Joe McCormack is on a mission to help organizations master the art of the short story. In an age of shrinking attention spans, non-stop interruptions, and a flood of information, the messages business leaders send out are getting lost in a sea of words.
An experienced marketing executive, successful entrepreneur and author, Joe is recognized for his work in narrative messaging and corporate storytelling. His new book, BRIEF: Make a Bigger Impact by Saying Less (John Wiley & Sons, February 2014), tackles the timeliness of the “less is more” mandate.
A passionate leader, he founded The BRIEF Lab in 2013 after years of developing and delivering a unique curriculum on strategic narratives for U.S. Army Special Operations Command. He actively counsels military leaders and senior executives on key messaging and strategy initiatives. His clients include W.W.Grainger, Harley-Davidson, USG Corporation, BMO Harris Bank, SAP, MasterCard, Heinz, Hoffman-La Roche and Jones Lang LaSalle.
He founded and serves as Managing Director and President of The Sheffield Company, an award-winning boutique agency.
Previously, he served as SVP, Corporate Marketing at Ketchum, a top-five marketing agency in Chicago. He received a BA in English Literature from Loyola University of Chicago and is fluent in Spanish. He, his wife Montserrat, and their children live in suburban Chicago.
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Morris: Before discussing BRIEF, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?
McCormack: My dad. He was a very successful business owner. He raised a large family and had a strong desire to give me the best education he could. He was constantly teaching me. Being a former soldier, he was very disciplined. My affinity for doing work with the military and my comfort with senior executives come from my dad. He was a very intimidating guy, but an amazing person inside.
Morris: The greatest impact on your professional development? How so?
McCormack: Discovering my talent for helping organizations with their narrative message and helping them clarify their story. That came with my experience as media trainer for the chief spokesperson for the first Iraq War.
I was working at a big agency when I was called to do that. I knew they had other options within the military and the State Department, but they discarded those and used my approach to message development and my understanding of narrative instead.
It was a defining moment. It gave me a huge sense of confidence that this was something I had a talent for and a gift for doing. If the chief spokesperson of the Iraq War was using me for professional development, it’s like, “I can play at that level.” That pushed me to start what I knew was going to be a specialized agency — not just a general marketing agency, but an agency specializing in helping companies develop clear and concise messages.
Morris: Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.
McCormack: One of my turning points was in college working as a journalist. I loved being a journalist. I wrote a weekly column when I was at Loyola, and was always thinking about what topic people would be interested in it and writing in short form.
Writing a column gave me the freedom to explain different stories and topics that I felt the student body would be interested in. I knew that narrative and writing stories that people would actually want to read was something that I wanted to do.
Morris: To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?
McCormack: I studied English literature. It was the most impractical thing I could have done. What do you do with an English degree? You teach. You go to law school, where you starve. You don’t go into sales. You don’t go into marketing. That was not a clear road. But it turns out that, from a formative standpoint, it became very important later on.
Morris: What do you know now about the business world that you wish you knew when you went to work full-time for the first time? Why?
McCormack: I wish I knew that people in business don’t always have the answer and a lot of times they’re just figuring it out. You think that the senior people have all the answers and when you start rising up the ranks you realize that many of them — though very prepared and very talented — don’t have a lot of the answers or any answers. They’re just making it up. There’s a lot more ambiguity and confusion than you think. Had I known that, I would have realized earlier that I had a voice just like they did.
Morris: Of all the films that you have seen, which – in your opinion – best dramatizes important business principles? Please explain.
McCormack: Titanic. When you’re running a business, you’re ultimately trying to prevent a colossal mishap from happening under your leadership. The poor guy that was navigating the Titanic in the dark got a lot of warnings and discarded them because he worked on the biggest ship that couldn’t sink. Nothing could take it down.
Look what happened to Andersen Consulting. Almost instantaneously it went away. Look at what happened to Enron. No matter how big a company you’re managing, something really bad can happen that could take the whole thing down. You have to be vigilant that something doesn’t happen on your watch.
Morris: From which non-business book have you learned the most valuable lessons about business? Please explain.
McCormack: I’m not a big fan of business books. A lot of business books practice a very narrow formula of creating a thesis and finding the evidence to prove their thesis. A lot of those books are for self-promotion because the author wants to become famous or wants to get on a speaker’s tour.
That said, the one book that I really enjoyed the most was Permission Marketing by Seth Godin. He says that marketing is a series of asking people for their permission and them saying “yes” to you. It’s very differential and respectful. You say, “Can I do this?” And they say, “Yes.” Then it escalates to the next “yes.” Marketing is about asking people for their permission.
Morris: Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Lao-Tzu’s Tao Te Ching:
“Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.”
McCormack: The sign of a great leader is one who does not take the credit. They give the credit to the people around him or her.
Morris: From Howard Aiken: “Don’t worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you’ll have to ram them down people’s throats.”
McCormack: Ramming something down any throat sounds uncomfortable. If your ideas are good people want to drink them in.
Morris: From Richard Dawkins: “Yesterday’s dangerous idea is today’s orthodoxy and tomorrow’s cliché.”
