Transcript: An Interview with Joel Schwartzberg

This is a rough transcript of an interview between Mignon Fogarty and Joel Schwartzberg for the Grammar Girl podcast. Listen here.

Mignon: Grammar Girl here. I'm Mignon Fogarty, and today I'm here talking with Joel Schwartzberg. Joel is the Senior Director of Strategic and Executive Communication for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. He is a frequent speaker and workshop leader, a National and State Champion Competitive Public Speaker, and I'll definitely ask him about that, and he's the author of "Get to the Point!: Sharpen Your message and Make Your Words Matter."

Hi Joel. Thanks for being here today.

Joel: It's my pleasure, Mignon.

Mignon: You bet. Well, since your book is called, "Get to the Point," I'm feeling some pressure to get to the point.

Joel: Most people do when they talk to me.

Mignon: And people worry about their grammar when they talk to me! So let's start with what's the difference between having a point and just presenting an idea.

Joel: That's a crucial difference because most people conflate the two. They confuse points with things like topics, categories, themes, notions, titles, and catchphrases. Then they go into a communication setting, whether it's a public speech, an email, or just a morning meeting, and when you lead with a topic but not a point, you leave yourself pointless, which leads to rambling, and all kinds of epic fail.

Joel: The big difference between a point and something that's not a point, one of those things I mentioned, is that a point is really an argument. You're making a case for something that you can prove with data, stories, illustrations, or case studies, and it should take you more than a few seconds to make that case because you're trying to have an impact on someone. What I like to say is you're really not having that kind of impact, you're not moving someone to a new idea or a new action, unless you're making a point, a true argument, or a proposition of value.

Mignon: So I know that the word storytelling has been a big buzzword for presentations for at least the last five years or so, and people say you should entertain your audience, maybe be funny. Can you talk about that? There has to be an intersection between storytelling and getting to the point, right?

Joel: Absolutely. In fact, I'll go even a step further, Mignon, and I would say that your story is not the most crucial part of your story. By that, I mean, you should always be using your story to illustrate your point. Your point is Batman. The story is Robin. 

Joel: So in understanding that, the most important part of your story is the part where you say, “This story illustrates why we must…,” or, “This story is an example of why we should…” Because without that explicit line, which people often don't say, they just stick to the story, you're entertaining the audience, and you're putting the burden of its relevance on them, when really the burden of establishing relevance is on you, the communicator. 

Joel: Stories are great. Like you said, entire conferences are devoted to storytelling, but just know that this story is merely a vehicle through which you're making your most important point.

Mignon: Ok, and so do you start with your point? Say you have this great anecdote, do you introduce the point and then tell your story, or do you tell the story, and then end with your point? Or do you do it at both the beginning and the end?

Joel: Well, as long as the story is tight, which it should always be, because remember, it's in service to the rest of your presentation, you can go either way. I think Simon Sinek does a good job of telling a story, and then immediately elaborating on the point he's trying to make. And that's fine, because you're grabbing the audience with a story. That's why most people use stories. 

Joel: But you can certainly begin with, “I want to show why if you apply X, Y will happen, and the best way to do that is through something that happened to me yesterday. Let me tell you about that,” and then reinforce it at the end. 

Joel: Public speaking and communication - it’s not a movie where you're going to play the spoiler if you bring up the end too soon. You want to reinforce that point as often as you can. Very few people come away from a presentation thinking, “Well, she was great, but you know what? She made her point too many times.” 

Joel: They don't because the point is the true piece of value. To answer your question, I would say, why not begin with it, tell your story, and reinforce it. If your story is really, really grabbing and shocking and entices the audience, then you can lead with that. But don't forget that crucial point of connecting [the story] to your point.

Mignon: Great. You help people learn to speak, and give good talks, and communicate better. How do you help people identify the point they're trying to make? Sometimes people aren't clear on what they're trying to say.

Joel: Yes, sometimes people hear everything I've just told you, Mignon, for example, and they only have a foggy idea the difference between a point and something that's not a point. I really wanted for myself, and for the benefit of my students, and my readers, a test, a very simple test, that would take your idea, what you think is a point, you plug it into this machine, you get a green light or a red light, pass-fail, and then it tells you if you have a point or not. I developed that, and so far over the years it has worked pretty well. 

