A lifeline during an information tsunami

by Nicole Salmon (February 11, 2020)

Noise: Living and Leading When Nobody Can Focus, Joseph McCormack, Wiley, December 5, 2019, 304 pp., $29.70

If you feel bombarded or aimlessly adrift in a sea of information, Joseph McCormack’s latest book Noise: Living and Leading When Nobody Can Focus will feel like a lifeline amidst an information tsunami. 

McCormack is the Managing Director and Founder of The BRIEF Lab, an agency dedicated to teaching the art of communicating clearly and concisely. He perceives Noise as a companion to his previous book Brief: Make a Bigger Impact by Saying Less released in 2013. But Noise powerfully stands on its own.

For years the idiom “don’t judge a book by its cover” has served as a reminder to look beneath the surface before reaching a conclusion about someone, something or a particular situation. Noise happens to be an exception to this idiom. The book’s title and cover design set the stage for its central purpose and message which McCormack captures in the preface.

“The point of this book is to set off an alarm: the world is going deaf. We’ve gone far beyond the promise of the information age and are now so consumed by it that is threatens our existence.”

If you are a type of book reader inclined to bypass the foreword and preface preferring instead to delve directly into the content, I encourage you to break that tendency with Noise. The foreword is written by Mike Bechtel, futurist with Deloitte and Professor of Corporate Innovation at the University of Notre Dame. His take on Noise is that it is ultimately about “attention economics.”

As someone who was first introduced to economics in high school and who would later choose economics as my university major, I was captivated by the term. Harking back to the definition of economics being the production and distribution of scarce resources, the term “attention economics” implies that attention is a scarce resource requiring one to choose how best to use or allocate it. Whatever choice is made comes with an opportunity cost. If we give into mindless distraction the cost is a loss of focus.

Immediately after the preface, there is a 5” x 7” table providing an easy and concise visual of how the book is organized. Equally clever is the use of illustrations representing Soundbites, Noteworthy and Noise Makers on the How to Read This Book page.

McCormack practices what he preaches about making brevity a priority. The book is an easy read. It’s aesthetically pleasing with illustrations generously used throughout thanks to the work of designers/illustrators Megan Palicki and Joan Bueta. In every chapter soundbites are illustrated as sound waves. Each chapter ends with a Brief Recap and a Tune-in section. You can’t help but feel that Chip and Dan Heath, authors of Made to Stick, would appreciate McCormack’s use of this technique to make the ideas stick.

As you read the book, be prepared to nod in agreement with stories McCormack shares that vividly drive home his point that the noise that engulfs us is not only distracting but is the new normal. Distraction is addictive. We increasing crave it oblivious of the damage it wreaks.

The contents and chapters are arranged into the following five parts:

  • Part One – Weapons of Mass Distraction
  • Part Two –The Big Tune-Out is Coming (Imagining the Unthinkable – Six Short Stories to Wake You Up)
  • Part Three – Time for You to Tune In: Awareness Management (AM 101)
  • Part Four – Getting Others to Dial In: Focus Management (FM 101)
  • Part Five – Pre-sets: Simple Programming for Noise Reduction

Following the arc of the narrative, the reader is taken on a journey that not only outlines the magnitude of the issue but provides practical tips on how to restore focus in the midst of so many distractions. Starting with information (infobesity) and sensory overload (mindless consumption), McCormack paints a disturbing picture of distraction leading to an inability to focus. The result is an “always on” population suffering from mental anemia, constantly consuming more and more and getting less and less.

To help us understand how distraction works, McCormack shares the concept of the Elusive 600, which he credits to Sharon Ellis. The idea is that our brains can process up to 750 words per minute, yet on average we can only speak or read at a rate of 150 words per minute. That means our minds processes 600 words per minute over what we can speak or read. The 600 words per minute is the Elusive 600. Within that Elusive 600 timeframe our brain can get distracted and tuned-out.  

What can we do to abate the noise and restore our ability to focus? 

Joseph McCormack

McCormack pulls ideas from other writers such as Greg McKeown who, in his 2014 book called Essentialism, talked about focusing on the essential versus the non-essential. He shares a number of awareness management (AM) and focus management (FM) practices we can adopt and incorporate into our daily practices. He offers twenty pre-sets or habits that help us to let go and not fear we are missing out, focus on what really matters, schedule tech timeouts, escape to soundproof areas to name a few. 

The final chapter drives home McCormack’s central message,

“I wrote this book as an old-school response to a new-world problem. It’s meant to give us practical means to adapt, discovering ways to live and lead when nobody can focus. It’s meant to help us fight back against all the noise.”

The bottom line is, in a world where we are constantly being bombarded by more and more non- essential information, we need to be intentional about reclaiming our time and managing distraction so we can focus on what’s essential and what truly matters. Noise provides guidance and tips about how we can live with but not be consumed by a world designed to distract.

(Nicole Salmon is the founder of Boundless Philanthropy, a fundraising consultancy specializing in providing support to charitable organizations. @NicoleSalmon5)

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