of that is because the natural way people communicate is they speak and conclude at the end. And you’re assuming you can hold a person’s attention that whole time to get to the ending. What we’re seeing, people need some assistance. You need to tease out. In journalism, they teach to speak in headlines, like where am I going with this. The natural way of communicating is you conclude. And, you have to invert it, flip it. What am I talking about? What am I trying to say? What is the point, what is the issue? And you state that up front. And then you get a person’s attention and you can hold it. You can teach that skill, that’s the good news. The bad news is, people continue to do what you describe, people frustrate their bosses, their audience falls asleep. 

Scott Hambrick: It frustrates the writer or the speaker because they have something to say but they’re not being heard and it’s really their fault. 

Joe McCormack: You’re looking I think, with the onslaught of technology and how people relate to technology, it changes people’s behavior so you interact on an iPad or a phone in a very specific way. You do something you expect a response. That expectation has changed how people listen. So people are listening with a greater sense of ok, if you don’t tell me your point, I’m not going to wait. It’s unfortunate but people need to adapt to that new reality. It’s not just a twitter thing, it’s a technology thing. It’s how we expect things to happen immediately. I call it, in some cases, it’s just kinda this desire to immediacy, I want results now. We can’t give it all, by the can give something to help people along. 

Scott Hambrick: So many of the communications we receive now are A-B tested so, you know, well I even do it at onlinegreatbooks. If I send out 3,000 emails, we’ll send out a 1,000 of this version and 1,000 of the other version and see which one people follow up on the most and then we run a test what we write to see how effective it is. that’s a great luxury. But if you’re just sending an email to your boss, you have one shot. 

Joe McCormack: You can’t- there’ some things to.. my backstory of why this book came about, it’s an interesting story. I got a call from U.S Military a number of years ago and it was within the special operations community, and the request was, 

Scott Hambrick: I have to stop you already, how do you get a call from the United States Special Operations community in the first place? 

Joe McCormack: Like anything, there’s a series of weird events. I met a guy at a conference 5-10 years prior and he remembered me, he and I did some limited work together, he was not in the community at the time. And then he got transferred in to the community and he was given a challenge and what the challenge was, people were communicating at a very high level there’s a huge time constraint and they’re not teaching these guys, you do a “briefing” professional version of a presentation. the expectation is the briefing is going to be brief and they are rarely brief. It frustrated these guys, so this guy thinks of “oh I met this guy once, maybe he can teach us how to do this.” he calls me, Istart making trips down, I’m based in North Carolina, which is the headquarters of the army operation. what I find is, you have these people that are being trained in all these skills but they’re not being trained in how to communicate and certainly not how to communicate concisely. They are receiving me with open arms like wow this is great you’re going to teach us the skills people are expecting us to do but are never taught. then I show up and teach ‘em how to do it. I start thinking about how we are going to fix these problems, so I write a book and start a business called brief where I teach teams how to do this. My response is that I hear from people is Iwish Ihad learned this 5-10 years ago. 

Scott Hambrick: Can you give us a few steps that we can use? Of course, people need to go get your book and read the darn thing, but could you give us a few steps. 

Joe McCormack One, don’t assume that you have people’s undivided attention forever. Assume that, their minds, circumstances, will interrupt whether it’s self imposed or what. You have to try to make it shorter. Example would be, if I’ve got 10 minutes can I do it in 8? If I’ve got 30 can I do it in 25? There’s plenty of room for cutting. A lot of what people say is just excessive detail. In some instances, that doesn’t need to be communicated. It might be in a follow up email or another conversation so people try to jam way too much information in the time that they have. My first step is try to cut. One trick I do is, every time I’m on the phone with somebody, I look at the time and Iask myself could I have done that better? That’s one thing, just the cutting. So you don’t cut everything, but you start cutting fluff. 

Scott Hambrick: There’s a quote, I think it’s actually in your book, Churchill, I can’t remember, “sorry this letter is not shorter, I didn’t have time.” 

Joe McCormack: I would have written you a shorter letter if I’d had more time. What that’s speaking to is another thing. First thing is trimming, another thing is preparation. How people take a little bit of time to prepare what they’re going to say. I find that in a corporate environment, people run from meeting to meeting, there’s very little time to prepare what they’re going to say. Many times, people are saying things for the first time outlaid without even thinking what they’re going to say, or who they’re saying it too. That’s never a good idea. I just have a podcast “Just Saying” it’s on itunes. I did one recently on micropreparation. Some preparation is better than nothing. If you’re going to walk into your boss’s office, think for 30 seconds, what am Igoing to talk about? something is better than nothing. People are like “well if I had more time I would’ve have..” trimming is one, preparation is another, and I think the third thing is just listening more to people. People are always waiting for their turn. Let’s have a conversation let’s talk talking and hear what other people have to say. You can be brief by just listening more. That’s a big contributor to success is being bigger listening. 

