People are inundated with information, and their brains have reached a saturation point. If you want to get someone’s attention, you must be brief, according to Joe McCormack, who spoke at IdeaFestival 2015 in Louisville, Kentucky.

There are three tendencies that keep most people from being brief:

  1. The tendency of overexplaining
  2. The tendency of underpreparing
  3. The tendency to completely miss the point

“If we can overcome those tendencies we can get to the point and we have so much to gain,” said McCormack, who is the author of Brief: Make a Bigger Impact by Saying Less.

People spend about 8 hours a day consuming media. “By that I mean it could be television, radio, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook. It’s a constant consumption of information. We’re drinking from a proverbial fire hose. So when you look at the world around you, the mind is really, really burdened,” McCormack said.

This means that people have low attention spans, and their brains are weakening because they’re consuming so much information. As a result, everyone must adapt to that and learn how to be brief, he said.

It’s possible to overcome the three tendencies that keep people from being brief. And people will hear your message if you say less. They will be able to focus on your point, and the message.

Tendency #1: Overexplaining

Many people overexplain. To overcome this, think about all of the things you can talk about on a topic. Trim the less essential information, and keep only the essential components.

People speak 150 words a minute, but people can process 750 words a minute. This means if your presentation isn’t on target, people’s minds have 600 leftover words floating around their brain, and typically they will start to think about other things. “You’re hearing what he’s saying but you’re thinking other things. You’re thinking ‘he’s an idiot, where did he go to school?'” McCormack said, calling those 600 words the “elusive 600.”

Tendency #2: Underpreparing

“To be concise and clear, it’s a balance of being clear and concise. You can be too brief,” McCormack said, quoting the French philosopher Blaise Pascal, who said, “I would have written you a shorter letter if I had more time.”

If you don’t prepare, you cannot be brief, because you don’t know what the key points are. This is useful in job interviews, for instance, when you’re asked to tell a little about yourself, and why you want to work at a company. One way to prepare is to create a mind map, which is a visible outline on paper to help organize your thoughts. Assemble your thoughts in advance and be prepared, he said.

Tendency #3: Completely missing the point

“You’re at work, and it’s late in the afternoon, and somebody knocks on your door and they say, ‘have you got a minute?’ Nobody is so busy that they don’t have a minute. And the person starts talking and talking and talking and you start thinking, ‘what is their point?’ And they don’t even know. They think the more they talk the point will emerge. At some point your elusive 600 occurs and you get annoyed,” he said.

“That point is a headline,” he said. “Think and speak in headlines.”

If the same person had walked into the room and said, “the project that I’m working on, it’s behind schedule but I have a fix for it,” then the person listening would pay more attention and actually hear the trimmed down version of the information,” he said.

It’s essential to start your communication, whether it’s an email, a conversation, a speech or a meeting, with a headline. Sum up the topic concisely. If it’s an email, don’t write “update” in the subject line. Put the headline in the subject line, he said.

McCormack’s 3 suggestions

McCormack offered three suggestions to improve brevity:

  1. Map your message first
  2. Lead with a headline
  3. Trim away excess detail

“If I say 150 words a minute, and you can hear 750 words a minute, the less I say, the more you hear. The more you say, the less they’re going to hear,” he said.

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