Joel: It's called the “I Believe That” test. Basically, you take what you think is your point, your idea, in one sentence, and put the words “I believe that” in front of it. Now, if what you have next is a complete sentence, it is not a fragment, it would impress your fourth grade language arts teacher, and you, Mignon, then you're on your way to making a point. If it does not make sense at that point, if it's a fragment, then you should reimagine it. 

Joel: Now, let me give you an example. If you said, “I believe that good grammar,” that's going to fail the test because that's not a complete sentence. Good grammar is not a point because you're not saying what is the importance of good grammar. Why should we use good grammar? What should we know about good grammar? So to help you route that out, dig it out, unpack it, you have to reimagine it. 

Joel: You can't even say, “I believe that the importance of good grammar.” Even that's not a complete sentence. You don't get to a good place where you’re on the way to making a clean point until you say, “I believe that good grammar is necessary to establishing one's credibility.” Then you can see just from those words alone, you attract more attention, it's more resonant, and you have an audience thinking, “Oh, that's interesting. Tell me more.” Versus these pure words, “good grammar,” or even “the importance of good grammar.”

Mignon: I imagine everyone would agree with that statement, and maybe they don't, but in my imagination everyone would agree with that statement. Is it okay if your point is something that's so perceived as universally true that...will the audience still care?

Joel: Well, one of the things I say is sort of a corollary to the I Believe That test is a Truism test. You want to know if what you came up with is true in its face. “I believe that the sentence is grammatically correct.” Well, that answers the I Believe That test, but it's something that's going to be true automatically, like, I believe ice cream is sweet, or I believe snow is white. 

Joel: So just do a little check on yourself to see. One of the ways I recommend is asking, “Is there a feasible counterpoint? Can someone argue the opposite?” If the answer to that is yes, then it's probably a good point because you know that there's a case to be made. But I say this test will put you on the road to making a good point. It's not a really sharp point yet until you take a couple of ideas, and a couple of roads, to really making it a strong point, and being able to champion it, such as not having too many ideas or using what I call badjectives.

Mignon: What's a badjective?

Joel: A badjective is a word like great, or very good, or interesting. They're adjectives that are so broad that they're virtually meaningless. If I told you, and I've heard this all the time, “This idea is great.” “This approach is great.” “This is a great campaign.” What are you really saying? You're attaching a small degree of positivity, I suppose. But you're really not making a case, or really telling me why it is great. 

Joel: When people have these badjectives, the solution to that problem - I try not to tell my clients, my students, “Stop doing this” because that's like saying, “Stop sneezing.” You need a sort of a Nicorette. What do I do in place of that? When you have a badjective, you spot one like great, or very good, or interesting, or even awesome, ask yourself, “Why is this great?” “Why is this very good?” “Oh, it's great because it will save us a lot of money.” Ah ha. Now take that answer, “Save us a lot of money,” and replace the badjective with that. 

Joel: So the idea goes from, “This approach will be great,” to, “This approach is going to save the company a lot of money, which we then can put into R and D, and become more successful.”

Mignon: Yeah, I can see how that would be really helpful. I tell people to get rid of those words, too. I call them fill words. But I like badjectives. 

Joel: In journalism sometimes they coach you to remove adjectives. Sometimes I hear adverbs are the villain.

Joel: One of the biggest villains, actually, in point making is too many ideas. Sometimes we think if I say this approach is going to make us more successful, more memorable, more meaningful, more efficient, and more effective, you're thinking in your head, I just gave you eight great ideas of why this idea should be digested and used. But what I've actually done is I've thrown out so many ideas that they're fighting each other for the attention of the audience, and in effect, diluting the impact of each. Very few people could read those describers back to me, and even if they could, they wouldn't know which one is more important. 

Joel: We know in good writing less is more, but what I like to say, also, is that more is less. When you add too many ideas, as if it were a Christmas tree and you're adding ornaments, what you're really doing is diluting the overall impact you're trying to make. It's just like a PowerPoint slide. We all know too many words, and too many ideas, will have almost no value. The same is true for making a point. 

