Joe McCormack and — OMG, no one is listening to anyone else literally at all in the workplace

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Joe McCormack is a managing partner/founder of the Sheffield Company, whose pithy slogan in their web header is mastery of the message. This is actually kind of a huge deal, broadly speaking. Let’s start with some stats that will amaze and confound you like a third-grade birthday party magician (honestly, mine made a dove appear in my parents’ six-room NYC apartment, so that’s a pretty big deal).

  • In a given day, an American consumes 34GB of content (that can’t even fit on most drives), checks their phone 150+ times, and receives (and usually answers) 300+ work and personal e-mails. That sounds rough across 24 hours. Fit that into eight hours to ten hours, which is when most people are doing it.
  • We focus about six hours — total — per week. In 2000, our attention spans were measured at about 12 seconds. Now they’re at about eight seconds. As social expands and smart-gadgets become a bigger piece of the piece, that will continue to drop.
  • In studies, about 75 percent of people — 75 percent, or three out of every four — stop (a) listening to a presentation after 1 minute, (b) reading an e-mail after 30 seconds and (c) listening to a co-worker after 15 seconds. That’s and, not or. People do all these things.
  • In a given work day, an American worker is interrupted between 50-60 times. 40 percent of the time, they don’t get back on track.

Alright, take a deep breath and look over those four bullets in concert. What does it all mean? Well, we needlessly fiddle with shit and look at Buzzfeed (which accounts for some of the distraction), we can’t focus, and we tune out messages quickly, no matter the format. That all sounds absolutely deadly to productivity, communication, connections in the workplace, or basically, anything at all ever happening ever even remotely. So, what is the answer here?

Before I get to McCormack’s answer, here’s something I heard once. People love to adore Jack Welch. He’s considered a titan of the modern-day approach to running a business from the C-Suite. People love him. If you walk into a business school class, and said class is 12 weeks long, meeting 1-2 times a week (let’s say 24 meetings), you will hear the words “Jack Welch” in sequential order no fewer than 81 times. That is a reality. So, this summer I had the opportunity to meet — and work with, for a brief second — a guy that was pretty close to Welch in one of GE’s hierarchies back in the day. He told me a few good stories, but the one that always stood out is this. I don’t know how accurate my re-telling will be, but basically, any presentation that involved Welch could not exceed about eight PowerPoint slides, and had to have a 1-page brief that came with it — and by the end of that page, you needed to answer “We should/should not pursue this opportunity because ________.” One page, eight slides. Sounds pretty simple, right? GE made money in that period. Correlation? Yes. Causation? No idea, and probably not — but it couldn’t hurt.

Back to 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.

His five ideas: don’t over-explain, use the Ws (why, where, who, etc.), replace words with images (not clip art, you f’n wreck), use pauses more, and use a ‘mind map’ (how things will fit together) before you go in.

I would add this: go with Welch on the PowerPoint/summary front, but even lower it to five slides — five slides and a summary graph/half-page. On e-mails, never exceed five lines. If it’s a logistical rollout of a program, put it all on a MS Word attachment and literally say, “Here’s the new parking policy program. See attachment for full details.” If you put that -ish in the body and it’s suddenly 200 lines, no one’s reading it and suddenly people are parking in the causeway. (“What? I didn’t see any f’n e-mail!”) And when you approach someone at work, always open with the “Hey, got a second?” or “Hey, got literally 2 mins?” Coming in with a gesture of “I respect your time” adds about 10-15 seconds to the amount of time people will listen to you.

And honestly, in light of some of these stats, could somebody please rethink the concept of the meeting and make it quick and functional as opposed to an all-gotten drag-out?

Ted Bauer