McCormack: There’s nothing new under the sun. I think a big part of life is rediscovering old truths and adopting them and not being so proud to think that your idea really is new. It’s not. There are very few really new ideas.
Morris: From Isaac Asimov: “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds the most discoveries, is not “Eureka!” (I found it!) but ‘That’s odd….’”
McCormack: I agree with that. It’s important to have an inherent sense of fascination, of wonder, of questioning why things are the way they are, and not taking things at face value. It’s not looking for the big discovery but looking at the small things, the things the majority of people overlook, and being fascinated by them.
Morris: Finally, from Peter Drucker: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”
McCormack: There are many moments during the day or during the year where you just have to stop, take a big-picture view, and say, “OK, why are we doing this?” Don’t just keep on doing things because it’s the way you’ve always done it.
Morris: In Tom Davenport’s latest book, Judgment Calls, he and co-author Brooke Manville offer “an antidote for the Great Man theory of decision making and organizational performance”: organizational judgment. That is, “the collective capacity to make good calls and wise moves when the need for them exceeds the scope of any single leader’s direct control.” What do you think?
McCormack: That’s a mouthful. The rule of thumb is your message has to be so good that someone has to want to read it twice, but it has to be so quick that they don’t need to. And I’d have to read that question at least three times to understand it. It’s not clear.
Morris: Here’s a brief excerpt from Paul Schoemaker’s latest book, Brilliant Mistakes: “The key question companies need to address is not ‘Should we make mistakes?’ but rather ‘Which mistakes should we make in order to test our deeply held assumptions?'” Your response?
McCormack: You have to accept the fact that we make mistakes but nobody actively looks to make mistakes and if they say that they are being foolish.
Morris: In your opinion, why do so many C-level executives seem to have such a difficult time delegating work to others?
McCormack: They’re afraid that people aren’t going to get it right. They’re proud to think, “Well, the only person that can do it is me.” They think that there’s only one way to do something.
A way of changing that behavior is thinking, “They can do it better than me. Not even different than me, better than me.” When you hire talented people they often surprise you, because they do it better. Hire more talented people. And trust more.
Morris: The greatest leaders throughout history (with rare exception) were great storytellers. What do you make of that?
McCormack: Narratives have the power to explain and put a reason behind the events that occur. Leaders feel like they’re part of a bigger story. They see the idea as conflict, character development, climax and resolution. That’s what gets them excited. They’re clear about where they are in the story and they’re driving toward an end, realizing that all stories have a beginning, middle and end.
Morris: Most change initiatives either fail or fall far short of original (perhaps unrealistic) expectations. More often than not, resistance is cultural in nature, the result of what James O’Toole so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.”
Here’s my question: How best to avoid or overcome such resistance?
McCormack: Leaders must explain to people why they need to change, where they are changing to, and how it will benefit them and the organization. Until you get at why change is needed, there’s going to be resistance because people don’t want to jump from here to there if they don’t need to.
Morris: In recent years, there has been criticism, sometimes severe criticism of M.B.A. programs, even those offered by the most prestigious business schools. In your opinion, in which area is there the greatest need for immediate improvement? Any suggestions?
McCormack: Academics tend to be insulated and comfortable living out a theory. People need to be more grounded in the real dynamic, so there should be stronger partnerships with business schools and businesses. Not just in recruiting people from businesses, but actually taking ideas and seeing if they work.
Morris: Looking ahead (let’s say) 3-5 years, what do you think will be the greatest challenge that CEOs will face? Any Advice?
McCormack: One of the greatest challenges CEOs have is tapping into the collective intelligence of their organizations. This means being more inclusive in terms of how you get clarity from small groups of people that are bright, and finding ways to benefit from the collective thinking of small groups on a problem quickly. No one person is going to rise and be your Einstein.
Morris: When and why did you first become interested in the concept and realities of brevity?
McCormack: It happened when I started seeing the appetite within my corporate and military clients for a distinct way to be clear and concise when communicating really important information. They didn’t have things at their fingertips to get them there. Brevity is an essential skill that people need to learn how to master. Nothing had been written that targeted specifically how to be clear and concise. So I took it up.
Morris: To what extent have you mastered brevity?
McCormack: I have a lot more clarity on how to be brief, why to be brief, and when and where to be brief than I had a year ago, but we can all be better at it.
Morris: Please explain what “BRIEF Balance” is and why it is significant.
McCormack: People incorrectly think that to be brief is just being concise. To be brief means to be concise and clear. I need to have the same quality of expression in less quantity.
Morris: Please explain why brevity is “like an instant stress release.”
McCormack: The people who you’re talking to have to work to weed out what’s essential from what’s nonessential in what you say, so when you do that work for them, it’s so much easier for them. It’s like moving into a house with no weeds in the yard. It’s all manicured. When it’s brief, it’s all done for you.
Morris: What are the early-warning symptoms of overcapacity, of “mind-filled-ness”?
McCormack: They become visibly impatient and they don’t ask questions.