Joel: An audience needs to do a lot more than a speaker. Just consider everything an audience, or someone listening to a speech, needs to do. They need to hear it. They need to process it. They need to digest it. They need to apply it. They need to think about it. They need to make sense of it. What do you need to do as a speaker? You just need to say it. Your audience needs to do a lot more work in the moment than you're doing, so make it as simple as possible. How can you make this as meaningful as possible with as few words as possible?

Mignon: So say you're giving a 45-minute presentation at a conference, should you have just one point? Or should you break a talk that long into something that maybe has five points for each 10-minute, 7-minute segment?

Joel: That's a great question, Mignon. By the way, I'm not just saying that for filler. It's a great question because there's this idea of sub points, and how do I support this? What I like to say is only make one point at a time. Instead of saying this idea is going to make us more efficient, successful, and effective, have a big idea. Sometimes we call this the elevator pitch. This idea is going to take us to the next level in terms of reaching a new audience. How? 

Joel: “The first thing I’m going to talk about is how it will make us more efficient, enabling us to use our finances more effectively. The second thing I'm going to talk about is why this approach is going to have a greater impact on the audiences we’re looking for, particularly our millennial audience.” 

Joel: So what I'm doing is I'm demarcating the separate points. 

Joel: If I were giving a presentation, I would do that physically, as well. I would make one point on the left side of the stage, and maybe another point on the right side of the stage. So I'm just trying to put as much distance as possible between those points or between those sub points. 

Joel: Now, sooner or later, even if you're giving a 45-minute presentation, someone will ask, “Hey, what's it about?” And you don't want to say, “Oh, podcasting,” because you're not saying what it is. In that case, even though you have sub points, even though you have moments where you're telling stories, you really want to give a response that is one, big idea. 

Joel: “What I'm going to show is how podcasting reaches, and breaks through to our very important millennial audience.” 

Joel: Now the person is interested, they're going to come to your presentation to hear the how and the why, and the stories and the data that proves it.

Mignon: Okay, that's great. Well, I was thinking I only speak a few times a year, and probably a lot of the people in the audience hardly ever speak at all in front of people. But I do write a lot of email messages.

Mignon: We're going to take a quick break for our sponsors. And when we come back, I'm going to ask you how we can apply the idea of making a point to other areas of our lives, such as writing email messages. We'll be right back. 



Mignon: So we're back, and Joel, you know, I give maybe two or three talks a year, and maybe people in the audience hardly ever give a talk. So these ideas you have seem like they could apply to a lot of different forms of communication besides just giving a talk. So maybe we all write a lot of emails. Can I apply making a point to writing better emails?

Joel: Absolutely. One of the things I always like to say, just to take half a step back, is that we're talking about point making. We're not talking about public speaking. When we think about public speaking, we think you're on a stage, and there are anywhere between 50 and 5,000 people you're talking to. Who does that, really, at the end of the day? However, we're all making points all the time. We're making them to our audience, to our colleagues, to our friends, to our mother-in-law. We're trying to get an idea across and accepted, so that it can bring value to our own lives. 

Joel: An email is one of the ways we do that most often. And yet, even if we understand the idea of making a point on the stage, we often apply none of it to these communication tools, whether it's email or Twitter. 

Joel: So let's talk about email, for example. Let's say you're in the middle of a back and forth, a thread, and in the middle of this thread, you wake up one morning, and you have this very strong idea that's going to transform the way this product is marketed, and you want to add it to the thread. You're very excited about it, and the subject line for this thread started with the word Wednesday. So you're in the middle of this thread, you’re ready to present this idea, you do a Reply All, you put your idea in the body, but the subject line says, “Re: re: re: re: re: re: Wednesday.” It’s as if you own a bookstore, and you're not putting the books in the front window, you're just putting pieces of white paper. 

Joel: So it all starts with the subject line. Say what you mean. If you need to maintain the integrity of that thread, then just use a few words in the colon. But after the colon, it should say, “New Marketing Concept,” so that people know what they're getting into. 

Joel: Then, in the body of the email, a lot of these tools come across in terms of making a point. You want to say what you need to say in as few words as possible. I never make a paragraph that's more than three sentences. I can't even think of the last time I did that because I want people to take those ideas, digest them, before they move on to the next one. And I like to put a space between the paragraphs. 

Joel: I also recommend putting bullets in your email. Why? Because remember, you're trying to do a favor for your reader. There's a lot you can do to make it easier for your reader to process that information, but don't put that burden on them by writing paragraphs and paragraphs as if you're writing The Great American Novel. 

