We’ve all heard the phrase "less is more" yet many of us still have a tendency to over-explain, send lengthy emails, and book hour-long meetings that only have 20 minutes of real content.
The problem is much of what we say in these contexts is ignored. Joseph McCormack, author of BRIEF: Making a Bigger Impact by Saying Less says getting to the point right away is crucial to attract the attention of customers, clients, and investors. "Brevity is an essential skill that can propel people’s career in an age where the people that they’re talking to are overwhelmed," he says.
His research found that average professional receives 304 emails per week, checks their smartphone 36 times an hour and gets interrupted every eight minutes (or 50 to 60 times per day), given that, it’s not hard to imagine why our attention spans are shrinking (from 12 seconds in 2000 to eight in 2012).
The consequences of not being brief can be severe. "In a [job] interview, if you get asked a question and you ramble on and don’t have a point, the takeaway is you’re not prepared," says McCormack.
In a sales presentation, you can talk yourself out of a deal by over-explaining rather than listening to the client across the table.
Even in writing, there are consequences of not being brief. McCormack’s own research revealed 43% of people who received long-winded emails deleted or ignored them. "[When the point isn’t made obvious] you feel you can’t deal with this right now so you put it aside," he explains. A brief email, on the other hand, with a strong subject line that explains the purpose of the email and grabs the reader’s attention is more likely to be read and taken seriously.
McCormack says the human brain has the capacity to absorb 750 words a minute, but the average person can only speak about 150 words a minute, meaning there’s an extra 600 words that can float around in the receiver’s brain.
Those words, which McCormack calls "the elusive 600," can be used saying "I don’t get this," "I’m bored," "What am I going to make for dinner?" or they can be used saying "I agree," "That’s a really great point," and the conversation becomes more active, with the receiver of the information asking pertinent questions rather than tuning out.
Despite the many drawbacks of being long-winded, many of us struggle to be brief. One reason, explains McCormack, is because we believe by over-explaining, we can prove how smart we are. From an early age, we’re taught to measure our success on word counts and page lengths. Students are asked to write 20-page papers rather than simply being asked to make their point clear in as many words as they need. "I think teachers should ask for a 20-page paper and a two-page paper. If you can present your point well in two pages, then I’ll read the 20-page paper to see how you got there," he says.
Another reason we struggle to be brief is because we have a tendency to underprepare. "[When you’re being brief] you have to make a lot of decisions about what’s essential and what’s not essential for that person in that moment in time," says McCormack.
Cutting out all the irrelevant information can take time; time many of us don’t invest when we’re speaking with others. It’s because of these challenges of being brief that McCormack says makes brevity an essential skill that helps people to stand out as being disciplined and professional.
To practice being brief, McCormack suggests "mind mapping" to organize ideas before writing an email or making a presentation. But rather than a traditional "mind map" that has ideas jutting out from every corner of the page, he proposes a map that uses the acronym BRIEF to simplify communication. At the center of the page, you put your headline. In the case of a meeting with the CEO to provide an update on a project’s progress, the headline may be "the project is behind schedule." The boxes surrounding the headline are:
B (Background): Provide a quick context—what prompted the update?
R (Reason):: Explain why you’re speaking now—why should they pay attention?
I (Information):: Provide two to three key nuggets of information you want to share. What are the bullet points of the conversation?
E (End): Decide on what note you want to leave the conversation. In this case, you may want to end by telling the CEO what you will do to get the project back on track.
F (Follow-up):: Consider the questions you anticipate the CEO will ask you when you finish speaking and prepare answers in advance.
Being brief is hard—which is why it took McCormack 256 pages to explain it in his book—but it all boils down to one thing: preparation.