He pauses to count them off on his fingers, then nods. Ten little words they may be, of course, but strung together, like this – "Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?" – they could represent the biggest change in Scottish life in the past 300 years when the question is put to voters the autumn after next.
McCormick, the Electoral Commissioner for Scotland, is overseeing the long process by which the question's intelligibility is assessed. This means, in essence, examining whether voters will find it clear, simple and neutral. If it isn't, the commission will say what needs to be done. A decision may come before the end of January. More on the process later.
When McCormick was first appointed five years ago (his tenure has just been extended to the end of December 2016), Sam Younger, the then commission chairman, spoke of the wealth of experience the Scot had gained across public life. Few seem to have as much experience as McCormick – a former controller of BBC Scotland, former secretary of the BBC, former chairman of the Scottish Qualifications Authority. He has chaired the Edinburgh International Film Festival and sat on the board of Glasgow School of Art, is a vice-chairman at Scottish Opera and has been a non-executive director of Lloyds TSB Scotland.
Not bad for a Saltcoats boy who, after he left Glasgow University, where he'd studied history and entered education, was convinced he would be a teacher all his days. "I loved the subject of history, and I loved the contact with the kids," he says. "I just gravitated towards teaching. I got very interested in the subject of education." His first teaching post was at a secondary in Cranhill in Glasgow ("I loved every second of it") and initially he combined this with studying for an MEd at Glasgow (the star pupil in his MEd year was none other than the commentator Alf Young – "We all thought Alf would be running Scottish education when he was in his 40s or 50s.").
For his MEd thesis he researched the impact of a BBC Scotland educational radio series in modern studies. His thesis tutor eventually suggested he apply for an advertised post of education officer with the BBC in Glasgow. "I was 26 and didn't think I had a snowball's chance in hell, but applying would be a good experience." He got the job, started in 1970 and spent the next 12 years in educational broadcasting.
It was Pat Ramsay, the then controller of BBC Scotland, who encouraged him to apply for a BBC management position. He became part of the management team at BBC Scotland and, in his own words, "went down to London as BBC secretary, and came back here as controller". As he outlines his career path he stresses how fortunate he was throughout it all, at the way openings seemed to present themselves to him.
As BBC secretary between 1987 and 1992, he worked alongside director-general Michael Checkland and Duke Hussey, the chairman. "In London I'd think how great the job (of controller in Scotland) would be. The luck of being around when it fell vacant was remarkable. Pat Chalmers was the incumbent and I thought he'd see the job out, but one day out of the blue he came to see me and he was going to Hong Kong to head up BBC Worldwide there. I remember him saying, 'If you don't apply for my job, I'll never speak to you again.'"
His 12 years as controller of BBC Scotland were eventful, to say the least. He oversaw the biggest editorial expansion in the body's history: it became renowned for its successes in factual programmes, comedy, network dramas and children's programmes. River City was launched and plans were made for the new base at Pacific Quay. Radio Scotland, under James Boyle, won the Sony Gold Award as UK Station of the year. Small wonder that in a 2004 interview in The Herald, McCormick observed a "dramatically successful revolution has taken place within BBC Scotland" during his years in charge.
Now, in 2013, at the age of 68 (one grandchild, and a second on the way), he finds himself as our electoral commissioner. Was he interested as a young man in how elections worked? There's a self-deprecating laugh. "When I was a lad in Saltcoats, one of the most exciting events of the year was the local elections. The whole town was engaged in them and we had friends and neighbours involved in them," he says.
"I remember us going down as a family and seeing the results. I thought it was fantastically interesting – not so much in terms of party politics as in politics itself, in what people were doing. My family was interested in it; my dad was particularly interested in what was going on in the community. So I got hooked on that, then later I studied history, and American history, and I got interested in American presidential politics.
"I've never been a member of a party but have just been fascinated by the entire process. I remember reading David Butler's studies of the 1959 election, all that stuff." He admires greatly Robert A Caro's magisterial, multi-volume life of Lyndon B Johnson ("Volume 4 is remarkable – I just hope Caro doesn't die before the next one"). He laughs again. "I remember when I was going out with Jean, long before we got married, and she said she was looking for a good book, and did I have any? I gave her Theodore White's The Making of the President 1964. I didn't realise that maybe not everyone was interested in the details of a US primary campaign. She did read it, though."
He points out the Electoral Commission made substantial changes to the questions asked in 2011's Alternative Vote referendum and Welsh legislative referendum. "We learned from that process not to take anything for granted. Ours is an evidence-based process. We don't give opinions, we have evidence for any change we recommend." Some voters didn't understand what 'first past the post' meant; in Wales, some saw a reference to 'devolved areas' and thought 'devolved' meant 'depressed and deprived'. Every bit of wording has to be crystal clear.
So far as Scotland's 10 word-question is concerned, McCormick and his team are not only consulting voters "but we're also getting advice from accessibility and plain-language specialists. We're asking politicians, prospective campaigners and academics for their views on the question, too.
"Ipsos Mori in Scotland is doing an awful lot of one-to-one research with people with the ballot paper in front of them. What does it mean to them? Do they understand what it means?
"They're also doing focus groups to check how the question comes out in conversation: when they're talking to each other about it, people reveal more than they would if they were with a researcher. Included in the groups are people for whom English is not the first language, people who may have difficulty with reading, people from ethnic communities.
"At the same time we're consulting access groups who work with the blind, or with dyslexia, or who are hearing-impaired. Does the question come out all right in Braille and sign language? By the end of January it's expected there will be recommendations to the board of 10 commissioners."
How binding will be the commissioners' decision on the wording? "Everything we do is from the voter's perspective," McCormick says with care. "The voters elect representatives, and it will be a decision for the representatives in the Scottish Parliament. It's a very important decision, and parliamentary sovereignty means we respect that. If the Scottish Parliament does not take our advice, we would expect them to justify why, and to make this clear to the voter.
"Every time a referendum has been held in this country, our advice has been taken. When the commissioners get the final report they will scrutinise the research and conclusions. I hope we will contribute something and I would hope Parliament would take our advice, but you have to respect the elected representatives to make the final decision. We will wait and see."
If Parliament wanted to tweak the recommended wording, there will, he says, be enough time for the commission to road-test a new version. Ten little words, then, but so much interest surrounds them.
Electoral Commissioner for Scotland