Joel: Put that burden on you. Make it simple: short sentences, bullets. Be very clear about the point you're making, and be very clear about the ultimate outcome you're envisioning if people adopt that idea.

Mignon: That really helps. I know there's some psychology research that shows that chunking content can help people process it and remember it better. It's like how a long number is easier to remember when it has dashes in it, like a phone number. What you're talking about is formatting emails in a way that is chunking, like separating the paragraphs and using bullets. Yeah, that's great.

Joel: We're sidestepping reading in a way, not to put a negative on reading. There's nothing wrong with reading. But making things easier for your audience is about chunking, like you say. It's about bulleting. It's about boiling things down so that it’s most easily digested. 

Joel: Something I often say, whether it’s an email or in powerpoint or in a presentation, if you have a lot of ideas and a lot of words, your audience is likely going to get none of it. If you have a few ideas, they're going to get some of it. If you have one idea, they're going to get all of it. 

Joel: So keep it tight, even if you need to do it in several emails, or in a step-by-step approach, that really gives you the best chance of your biggest idea, your most important idea, being the one that your reader or your audience takes away.

Mignon: That's what I was just going to ask you. If I have a lot to say to a person, if I have many points, it sounds like you're saying I should break it up into three or four emails, instead of trying to jam it all into one long email. Even though I feel like I might be overwhelming someone if I send them four emails? It's still, comprehension-wise, processing-wise, it's better to send more emails? Is that what you're saying?

Joel: In a case where you can. I wouldn't do that in the middle of a thread, certainly, but if you had two completely separate ideas, and you wanted to give each a strong chance of being received, I would do two emails with two different subject lines. 

Joel: Now, a lot of times that won't work, so there are some tricks you can use. Often I'll start an email with, “I had two very strong ideas to improve the way we are processing our paperwork.” One — first idea. Two — second idea. It's the one, and then the two. But also the preview, “I have two ideas.” You're telling the reader, “All right, get ready. Don't stop after one, please. Make it all the way to two.” 

Joel: Remember, it's all about you creating the highest chance that they're going to read it all. If you can preview your bullets, number them, give them a sense of how many there are, if you say, “I have five things,” trust me, people are going to read the fifth one. But if you say you have a few ideas, they may never get that far.

Mignon: In one of your articles I read, you said it's important to include always a greeting in an email. I know I skip this sometimes when I'm going back and forth with someone, back and forth, back and forth. Do I really need to write, “Hi, Joel,” on the twentieth email I'm sending you?

Joel: I believe it makes a difference. I remind myself to do it all the time, and it goes to something very basic that applies to a lot of what we're talking about, and that is that we are human beings. As human beings, we want to relate to each other in a meaningful, human way. If I were to pose a question to you, that was how do humans relate to each other? One of the things that would come up is “hello,” a greeting. So I believe that the best way to establish a human connection right off the bat is to say, “Hi, Mignon.” 

Joel: Just imagine it in your head for a minute what that does. It sets the stage for a communication that's human, that’s spontaneous, that's going to be meaningful because you're making a connection. Sometimes I tell people that - they worry when they're giving a presentation that they’ll sneeze, or scratch their nose, or something will fall off [during] their powerpoint. 

Joel: We don't need to worry about any of that because they don't expect you to be a robot. They don't expect you to be perfect. In fact, no one even wants you to be a robot, or wants you to be perfect. As human beings, at our core, since we were children, we want people to relate to us. So what's an easy way to do that? “Hi, Mignon.” How hard is that? Just remind yourself to do that each time.

Mignon: That's great. You talked about being a nervous speaker. I've heard you say that having a point, and knowing what your point is can help you be a less nervous speaker. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Joel: Sure. There's a basic idea that I like to share with people, and that is the difference between performing and presenting. When you're presenting an idea, what I always tell people is consider it like a blue collar job. Like here in New York City, you're on a bicycle. You know, the person with the backpack on the bicycle, a delivery person looking out for the car doors. You're delivering something of value from one place to another. It is not about you. 

