Click here to preview the new Fast Company

Want to try out the new

If you’d like to return to the previous design, click the yellow button on the lower left corner.

Mastering The Fine Art Of Getting To The Point

We only truly focus for six hours a week. Endless meetings and wordy emails are chipping away at our dwindling attention spans. Joe McCormack, author of Brief, shares his short list of techniques to stay on track.

Joseph McCormack thinks everything would be better if people could just get to the point. As the author of Brief and founder of the Sheffield Company, a marketing firm that focuses on helping clients craft concise messaging, he’s observed first hand how endless meetings, data dumps, and wordy emails are becoming the bane of business.

McCormack tells Fast Company this pain point comes from "the Four Is" a layered mix of irritants and impatience that add up to one permanent pain point:

  • Information Inundation: Every day the average American consumes 34GB of content and checks their phone up to 150 times. Worker bees can get over 300 emails a week.
  • Inattention: We only truly focus for six hours per week. That’s because attention spans are shrinking. We’re down from 12 seconds in 2000 to eight seconds today.
  • Impatience: McCormack’s Brief Lab discovered that nearly three quarters of professionals tune out of presentations within the first minute, stop reading an email after 30 seconds, and stop listening to colleagues after 15 seconds —all because they didn’t get to the point quickly.
  • Interruption: The average worker is interrupted around 60 times per day and doesn’t get back on task 40% of the time.

With all this in play says McCormack, "Brevity is not a nice to have, it’s a need to have." He believes it’s just bad manners to go long, just like it’s rude to be late.

Joe McCormack

"I could talk about being brief all day long," McCormack deadpans. Instead, he boils it down to "the elusive 600." People have a natural mental capacity to process 750 words a minute, McCormack explains, but we only speak at a rate of 150 words per minute. "If you do the math, brevity is about managing people's attention" as the spare 600 words rattle their focus.

Here are McCormack’s pointers on the fine art of getting to the point.

1. Don't over-explain

Everyone could use more preparation and self-editing. "Put yourself in the shoes of the person you are communicating with. Ask yourself: is there too much information they don’t need to know?" he says.

Whether sharing bad news or negative feedback, or simply sharing a new idea that you’ve fallen in love with, McCormack says take yourself out of it. "Out of empathy and respect for the other person, don’t over-explain."

2. Use the 5 Ws

McCormack’s a fan of the journalistic approach to narrative. Keeping the who, what, where, when, and why top of mind can convert even the most complex ideas into an intriguing story for an audience.

3. Replace Words With Images

You don’t need to be Picasso to use pictures to make a compelling point. McCormack says he recently saw an executive team describe a five-year vision by drawing stick figure pictures. "There’s a sense of vulnerability because you want people to understand," he says, which makes a presentation more memorable. Videos and photographs work, too. "Do a little research on representative images online. It doesn’t have to be perfect, just interesting and connected to the topic."

4. Harness the Power of the Pause

Especially in interviews or annual reviews, McCormack calls on the power of the pause. "They are strong weapon for brevity because it shows discipline, and doesn’t allow you to leak your nervousness and say things you didn’t intend." Feel uncomfortable with silence? McCormack suggests looking at it this way: "It gives the person a chance to process what you just said."

5. Map Your Communication

Speak in headlines and use a mind map, he advises. Before you press send, make a visual outline of your communication. Have the main point in the middle and concentric circles with a couple of other supporting facts around it. "People will thank you for it."

Enough said.

[Image: Flickr user Mali S. Nichols-Hadorn]

Add New Comment


  • pccarmody

    I agree that getting to the point is an art form that few have perfected. However, for better or worse, we sure let people get away with a lot of inattention.

  • Piggyboy Fry

    one suggestion i have to people, as a presentation technician for a large corporate law firm, is to avoid videos in presentation unless absolutely necessary (for instance, showing witness reactions during testimony). Videos can cause so many subtle but unexpected glitches to a presentation, like not being embedded or not having proper drivers to be broadcast over webinars, that they can end up wasting time and breaking the rhythm of a presentation. They are a great psychological tool, but can cost you on the technical side.

  • Well said! There’s lots I agree with (and have written about) here. For instance, pausing not only lets people process your words, it also helps you calm down and focus on what’s most crucial.

    When it comes to replacing words with graphics, you’ve many options. You can even right-click a bullet list in PowerPoint and choose Convert to SmartArt, to give your slide more visual appeal.

    And there’s lots to be said for replacing a spreadsheet or chart in your slide deck with just one key statistic (shown in a huge font). Or in your written report, highlighting (in a callout box in the margin) a pithy quote from an industry leader. Here are more tips to help:

  • I think, at times, brevity makes people think you're being short instead of efficient. There's a fine line. Depending on where you're from, it may come off rude, so one has to establish who they're dealing with.

  • I also just checked out Pretty intriguing. Will be taking a better look at it. Oh, and re: the article...#4 hits home with me. I love that one especially. --Deb @ALifetimeLegacy

  • Thanks for the comment. Just checked out Haiku Deck. What an amazing tool! We can't wait to use them in our own presentations.


    The Brief Lab

  • Heather Lupu

    I am someone who never reads an email all the way through or listens completely to what someone is saying - and while I am working on improving this aspect of my personality, it couldn't have been stated better how important brevity is!

  • Hi Heather! Thanks for the comment. Brevity is absolutely essential. While we all can do a better job of actively listening, it is also important that those around us learn to get to the point. Professionals that do learn the skills to be brief will gain more respect from their peers and find greater success in their careers.

    Thanks again!

    The Brief Lab