Scott Hambrick: Clearly a lot of your focus is on speaking and these presentations and for the special operations community these briefs, but I think the book has more information in there about written communications, emails and those kind of things, I was looking at- we’re the online great books podcast- I was looking at some of these great books. A few of them that I’ve read recently, The Prince, Machiavelli’s The Prince. 70 pages. People have been arguing about that for hundreds of years and he got it all down in 70 pages. I read Hamlet a few days ago, 50 pages. It’s a 4 hour play. Aristotle’s Metaphysics is like 25 pages. I’ve read an essay on mourning and melancholia by freud, 11 pages. We see books like harry potter and they look like phone books. They’re these giant books out there but some of the most important things ever written are just a few pages, really. When it’s done well, so that it lasts, so that it actually communicates real ideas. It almost has to be brief. 

Joe McCormack: Ithink one of the things.. when I go back to literature and things that have been written long form, i’m not against long form, I think.. there are so many books that are worth reading and worth reading again so I’m not going to espouse “hey we gotta go to short form.” certainly essays. I’m a big fan of E.B White, they’re just wonderful, 4-5 pages. When I think about even parables in the Bible, none of them are super super long. They’re really short short stories that pack a punch, there’s a lot to be said in a very few words. I think that the skill of writing, though, there was a quote, I don’t know exactly who said it, it was said by a writer known for his conciseness. You get attached when you write, and it’s hard to edit. When you write it and you want to change it, well I can’t change it because I said it. You come attached. But when you look at concise writing, he said “I cut out the parts that people typically skip.” And when  I heard that quote, I loved it, because being a good writer is saying what you need to say and there’s a book which I think is my favorite about being a good writer, it’s the elements of style by strunk and white. They talk about omitting headless words. Now they say, in a drawing, you don’t want unnecessary lines in the same way you don’t have unnecessary parts, or sentences and words in writing. It makes every paragraph, every word, count. So that if it’s long, you hold the reader’s attention. Where the reader wants to read more. It’s not filled with fluff. Writing, there’s a lot of fluff in people’s writing. There needs to be better redacting for me. Itell people buy a box of red pens. And start trimming stuff. 

Scott Hambrick: When in doubt, it’s got to go. 

Joe McCormack: The editing term is kill off your darlings. These phrases that you fall in love with but you can’t let you. But it doesn’t help the reader. At the end of the day, it’s all about the reader. What are they hearing, what are they consuming. Right now, we’re talking to a society which is becoming attention-starved. There’s a deficit of attention, people’s ability to abstain attention. there’s a real risk to writing long form that that form might just go away. It scares the death out of me. There’s a book called Reader, Come Home. It’s the point that people can’t read long books anymore. 

Scott Hambrick: Maryanne Wolf? I used to own a business, I sold it in December and I was talking to a friend of mine and we were talking about writing for business purposes. And he was saying you have to write at this 8th grade level, yada yada. We all hear that, that you’ve got to write at this 8th grade level. To this point that you mad about long form writing, because there are some ideas that are heavy enough that you can’t communicate with them on an 8th grade level. There are some ideas and problems that transcend 8th grade ness so what do we do? I mentioned a while ago, we get to send out these communications that are A-B tested, a lot of the communications that people get are tested in that same way. They get a lot of communication that has been tested, it is very high quality, at least for holding people’s engagement. At least it’s tested for that. We have to compete against that. When you write your 1 off email, you’re competing against this stuff that’s been tested for reading level, for engagement, and we’re just sending them one off emails. And, sometimes the ideas that we’re writing about are difficult. And we have to write about them simply. And, that’s one of the reasons why we actually formed this onliengreatbooks thing. We want people to read beautiful writing, and to learn from that. We want them to take in the ideas in these books and think of ideas of justice and the nature of man, and all of these things, but also just to learn from that example and when we go to these seminars, we speak about these things. It’s all extemporaneous, you can still do your micro prep, you’re not sure exactly what’s going to go on, but we can try. We’re trying to give our people more and more opportunities to write. We now have a blog where we can publish what they write about their experiences, and about what they’re reading. It’s very difficult to compete with all the professional writing that ’is out there from netflix, to the AB tested emails you get, from whatever interest retailer you buy things from, Iworry about how normal people will be able to communicate in the future. 

