Need to Be Heard? Learn to Be Brief.

brief_Bookcover_play-03-231x300I love concise messages. So when offered the opportunity to read Brief: Make a Bigger Impact by Saying Less by Joseph McCormack and then blog about it, I was all in. Writing a book about being brief showcases the author’s credibility from the first paragraph. McCormack’s Brief succeeds in all ways.

“That’s the way it goes,” we say when we don’t get:

  • Support for our ideas
  • An approval after our presentation
  • The sale
  • A job or promotion

There’s always reason (aka an excuse):

  • Bad timing
  • An off day
  • Competing factors
  • Favoritism or office politics

Actually, when things don’t go our way,  it’s usually about us–what we say and how we say it, attached to what we do and how we do it.

If we want better outcomes, we need to master brevity.

Learn to be brief.

Your career is driven by words:

  • Your boss explains the need for improved processes. You present new ideas and initiatives..
  • Your customers express their needs. You describe how your company’s products and services can meet them.
  • Your manager declares the desire to build talent. You define your capabilities.

Your biggest career challenge is cutting through the maddening clutter of noise, distractions, and interruptions, exacerbated by digital communications.

Joseph McCormack’s book, Brief: Make a Bigger Impact by Saying Less, leads you out of McCormack bb16d5afeedd0ad8986cb9_L__V367807303_SX200_the morass and into some rarefied air.

He writes:

Brevity is a choice. When you want to get more, decide to say less.

Think about that for a second. Consider how much workplace air you fill with talk that grabs the undivided attention of others. For most of us, it’s not much.

Consider these statistics from McCormack:

People speak about 150 words per minute, yet have the approximate mental capacity to consume about five times that number, or 750 words per minute.

Unless you’ve quickly hooked your listener with compelling information or stories, s/he has lots of time to drift to other thoughts before you’ve made your point.

Think about the last time you listened to someone who captivated you with an idea or an observation–a time when you hung on every word. Do you communicate that effectively? If not, what would it take and what would your career payoffs be?

Brief gives you the insights and the tools.


If brevity in communication were easy to do, you’d see a lot more of your coworkers doing it. If you master being brief, your career value will increase if not soar!.

McCormack writes:

To be brief doesn’t just mean being concise. Your responsibility is to balance how long it takes to convey a message well enough to cause a person to act on it.

Effective presentations are smooth. Creating them can be rough. You don’t get to the power of brevity without putting in the challenging mental work.

McCormack adds:

Brevity starts with deep expertise. Only with thorough knowledge can you accurately make a summary.

His book digs into the how to’s, providing clearly stated models and stories that remove the mystique so you can up your brevity.

He emphasizes:

To communicate effectively nowadays, you must be able to speak in headlines and grab someone’s attention right away.

He advocates this approach:

Map it. BRIEF Maps [his model]…used to condense and trim volumes of information

Tell it.  Narrative storytelling…to explain in a way that’s clear, concise, and compelling

Talk it. …turn monologues into controlled conversations

Show it. Visuals that attract attention and capture imagination

Digital screens, phone calls, meetings, email, and interruptions of every dimension compete with what you want others to hear. Being brief helps to deflect their potentially negative effects.

Brief branding

Like it or not, you already have a reputation around the way you communicate.  Do you know what it is? Are you a rambler, a dominator, a repeater, a windbag, an empty suit, or a clarifier?

If you want to boost your career, become known for being brief, bringing clarity, and cutting through the clutter, taking the pain out of getting work done.

If you want to get good at it, then consider reading Brief.


Afraid to Innovate or Don’t Know How? | Problem-solving Skills Pay

“Innovativeness” is one of those performance appraisal categories that often befuddle supervisors and employees. 

We often don’t know how the term actually applies to us. After all, we’re just doing our jobs. Innovation seems to have more to do with creative work (maybe in marketing) or in science (like in a lab somewhere). Too often we just don’t think of ourselves as being innovative as we go about our daily work.

To innovate, though, isn’t as overblown an action as it may sound. It just means “to begin or introduce something new.”

