McCormack advises military leaders to say more by saying less

By DREW BROOKS | The Fayetteville Observer, N.C. | Published: February 2, 2014

Joe McCormack is on a mission that is seemingly impossible, especially in military circles.

McCormack wants to kill PowerPoint. Or, at least, make it less prevalent.

The ubiquitous Microsoft program is the backbone of countless Army briefs on Fort Bragg each year.

"They're terrible," McCormack said. "Everything goes in. If you can put it in the slide, it goes on the slide."

McCormack speaks from experience. In 2006, he was invited to speak about narrative messaging at an Army public affairs symposium.

That led to an invitation to Fort Bragg, where McCormack, then working for an agency in Chicago, spent several days meeting with local officials and working with then-Maj. Gen. William Caldwell.

Caldwell, who retired last year as a lieutenant general, was commanding general of the 82nd Airborne Division at the time. He was preparing to serve as the military's chief spokesman in Iraq.

From Fort Bragg, McCormack was invited to speak to senior military leaders and later made a similar visit to Fort Drum, N.Y.

The experience inspired McCormack to start Sheffield Co., a marketing firm that helps clients craft clear, concise and easy to understand messages for the media, the general public and their own employees.

His clients include Harley Davidson and MasterCard, McCormack said.

He has continued a relationship with Fort Bragg, working for the past several years with the U.S. Army Special Operations Command.

Because of that work, Sheffield Co. opened a Southern Pines office, called the Brief Lab, last fall, he said.

The name is a play on McCormack's new book, "Brief: Make a Bigger Impact by Saying Less," which will be available Feb. 17.

McCormack said his approach on Fort Bragg was no different from what he told CEOs in large, multinational corporations.

He has worked with Kodak, AT&T and IBM, among others, he said. "Why wouldn't it work for (the military,) too?" he asked.

McCormack had no background with the military, but he said he quickly learned that officials in the Army needlessly overcomplicate things and create an insular culture.

"There's a lot of information, but very little story," he said. "I wanted them to think about the audience."

That means, in part, knowing when to be concise.

There's no need for hours-long briefings if you can have the same, if not better, effect in 10 minutes, he said.

McCormack pushed for leaders to abandon the lengthy PowerPoint presentations in favor of shorter, more audience-friendly approaches.

In short, McCormack urged them to make their briefings brief.

The basic premise behind his philosophy and his book, McCormack said, is that brief is better.

Brevity is a weapon to cut through today's weak attention spans, he said.

Officials need to be aware of their audience, have the discipline to rely on storytelling to relay lengthy information and the decisiveness to know when and where to use those techniques.


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