Corporate Messaging and Nerd-Speak
You may have heard people say ‘the guy drank his own kool-aid’ and I’m sure you all know what it means, but if you don’t, it’s from the ill-fated Jim Jones massacre where people blindly followed their leader to their deaths by drinking poisoned kool-aid.
Companies are doing it every day by blindly growing their company and doing things they think is correct without listening to people or the market around them.
A case, in point, is the company pitch; whether it is the ‘elevator’ pitch, your blog or the website messaging itself.
When my partners interview companies to see if they are a good match for private equity financing, of course, they are going to try to impress us with everything they can say about their company. But here lies the problem; it’s in the way they explain the company.
What happened to businesses that could explain what they do in 3 or 4 words or a simple tagline? Was it a simpler time twenty years ago or have things become more complicated? I think the world is a bit more complex but telling someone what you do for a living sounds pretty basic to me.
I was writing notes for a podcast a couple of weeks ago. One business I was going to talk about wrote “our business is a Crowd-powered Cloud™ecosystem that drives top quality entertainment” as the company description. I sent the CEO an email telling him I found it hard to understand and could he help me. Within an hour he sent me a 900-word description of the business that left me, not only, more confused but now dazed as well. I cobbled bits and pieces of it to make a sensible sentence about the company (it puts entertainment talent and management together) for my podcast but it was a lot of effort. I don’t think I will be investing in them anytime soon.
I have noticed this confusing business message happening more and more. My wife put it the best when she said, “When people are involved in what they are doing they are totally absorbed and totally in their own box. They think everyone who crosses their path is in their box too but in fact they are in other boxes – people need more information”.
You know what they say; you only have one time to make a good first impression? Imagine I am looking to invest in a company and I have a choice from two businesses. Do you really think I will put money into the one I can’t figure out what they produce even though it was referred to me? I’d rather give it to charity.
A local company cam to me looking for private equity and even though I know them very well and fully understand their business, I asked them for a two-paragraph overview so I didn’t have to write it. I spent time on three emails and two phone calls before they made understandable copy. Stop using ‘nerd-speak’.
Now let’s get this straight, I not a stupid guy and I’m not punishing people by asking for clarification, I just think that the ‘average’ person needs some help out there before they make decisions about using or buying products or services from a business. I actually have two brilliant friends who have given me permission to interrupt them in any conversation if they enter the world of nerd-speak – and it works for everyone when I do!
When I was running my first business incubator in 2002, I would accept 45 entrepreneurs a year for a year’s worth of funding and education. To get those 45, I interviewed over 500 startup business owners. I remember one guy going into a long description of his business concept that had my eyes glazing over until I asked him what it was in 3 words – he said with a straight face, “I’m an Efficiency Expert”. Needless to say he was not accepted into my incubator.
You may be surprised to know that government documents that go out to the public are written at a grade 6 level of English. The reason, of course, is that the government wants there to be no confusion in the material they are getting out to their citizens because usually it is very important like taxes, benefits, applications, etc. Isn’t your company messaging as important to you?
I remember software companies being very adept at saying what the software does very simply, e.g. our software manages sales leads. Now they use buzz-words that don’t enhance the description nor tell you the basic operation of the software. One sales software company told me they have software that ‘utilizes pre-emptive proprietary algorithms to enhance the customer sales experience’. That means nothing to me –come on!
I speak to many businesses a week and rarely do they get past my ‘understandability’ radar. It tells me that either the CEO believes he is reaching people or the people who work with him are afraid to tell him to stop nerd-speak. It also indicates there might be more disasters coming down the track with this company. If they all think their company is really understood then they all must be living in the dream-world bubble, or drank the kool-aid.
It’s sad that companies are spending so much time trying to tell people what they do in the most imaginative way possible that they forget to listen to the very people they are pitching. Check your own corporate messaging, have your best friend read it, then ask for his honest opinion.
Let’s hope you are not one of those for whom I am on the lookout. Good luck and please don’t get going about pitch decks!