Joel: When people are intimidated by public speaking, there's a level of shame there. “I'm going to make a fool out of myself.” “My teeth aren't white enough.” “I wore the wrong shirt today, I have a stain.” But it's not about you. You're not a performer. There are performers out there. A magician is a performer, a comedian, a fashion model, a juggler, a sword swallower — those are people where all the attention is on them, and they should be focused on what they look like and how they are coming across. 

Joel: But a presenter, whether you're presenting through a vehicle like email, or on a stage, or in that Monday morning meeting with your staff, or in a brainstorming meeting, that is something different. You're taking something outside of view, of extreme value, your point, and you're moving that point from one place to another, from your head to your audience. 

Joel: That eliminates some public speaking fear because it takes the emphasis away from you. It is not about you. You are the vehicle through which that point is traveling, but there's no shame, there's no spotlight on you. Now, you are the most experienced, and the person who is most qualified to make that point. No one can make the point, but you, in that moment. However, the moment is not about you.

Joel: This connects - sometimes I hear people say, “I want to be like Michelle Obama.” I'm going to speak like her, or one of these very famous speakers, a politician, or an actor or an actress, and that's the wrong approach. You don't want to be a great public speaker. You want to be a successful delivery person of your point. Once you move into that line of thinking, it takes away a lot of the fear because it creates a task for you. 

Joel: Now, don't stand up there and not try not to screw up. You have a very physical, obvious task. You know your point. Move it from there to here. If you do that, you're successful. If you don't do that, you're not successful, no matter how funny, interesting, charismatic, beautiful, or memorable you are. If you don't move your point, which is job one, that's a fail. 

Mignon: That's a very helpful way of thinking about it like that. I like that.

Mignon: So to finish up, I am very curious about competitive public speaking. I've never heard of this before, and it's in your bio, and I'm wondering just what is this thing?

Joel: Well, you age out of it, so you and I are done. But we know that kids do sports, and we know that if they advance in certain sports, or gymnastics, they could go to a districtwide tournament, or a statewide tournament, or even get to nationals. What a lot of people don't know is that also exists for public speaking. 

Joel: It's called forensics, and a different kind of forensics than what a lot of us are used to with cutting up dead bodies. It's completely different. 

Joel: It's about, not only giving speeches, impromptu speeches, and speeches you prepared in advance, it's also about doing pieces of drama, prose, poetry, acting pieces, but not acting, more about reading it from a script. 

Joel: So in my case, I started doing this in sixth grade in Texas. We actually had a forensic team in our middle school, and I wasn't very good at sports, so I sort of fell into it. But I never stopped. I loved it. I loved going into a classroom, having a speech ready, and trying to make an impact with that speech, and being judged for it. 

Joel: The more you do anything, as most people know, the better you’ll get at it. So I continued all the way through middle school, all the way through high school, all the way through senior year of college, and fortunately, I learned a thing or two. So when I was a senior in college, I was a national champion in an event called After Dinner Speaking, which is a 10-minute humor speech with a serious point. 

Joel: Now, that would be the end of my career, but I then ended up coaching for a few places like University of Pennsylvania and Seton Hall University. I couldn't get it out of my system. 

Joel: But here's where it gets interesting, Mignon. When I began interviewing for jobs, I realized that I was using everything I learned as a competitive public speaker to make my point and sell myself in an interview, and later as I tried to sell my ideas to a boss, and later, as I started going to conferences and realizing I could sell my ideas that way. 

Joel: So I'm hoping that when I speak to people, and when they read the book, and when I have clients, we can short circuit those eleven years of competition, kind of get around that - I did it the hard way - and realize early on what it means to have a point, and what it means to champion a point.

Mignon: That's great. Well, it sounds very helpful, and I'm definitely going to get your book, "Get to the Point!: Sharpen Your message and Make Your Words Matter." Again, I've been talking to Joel Schwartzberg, and that's his book. 

Mignon: And Joel, where can people find you online?

Joel: They can always look up the book on places like Amazon, but the best place to learn more about the book is my website. Also, I share a lot of the articles that I publish, and a lot of the other ideas that I have both visually, and in words at joelschwartzberg.net.

Mignon: Great. That's where I read a lot of your articles before the interview. They were very helpful. So everyone go check out his website, get his book, and thank you so much, Joel, for being here today.

Joel: Thank you, Mignon. I'm a big fan.

Mignon: Thank you. Bye.