Joe McCormack: I do too. There’s a quote from Einstein, “you don’t understand something well unless you can explain in simply.” If you can’t explain it to your grandmother or an 8ther grader, but the point is in doing this work with the Brief Lab and writing the book Brief and then this business, one of the things that struck me was brevity forces clarity. If you force yourself to try to say it in fewer and simpler words, it doesn’t dumb it down, it makes it clearer. One of the biggest challenges in writing is that people are trying to sound fancier than they are. I asked the writer, we do a writing course, what are you trying to say? In other words, it gives them the freedom or permission to say what their trying to say. I think good writing is good thinking. so when you read these classics it reflects this great thinking. We have to adapt a bit because making these insights about human nature about these important matters, we have to make them accessible to people. so now you’re trying to see people using a lot of metaphors, parables, or stories, there’s a book by Patrick Lencioni The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable. He’s using a story as the vehicle. And one of the things we talk about in our courses is using storytelling as the trojan horse device to pack information inside it. the listener, their brain is now in the mode of hearing a story, they know how to consume that. But you’re not adding to the problem, you’re trying to relieve it. I think people right now don’t need more information, they need more insight and they need better writing. Iagree, you have to challenge people to writing is hard, thinking is hard. 

Scott Hambrick: Thinking is hard. 

Joe McCormack: Not just thinking about what you want to say but how people are hearing it. I think that people need to spend even more time thinking. Alright, if I said it that way would  people even hear it? The reality is a lot of times they don’t 

Scott Hambrick: A lot of times they don’t, even if you have what you think is their attention. If you send an email to your boss and he has 20 people that report to him, you would think that you would have his attention, but you don’t. You’ve got to come out of the gate swinging. 

Joe McCormack: I spend a lot of time thinking about this, and working this problem. If you think about when a person’s in a moment doing something difficult, you’re really pondering a really deep thought, and you’ve got a smart phone sitting right next to you, the temptation.. it’s like working out. You’re in this really difficult moment where it’s just hard and you have something like a couch, an ice cream cone right next to you. That’s not  a good idea. If you’ve got something that might be easier or tempting to do the hard work, remove it. People have got music, smart phone, easier options and their brain has been rewired to go easy. And they bail. They bail on the hard thought, they don’t go through it think about how hard it is to read The cannery tales in the original. I’m trudging through this every night, If I had a smartphone sitting next to me, I’m done. 

Scott Hambrick: Boy I suffered, Iread it just a few months ago. The fart jokes do come through. It is really tempting. I’m 44, and my attention span, I know has plummeted in the last 8-10 years. And, I fight it, and it’s my job to have a long attention span and I’m not winning that fight, man. I’m being programmed against my will and I’m very unhappy about it. 

Joe McCormack: It’s reality. One of my motivations to write the book was not to try and be cute about we need to be about twitter, tIwas an adaptive strategy to realize we’re talking to audiences that are generally struggling to focus, and really hold onto what we are saying. If we don’t say it the shorter, clearer way, they may not hear anything or very little. The irony of the whole thing, is as people get better at being clear and consider, they actually win over the audience’s ability to hear more. I just did a podcast about the napoleon diamond and the point of the podcast is it’s the stupidest movie the first time, the second time it’s the most brilliant. What ends up happening, it’s a series of 45 really small scenes. Each sketch is funny, you’re like I’ll watch one I’ll do another one. You win the short form and you fret it into a long form. You win it paragraph to paragraph and you basically win over the reader. This actually feels short but it’s actually long. The irony is you can actually create longer conversations 

Scott Hambrick: That movie is so slow and quiet. But they do, they hold your attention. People who recite all of those lines from that movie, because it’s so crisp. 

Joe McCormack: There’s a trim that I’m using, It’s called focus management it’s the skill to manage people’s focus. The analogy is magicians. If you think about what a magician is doing, they are expertly managing your focus and having you focus on the wrong thing so that you don’t see the trick. So what we need to learn is how to learn the technique of folding people’s focus around you. There’s tricks to doing it, just in magic or comedies is another analogy. A comedian has these devices they use that are proven to work time and time again. Set up, transition, punchlines. And they follow this cadence and you can magically hold people’ s focus when they can’t under normal circumstances. Once of the things that I talk about is the brain doesn’t want to reorganize what you said no matter what. When you do that, the brain is like “oh this is great you made it easier for me!” It gives a little dopamine, it feels good, and you do it again. When you start to use these focus management tricks, speaking in headlines, cut out stuff that doesn’t matter, insert a hook, give a payoff, people love it. It really retrains the brain to sit through longer problems. 

