Joseph McCormack, author of BRIEF: An Interview by Bob Morris

Joe-McCormack00306-241x300Joe McCormack is on a mission to help organizations master the art of the short story. In an age of shrinking attention spans, non-stop interruptions, and a flood of information, the messages business leaders send out are getting lost in a sea of words.

An experienced marketing executive, successful entrepreneur and author, Joe is recognized for his work in narrative messaging and corporate storytelling. His new book, BRIEF: Make a Bigger Impact by Saying Less (John Wiley & Sons, February 2014), tackles the timeliness of the “less is more” mandate.

A passionate leader, he founded The BRIEF Lab in 2013 after years of developing and delivering a unique curriculum on strategic narratives for U.S. Army Special Operations Command. He actively counsels military leaders and senior executives on key messaging and strategy initiatives. His clients include W.W.Grainger, Harley-Davidson, USG Corporation, BMO Harris Bank, SAP, MasterCard, Heinz, Hoffman-La Roche and Jones Lang LaSalle.

He founded and serves as Managing Director and President of The Sheffield Company, an award-winning boutique agency.

Previously, he served as SVP, Corporate Marketing at Ketchum, a top-five marketing agency in Chicago. He received a BA in English Literature from Loyola University of Chicago and is fluent in Spanish. He, his wife Montserrat, and their children live in suburban Chicago.

Here is an excerpt from my interview of him. To read the complete interview, please click here.

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Morris: Before discussing BRIEF, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?

McCormack: My dad. He was a very successful business owner. He raised a large family and had a strong desire to give me the best education he could. He was constantly teaching me. Being a former soldier, he was very disciplined. My affinity for doing work with the military and my comfort with senior executives come from my dad. He was a very intimidating guy, but an amazing person inside.

Morris: The greatest impact on your professional development? How so?

McCormack: Discovering my talent for helping organizations with their narrative message and helping them clarify their story. That came with my experience as media trainer for the chief spokesperson for the first Iraq War.

I was working at a big agency when I was called to do that. I knew they had other options within the military and the State Department, but they discarded those and used my approach to message development and my understanding of narrative instead.

It was a defining moment. It gave me a huge sense of confidence that this was something I had a talent for and a gift for doing. If the chief spokesperson of the Iraq War was using me for professional development, it’s like, “I can play at that level.” That pushed me to start what I knew was going to be a specialized agency — not just a general marketing agency, but an agency specializing in helping companies develop clear and concise messages.

Morris: Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

McCormack: One of my turning points was in college working as a journalist. I loved being a journalist. I wrote a weekly column when I was at Loyola, and was always thinking about what topic people would be interested in it and writing in short form.

Writing a column gave me the freedom to explain different stories and topics that I felt the student body would be interested in. I knew that narrative and writing stories that people would actually want to read was something that I wanted to do.

Morris: To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?

McCormack: I studied English literature. It was the most impractical thing I could have done. What do you do with an English degree? You teach. You go to law school, where you starve. You don’t go into sales. You don’t go into marketing. That was not a clear road. But it turns out that, from a formative standpoint, it became very important later on.

Morris: What do you know now about the business world that you wish you knew when you went to work full-time for the first time? Why?

McCormack: I wish I knew that people in business don’t always have the answer and a lot of times they’re just figuring it out. You think that the senior people have all the answers and when you start rising up the ranks you realize that many of them — though very prepared and very talented — don’t have a lot of the answers or any answers. They’re just making it up. There’s a lot more ambiguity and confusion than you think. Had I known that, I would have realized earlier that I had a voice just like they did.

Morris: Of all the films that you have seen, which – in your opinion – best dramatizes important business principles? Please explain.

McCormack: Titanic. When you’re running a business, you’re ultimately trying to prevent a colossal mishap from happening under your leadership. The poor guy that was navigating the Titanic in the dark got a lot of warnings and discarded them because he worked on the biggest ship that couldn’t sink. Nothing could take it down.

Look what happened to Andersen Consulting. Almost instantaneously it went away. Look at what happened to Enron. No matter how big a company you’re managing, something really bad can happen that could take the whole thing down. You have to be vigilant that something doesn’t happen on your watch.

Morris: From which non-business book have you learned the most valuable lessons about business? Please explain.

McCormack: I’m not a big fan of business books. A lot of business books practice a very narrow formula of creating a thesis and finding the evidence to prove their thesis. A lot of those books are for self-promotion because the author wants to become famous or wants to get on a speaker’s tour.

That said, the one book that I really enjoyed the most was Permission Marketing by Seth Godin. He says that marketing is a series of asking people for their permission and them saying “yes” to you. It’s very differential and respectful. You say, “Can I do this?” And they say, “Yes.” Then it escalates to the next “yes.” Marketing is about asking people for their permission.

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To read the complete interview, please click here.

Joe cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

The Brief Lab link

Sheffield Company link

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