All it takes to be innovative is:

  • Our idea for doing something in a new way
  • Introducing it to others whose involvement or approval we need
  • Setting it in motion once we have the okay

That’s not so hard, right?

Now, what is it again?

Innovative ideas, large or small, take many forms like a:

  • Fix for things not functioning well
  • New plan to refocus a faltering job
  • Redesigned process that increases efficiency and effectiveness
  • Workaround to keep work flowing until a lasting solution is achieved
  • Message that reduces turmoil or raises optimism

In order to innovate, we need to:

  • Look at our work with fresh eyes and see if there’s a better way
  • Be willing to make an effort to influence our boss to accept our idea
  • Overcome the fear that our idea may get rejected
  • Accept accountability for our idea if it doesn’t work

Your innovativeness is a sign that solving the problem is personally important to you.

Inherent in innovation is your commitment to doing things right. Each of us has the power to innovate if and when we want to.

A draining idea 

I live in a 200-year-old, log farmhouse situated in a hollow where the water table is close to the surface. Most of my basement floor is dirt. During extended periods of drenching rain, the water table rises up and visits my basement.

This happens infrequently, but when it does, it’s a big issue. For years I managed the “big” water with three sump pumps and a French drain. But if the power went out I was literally sunk. (I’ve had as much as 3 ½ feet of water there.)

I explained the problem one dry summer’s day to my contractor, Pete. He asked to look over the situation and think about it. The next day he said, “I think I can fix your problem by creating a gravity-feed drain that runs from the lowest point in the basement, out to the street.

He set up his transit in the basement, shot the angle, hired two young guys to dig the inside trench, hired another guy with a backhoe to dig a trench to the street, laid the perforated pipe, and then we waited for two years.

You can see in the photo here that it worked amazingly. To me, Pete’s a hero.

What Pete did was innovation. He had an idea, introduced it to me (his customer), convinced me to go ahead, and took responsibility for the outcome. Not only did his problem-solving skills work, they saved me money and anxiety.

Why bother 

Each time you find a better way, you increase your value on the job. Your innovativeness becomes a major part of your personal brand identity, and it will likely create evolving:

  • Buzz about you
  • Exposure to movers and shakers
  • Opportunities for unique assignments
  • Recognition and reward
  • More business

Of all the strengths that you can develop to enhance your career, innovativeness is likely to do the most for you. To be innovative is to effectively demonstrate such traits as problem- solving, analysis, influencing, initiative, and calculated risk-taking.

Whenever you can deliver an idea that makes the workplace and the business operate more effectively, you are contributing in ways that make you stand out. The more business fit you are, the more tools you have in place to bring out your inner innovator. Now go for it.

Want to Get Heard? Say Less.

Did this ever happen to you? 

You’re in a meeting about a complex problem facing your work group. Everyone’s got their own idea about the cause and what to do about it. The discussion consists of: 

  • Blaming bad decision-making or poor management
  • One-sided perspectives on the “real” factors obstructing a fix
  • Accusations about how no one cared about the situation until now
  • Seat-of-the-pants solutions with little viability
  • Chest beating about the no-win situation everyone is facing 

The talk goes on and on. The veteran voices dominate. The boss takes it all in, affirming some positions and countering others. The meeting goes circular, covering a lot of ground but making no progress. 

Often, there is someone who’s saying nothing. The group hardly notices. 

Finally, when it seems like the discussion is at a dead end, the “quiet one” speaks, connecting the dots and providing the clarity the group has missed. Relief! 

When everyone walks out of the room, those crucial words and their speaker get remembered. 

Make that person YOU 

In case you don’t remember your Shakespeare, Polonius said, in his lengthy comments about Hamlet to the king and queen, “…brevity is the soul of wit.” Unfortunately, Polonius didn’t follow his own advice, but we should if we want career success. 

There is often the misconception that being the dominant voice in a meeting is how we demonstrate our expertise and commitment. We may think that talking a lot: 

  • Gets us points with the boss (like class participation in high school)
  • Means we will be seen as “bought in” (whether we are or not)
  • Takes the pressure off our coworkers (especially those who don’t understand the issues)
  • Deflects decision-making and change (particularly ones no one wants)
  • Inflates the boss’s sense that we’re a solid team (whether or not that’s so) 

In truth, if you want to stand out, say just enough and make it valuable! 