Scott Hambrick: This little trick for holding people’s attention, when I read Brief I was thinking about a friend of mine named Brad and he’s a master storyteller. And we would be at a bar and he would tell, we had another friend, and he would tell a group of girls, “this is my friend, Bug. I’ll tell you how he got his name later. And then he would tell a different story. And they would sit there and they wanted to know how the guy got the amen.” He always did that, and he was completely unconscious of it, completely natural. If you ask him what are all the tropes you use to hold people’s attention when you’re telling stories at the bar, he has no ideas. 

Joe McCormack: You can sit and study those people and teach that skill, there’s a number of them. One of them is a technique called flagging. It’s numbering the points that you want to make. You go to your bosses’ office and say I’ve got a budget problem, there’s 3 things I’m saying. When you number, the boss says what was the first. It works every time. Another one, is storytelling. Ok let me give you an example. Oh cool, Iget to hear a story. In a conversation where you know they’re drifting,. We were doing a homework assignment, this guy was talking to his wife. The point was, having a conversation and hold their attention. and she wa snot.. half of the conversation he says, “Kathy, I really..” He says she stopped and looked at him. It was like snapping your finger. There’s these little devices, you can study and learn how to do it. We have to teach them. 

Scott Hambrick: We all know how bad most of the communication we receive, particularly in the workplace, then you can imagine what kind of a star that you would be if you could transcend that. If everyone in yours here knew that you were someone who communicated effectively and enjoyable that you would crush all of your competitors and hear the lamentations of their women. 

Joe McCormack: I think one of the things that I really push for people, this is a skill that pole expect you have and when you don’t they get frustrated but if you have it you stand it. People are dying to know what’s going on, and then you show up and you lay it out, you’ve prepared, you’ve trimmed, you got it organized. People notice you, they notice what you’re saying, when they’re ignoring everybody else. That can be a huge catapult for people’s carriers. You’re trying to get the attention of an important client, you’re talking to your boss or whomever, your ability to do that might be the different 

Scott Hambrick: In a competitive situation like a job interview, you’re the one that held their attention for 22 minutes. It’s probably not a competition at this point. 

Joe McCormack: The good news, when people do the work, when they start to see a difference because the people around them are drowning. and you’re throwing them lifelines, because it helps them.They don’t want more. They’re already buried in information. Information inundation is a real thing. 

Scott Hambrick: If you’re listening to this and don’t think you are a good communication and know some people who are, they may be natural but you don’t have to be. This is something you can learn, practice and habituate into, and you can become a good speaker and a good communicator. You can go get Joe’s book called Brief. His name is Joseph Mccormack. He’s got some online courses you can go to and take some courses online from him. 

Joe McCormack: What else do you want to pimp, sir?

Joe McCormack: Well, I think the book is to make people better. It took me a year to write it, it’s been well receive, I think the book can be a good starting point. When you go to the, we have a podcast that comes out every monday just about little things, it’s a way for me to continue the conversation I started with the book. I want to support them, I want people to know I’m in your camp, I want people to get better, it takes discipline, it takes commitment but it’s possible to make a huge impact. I think the podcast has been my little thing that Ido, it’s only 10-15 imputes long. It’s my contribution. 

Scott Hambrick: My wife and I tell each other, “Hey, you need to do better.” and that’s become a joke between us. You send me a copy of a book and it said, “Scott, be better. Be brief.” And I showed my wife and she was like ya be better. 

Joe McCormack: When I sign books for spouses, I tell the other spouse you can talk as long as you want. 

Scott Hambrick: So we’ve told them they can find you at and you got an email you want to give out unless someone needs to hire you? 

Joe McCormack: If you send an email to me personally it’s 

Scott Hambrick: Excellent, we’ll keep this podcast brief. Thanks for coming and talking to us about communication, that’s part of the trivium, you’ve got grammar, logic and rhetoric this is the rhetoric chunk. We want people to master all three pieces so that’s for helping us do that 

Joe McCormack: My pleasure. 



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