Charley ThorntonCharley Thornton with The BRIEF Lab shares practical techniques to make communications more impactful to get more work done.

Attention spans are shrinking.

Email inboxes are too full to manage.

Meetings never end.

Presentations waste time.

Conversations are unproductive.

Getting to the most important point quickly is a skill that’s in high demand and low supply.

That’s why Charley Thornton, partner at The BRIEF Lab, helps professionals achieve strategic and effective communication. He’s worked with Harley-Davidson, MasterCard and the U.S. Army and shared his insights at the Midsize Enterprise Summit Spring 2018 conference in Orlando.

“Someone in your office comes up to you and says, ‘You got a minute?’ What happens when you hear that question? For a lot of us, it’s not a clear-cut answer,” Thornton says. “The reason is, people habitually struggle to get to the point today.”

How do you get right to the most important issue?

“Can you think of someone in your career that, when they speak, you listen up? Can you think of someone else who makes a lot of noise, but has little clarity? Inefficiency and lack of discipline in today’s communications hold us back.”

True to form, Thornton gets right to the point.

“The audience is drowning. Our audience today is under siege. They have never had as much information thrown at them as they do today, and it’s wreaking havoc on our brains.”

Thornton says today’s attention span is eight seconds. By way of comparison, goldfish have a nine-second attention span. In the year 2000, it was 12 seconds.

“Think of how long human beings have been on the planet paying attention to stuff and we’ve lost one-third of our ability to pay attention in a very short time frame. Why? We consume more information in a single day than people 100 years ago did in their entire life.”

Social media and its penchant for byte-size information doesn’t help.

“Twitter accounts, Facebook, Snapchat, podcasts. We’re looking for reasons to ignore stuff. You’re just combing through information. Scanning, scanning, scanning. How many of you read every single email you get every single day, top to bottom? You can’t. It’s physically impossible to keep up with all the information we get every day.”

The elusive 600

Humans can consume 750 words per minute of information, but we can only speak 150 words per minute.

“The difference is the elusive 600 words. You can think about whatever you want. This is where the battle for understanding happens. When I give you my 150 words, if you can add your 600 words to it, we have a good conversation and that’s where understanding happens. The good communicators understand this. The other communicators? Not so much. Their 150 words are battling with the other 600 words in a person’s head.”

How do we engage someone’s elusive 600? Thornton offers the following tips.

Tool 1: Speak in headlines

  • Answer the question “What do you want to talk about?”
  • Create interest/anticipation. There needs to be some suspense.
  • Be brief. Eight words or less.

“Any time someone asks for your attention, they owe you a headline. Your attention is your most precious commodity. It’s not unlimited. Once it’s done for the day, you’re done. People have to budget what they will do with that most functioning brain time. When someone asks for your attention, they are asking you to give them your most precious commodity with no promise there’s anything in it for them.”

Tool 2: BRIEF mapping

BRIEF stands for Background, Relevance, Information, Ending, Follow-Up.

“Imagine if your teams could synthesize all the knowledge they have, but drill down to the most important things and come up with a very simple outline? The whole point of a map is to organize what we want to say in the order the other person needs it, not the order it pops in our head or in a sequential order.”

Thornton’s map starts with what, followed by why and then why again, followed by how and then impact, and finally what now.

Tool 3: Trimming

How can you make sure you aren’t overexplaining something? Thornton recommends putting information into three buckets.

  • Level 1: Essential information. The DNA or skeleton of the story
  • Level 2: Adds color to context. What brings the story to life and adds interest.
  • Level 3: Goes into the weeds. “This is where it can go sideways. It’s all the stuff we need to do our jobs, but it’s not the stuff that necessarily needs to be communicated. Level 3 stuff is really, really important…for execution. It’s just not always important for communication.”

“For the first 10 to 20 years of someone’s career, they are motivated and incentivized by mastering the details. All of a sudden, they get promoted to a certain level and things change. They are communicating outside their function to people who don’t speak their language. Nobody tells them how to do that. It’s very difficult. It isn’t working. People go back to the details.

“There are highly talented people who can’t master leadership because they can’t let go of the details. It’s not easy. You can do it. You can have significant success doing it. It’s hard, but there is a way to do it.”