Morris: In which situation during your life thus far has brevity been most helpful, most valuable to you? Please explain.
McCormack: When I’m sharing a really important idea with somebody whose opinion really matters and knowing that I can have that exchange and succinctly explain the idea with a high degree of confidence.
Morris: Now please shift your attention to BRIEF. When and why did you decide to write it?
McCormack: I decided to write it because the world is begging for it.
Morris: Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.
McCormack: Brevity is not just for people who are long-winded. Everyone can benefit from being briefer.
Morris: To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned?
McCormack: It’s shorter.
Morris: As I indicate in my review of the book for various Amazon websites, there are dozens of passages throughout your narrative that caught my eye. For those who have not as yet read the book, please suggest what you view as [begin italics] the most important point or key take-away in each of several passages.
First, Four Forces of Overcapacity (Pages 15-22) Which of them seems to be the most difficult to manage? Why?
McCormack: Information inundation. You can’t really control the amount of information coming at you.
Morris: The New Reality: There’s No Time for a Slow Buildup (22-24) Why not?
McCormack: People are busier today than ever. They have little patience and their attention is divided between several things at one time. To get their attention you have to get to the point quickly and concisely.
Morris: The Seven Capital Sins of Verbosity (27-33), Which seems to cause the most serious problems? Please explain.
McCormack: It depends upon the type of person you are. They all cause problems. Chances are we’ve committed all of them at one time or another in our careers.
Morris: The Exercise of Brevity (43-44) What does it involve?
McCormack: It involves four keys: map it, tell it, show it and talk it.
Morris: BRIEF Maps: A Practical Tool for Delivering Brevity (51-52) Key point?
McCormack: BRIEF maps explain and summarize important information.
Morris: Where’s the Communication Disconnect? When a Story Is Missing (62-63) Please explain.
McCormack: It’s when businesspeople talk but say nothing.
Morris: The Birth of Narrative Mapping: A Way to Organize and Deliver Your Story (64-65) “Birth”?
McCormack: This is my journey to developing the concept of narrative mapping. A key experience was helping U.S. Army Gen. William Caldwell prepare for his role as spokesperson during the first Iraq War.
Morris: Mini-Case Study: W.W. Granger (105-110) What is the single most important lesson to be learned from this mini-case study?
McCormack: A good story can capture a company’s imagination and transform it internally, which results in profits and success. Employees understand what part they play in the story, accept it and run with it.
Morris: Cut to the Customer’s Chase (149-151) Please explain.
McCormack: Buyers and sellers will profit from shorter pitches that are on target. Don’t make the mistake of assuming that the more you say the more prepared you will sound. Busy executives will cut you off or tune you out.
Morris: Walk the Walk; Talk the Talk (168-171) What’s the relevance to brevity?
McCormack: Sometimes you just have five minutes to brief your boss on an important topic — that often occurs on their way to or from a meeting. By practicing the methods of BRIEF you will be able to confidently deliver your message clearly and concisely even under the most stressful of circumstances. Your audience is counting on you to be a steady, reliable and quick source of valuable information.
Morris: The “Say-Do” Ratio (197-199) Please explain.
McCormack: Say less, do more. When it comes to progress reports, get to the point and let your work speak for itself.
Morris: Of all the seven “capital sins” of brevity, which seems to be the most difficult to avoid? Why?
McCormack: Comfort and confidence. Comfort because you start to fall in love with your voice. Confidence because it’s what I like to call the “affliction of expertise.” The person knows so much about a topic that they are just going to talk about it all the time. They can’t simplify it for their audience.
Morris: Of all the great leaders throughout history, which one would you most want to share an evening of conversation if it were possible? Why?
McCormack: Pope Francis! Because he is a really brief communicator and he knows how to communicate to people today. He’s tries to be concise. He’s even encouraging priests to give more interesting and concise sermons.
Morris: Let’s say that a CEO has read and then (hopefully) re-read BRIEF and is now determined to establish or strengthen a workplace culture within which personal growth and professional development are most likely to thrive. Where to begin?
McCormack: Number one: telling his or her people to take more time to prepare is the first thing. Be brief. Before phone calls, before emails, meetings, presentations, take more time to prepare. Number two: resist the temptation to over-explain things. When you feel like you’ve given enough, don’t go on. Number three: know what your point is when you’re trying to make it, and when you’ve made it, stop talking. When you do those three things religiously, you will see an improvement and will have better conversations.
Morris: For more than 25 years, it has been my great pleasure as well as privilege to work closely with the owner/CEOs of hundreds of small companies, those with $20-million or less in annual sales. In your opinion, of all the material you provide in BRIEF, which do you think will be of greatest value to leaders in small companies? Please explain.
McCormack: Avoid the “entrepreneur’s dilemma.” Just because you’re excited about your company, your idea and your products and services, if you don’t practice discipline when you explain it, you may overdo it. Trim your enthusiasm. Let other people react to it and let them become enthusiastic for you. Their enthusiasm is an indication that they understand you.
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Joe cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:
The Brief Lab link
Sheffield Company link