I often become frustrated when catching up on Australian business news. I’ve never figured out why business journalists in particular must use such complex language to articulate often simple points.
I am frequently forced to butt heads with my own writers on this very issue.
(Do you really need to describe his outlook at ‘sanguine’? Why say ‘unconscionable’ when ‘unfair’ will work just as well? And is there any justifiable reason for using the word ‘phalanx’, ever?)
Of course, we’re all human and sometimes while masticating on the mental maelstrom caused by this monomial method of journalism, I too succumb to the desire innate within my profession to show off my ever-expanding, literature-engorged lexicon.
But we all know that it’s not the size of your vocabulary that counts.
It’s how you use it.
So, why do many business writers take so much delight in confusing us?
Talk to me like I’m a 14 year-old
When starting a business, or embarking on a new marketing campaign, we’re all guilty of this sin. Just because we understand a concept or find comfort in a set of industry words, that doesn’t mean that our prospective investors, clients and future staff also speak the same language.
Take this video from General Motors (below). We have no idea what this clip is about, who created it or why. But the actor-engineers obviously took great amusement performing from a script that would confuse the hell out of… well… just about anyone.
We also receive unnecessary jargon and corporate speak in the applications we receive for the Anthill Cool Company Awards and the Smart 100 each year (less so among the 30under30 entries). For example, in 2008, we received an extremely earnest entry from ‘Australia’s leading provider of end-to-end liquid transfer solutions.’ (Question: What is a “liquid transfer solutions” provider? Answer: A hose manufacturer.)
In such instances, there is only one remedy.
Locate the nearest 14-year-old teenager and pitch. If he/she doesn’t ‘get it’ in the short attention span mother nature has afforded your chosen sack of hormones, neither will a time-poor investor, client, staff member or business journalist (hypocrites that we are).
Put your idea in context
If you’re still struggling, you’re not alone. Fortunately, I have a simple solution. And like the best remedies, it is painfully obvious. Here goes.
Start your product description, company overview, USP, whatever, with the following words: “Imagine a world where…”
This is the antithesis of making a claim that you have no competition — the greatest and most fallible belief/lie/claim of all new entrepreneurs.
Let me explain by example…
“Imagine a world where you can bring the cinema into your living room. It’s called television!”
“Imagine a world where you can get from A to B without a horse (without a bike, without running). It’s called a motor car!”
“Imagine a Walkman that doesn’t need tapes or discs and can hold thousands of songs. It’s called an iPod!”
If you operate in a B2B market:
“Imagine a world where your bookkeeping will take minutes and not days (and will reduce the need of expensive bookkeeping). It’s called accounting software!”
If you provide a solution that is better than what came before (your competition), this little short-cut will come in handy.
There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.
You probably know the phrase attributed to the 19th Century British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, among others, and later popularised in the United States by Mark Twain.
This brings me to my final point and the clip that prompted me to write this post.
It also comes with a warning.
This viral video was created by planestupid.com in order to make travellers aware of the impact that short-haul flights have on the climate. It does so in a novel way using Polar Bears (because Polar Bears are a “well understood symbol of the effect that climate change is having on the natural world”).
It is not for the squeamish.
Over the past 12 months, I have personally struggled to contextualise the big numbers that our Federal Government and business media have thrust on us when attempting to explain the reach of the global financial crisis and the impact of the various national stimulus packages that have since been put in place.
I have struggled to come to terms with the facts and figures surrounding global warming and carbon emissions — as an individual.
How much is a billion hectoshekels?
“Imagine that the federal government announces a second-stage bailout in the amount of 703,000 hectoshekels… To assess the bailout, you’d ask: How much money is that, exactly? Is it too much or not enough? For all practical purposes, an $800 billion stimulus package is as opaque as a 703,000-hectoshekel package; we have no real grasp of what it means.”
Many people have attempted to put these big numbers into perspective. For example, if you laid those bills end to end, how many times would they circle the earth? But, once again, that’s about as personally contextualised as the number of hectoshekels it would take to circle Mars (or any planet for that matter).
What I liked about planestupid.com’s gruesome polar bear analogy is that it puts something as difficult to perceive as gas into a physical form, engaging the viewer with a scenario that puts this mass into something we can relate to.
So, here is my challenge to business developers, marketers, journalists and fellow Anthillians.
If you have a message and want to make it pop, put your idea into the context of the individual — ask your audience to imagine a world with you and your business as a part of it. And when using analogies, statistics or numbers, create intuition instead of just shock value.
Now, if anyone can help me put Australia’s deficit into the realm of human understanding, I’m all eyes and ears. (I’ve been struggling for weeks. And a rainstorm of koalas ain’t gonna cut it.)