State insights, concisely 

If we want to have influence, we have to earn it. That means developing a reputation for being able to distill input into clear statements that can be acted upon. 

Ideally, you want the people you meet with to be eager to hear what you have to say. When they learn that you only speak after you’ve considered all the input, each time you open your mouth, they’ll listen. The more often you do that successfully, the more influence you’ll gain. 

Achieving this takes intellectual discipline. You don’t need to be the smartest person at the table, just the clearest thinking and most concise. 

Here are a few techniques that can position you to be that clear, crisp voice at precisely right moment:

  •  State or restate the problem: Discussions often get out of control because no one has clearly stated the problem or issue upfront. That gives everyone license to go off in any direction. So, after a time, raise your hand and state the issue everyone is there to resolve. Use your moment to add your own idea and refocus everyone else.
  • Synthesize ideas: Often important information and perspectives are expressed, but no one sees the connection between them. That’s when you take your moment to simply state how the pieces fit together.
  • Summarize key points: After protracted discussion, there will be a time when everyone feels overwhelmed by the mounds of information on the table. That’s when you can relieve their mental exhaustion by presenting a point-by-point summation of the ground that has been covered.
  • Simplify: Even though issues may be complex, their basis usually isn’t.  When you see that discussion is getting bogged down in details, refresh everyone’s perspective (and motivation) by focusing them on the desired outcomes and the benefits expected.

 The power of influence 

We can only make a difference if others listen to our ideas and act on them. A few right words at the right time around the right people can make a big difference in your career. Choose well and own your moment. 

Photo from Horasis via Flickr

Executive Hot Buttons—Press With Caution

It can be stressful at the top where pressure might not bring out our best. 

Executives are vulnerable all the time to the unexpected. The winds of marketplace change are always in their faces. The potential for bad decisions by managers and misconduct by employees is also ever-present.   

Although executives can’t escape the unforeseen risks that come with the job, they will often show us how they cope. 

Making the complex simple… 

Executives are expected to focus on the big picture. They rely on the managers and subject matter experts, like us, who provide information, recommendations, and analyses needed to make their decisions. 

Our obligation is to influence executive decision-making so our companies move in the right direction, treat employees fairly, and deliver quality products/services to customers in an ethical way. 

Our ability to present information convincingly to executives means knowing what to say, how, and when. Timing in life is everything! 

Executive responsibilities are complex, but often what drives individual executives is simple by comparison. 

Triggers and principles… 

I’ve worked with a fair number of executives over the years as a manager and as a consultant/coach. Each one was different but the process for working effectively with him/her always meant managing the conversation so we could hear each other. 

We don’t always come to an executive with the information or ideas they want to hear, but we need to be sure they can and will listen. 

To do that we need to understand what words and issues set them off as well as the principles that drive them. 

Here’s how it worked with several executives in my professional life, labeled by their hot buttons—the factors that put their teeth on edge: 

Ignorance and Poor Preparation–Knowledge mastery was what gave you credibility with this executive. His overriding leadership principle was to understand fully all aspects of the business: It was his source of certainty and influence. If you wanted to get heard, you needed to be completely prepared, humble in what you might have missed, and willing to dig deeper. 

Weakness and Lack of Commitment—With this executive, an unwillingness to stand by your ideas and/or take ownership of your position resulted in immediate rejection of your proposal. If he could intimidate you into abandoning or waffling on your position, it was deemed unworthy. If you wanted to come out ahead, you had to be prepared to state a strong case and stand up to the grilling. 

Superficial Analysis and Detail Errors—Mistakes in calculations and logic, no matter how insignificant overall, called all other material into question. It provided occasion for this executive to nitpick other details of your proposal and negate the entire work. To stay out of this quicksand, you needed to scrub all data and proofread multiple times.

 Not Seeing the Big Picture—Proposing narrow solutions and initiatives that failed to incorporate the needs of the entire organization came across as self-serving and unsupportive of the company vision. This executive became exasperated when proposals failed to take a comprehensive view, leading to lost confidence in her managers. The key is always to address the potential impacts and implications of anything you propose within and outside your organization. 

Look within… 

We each have hot buttons, so look within to see what yours are. That will help you understand why executives jump out of their skin for some things and not others.

For me, unfairness to others, not doing the right thing even when it’s hard, haphazard work, and not living up to commitments are my hot buttons. They make my heart pound and my ire rise. 

Our principles drive us just as an executive’s does. The stakes can be very high for them, so it’s predictable that they would react strongly when someone pushes their hot buttons. 

So take a moment to think about what drives the executive or manager you work for and how you might approach him/her the next time you have something to propose. That bit of insight can make all the difference.

Photo by JohnE777 from Flickr

Seeking That Elusive “Executive Image”? Polish Up Your Interpersonal Skills

This post is part of the Executive Image series started by Daria (aka @MominManagement). I am honored that she invited me to participate along with her and five other amazing women. For more about the series, visit Daria’s website, MominManagement. 

A one-size-fits-all definition of “executive image” would be so nice. Instead we’re left to decode the shifting sands of “I’ll know it when I see it.”

We get it that executive image is hooked to  our attire and our self-confidence.  

It’s our interpersonal skills, however, that take us to the next level.  Why? Because they’re how we engage others and build the relationships we need to influence and lead, precisely what executives are expected to do. 

Be easy company. 

Interpersonal skills are what we use to connect with people. This isn’t just about the way we act in front people: It’s how we engage them. 

I was a high school teacher before I started my management career at a male-dominated, Fortune 500 energy company. Transitioning from the classroom to a cubicle was an out-of-body experience. I knew nothing about how “corporate types” conducted themselves or their business. 

What I did know was that successful school teachers relied on flexible interpersonal skills to deal with students, parents, administrators, and other teachers. That meant sensing someone’s needs, using the right language at the right time, knowing when to reach out or back off, understanding when to smile and laugh and when to be silent. 

I’d brought those skills to my corporate job, and they worked there too, loosening up coworkers and managers who wondered why their company would’ve hired a school teacher.  

I wanted to make it easy for people to talk to me. So I’d ask questions, express gratitude for their time, and invite them to my programs. Their response was great. 

And then this happened: My boss got a memo from his boss, the department manager, about a program I was working on. The last line was completely off topic. He wrote: “Does Dawn have to be friendly with everyone?” 

My boss was shocked, but our answer was the same: “Sure. Why not?” 

There’s a difference between being friendly and being friends. I opt for using interpersonal skills in ways that make us approachable and easy to do business with, even when we don’t agree. Friendship is a bonus. 

Keep your interpersonal skills polished  

Here are 10 interpersonal skills I consider most important to building an executive image no matter where you work: 

  1. Greeting people in a way that clearly shows you “see” them; shake hands when appropriate
  2. Smiling and opening up informal conversation
  3. Asking questions that start substantive dialogue
  4. Demonstrating patience and respectfulness
  5. Listening actively to all points of view
  6. Bringing people together to resolve differences and get things done
  7. Offering praise and recognition; expressing appreciation and gratitude
  8. Showcasing a consistently positive demeanor
  9. Demonstrating a sense of humor at the right time
  10. Defusing criticism and complaining 

We need to adapt our interpersonal skills to be effective with different people and situations. That means tailoring what we say and do when we’re:  

  • Attending a staff meeting or a board meeting
  • Meeting a new colleague or a vendor
  • Leading a grievance meeting or union negotiation
  • Facing our detractors or our fans
  • Delivering a presentation or attending training 

The pay off 

There is the misconception that building our executive image is about showcasing our interpersonal and other capabilities to executives. Actually, our executive brand emerges from what others say about us—our employees, coworkers, customers, and vendors.

From the beginning of my career, I simply wanted to be taken seriously and to influence decision-making. I never aspired to any position.  In time, however, I was promoted to increasingly higher level jobs, until I was a director, considered executive level. That still amazes the school teacher in me!

Along the way I tried to demonstrate my regard for the value of every person in every job. Through them I learned that “executive image” comes from the people across all levels of our companies who give voice to our authenticity. The rest takes care of itself.