Corporate Gobbledygook – Your Customers Don’t Understand You

In my years working in PR, I’ve worked with a wide variety of technology and digital media companies, and I’ve been cc’ed on many emails of internal corporate discussions. And, often, I find the emails puzzling because they’re filled with acronyms and code words concerning a client’s business. There’s certainly nothing wrong with using internal shorthand to discuss pertinent business issues.

However, many companies unfortunately spend so much time every day immersed in the verbal and written shorthand of their company, it’s often difficult for them to communicate about their business in a way that’s easy to understand and easy to comprehend what makes their company truly unique.

I’ve repeatedly had discussions with clients about communicating with reporters or drafting an initial press release about a new service or product. I repeatedly use the “cocktail party” example. You need to be able to explain what your company does as if you were meeting a group of people at a cocktail party and they ask you what your company does and they have zero technical knowledge. Some might call it an elevator pitch. Regardless of what you call it, it’s invaluable. If you can’t explain in 2-3 concise sentences the compelling reason for your service or product, in plain English that a technical newbie can understand, you’ve got a problem. You should spend the time necessary to perfect that explanation, because busy consumers and potential customers or users won’t give you a second chance.

On more than one occasion, I’ve gotten into serious disagreements with clients about the tone and style of press releases. Some business executives equate a stiff, formal corporate tone in a press release as somehow imparting gravitas to a company’s announcement. I just don’t agree. Stiff, formal corporate communications is simply a holdover from an antiquated approach to corporate communications.

Richard Millington, the founder of FeverBee Limited, an online community consultancy, recently wrote about this issue specifically related to companies communicating to their online communities. Take a look at Millington’s post for a hilarious – and painful – example of how one company tried to communicate with their online fans.

Warren Buffett, the unparalleled investor, has long championed plain English to discuss complex financial matters. In 1998, Warren Buffett wrote the introduction to an SEC document about how to write clear SEC disclosure documents. (As an aside, the SEC obviously has its limits on “informal” communications to investors. Revealed in Steven Levy’s new book about Google, In the Plex, the SEC wasn’t pleased with Google’s IPO filings because of the founders informal and unorhtodox letter to potential investors. The SEC ordered multiple revisions.)

Here’s a portion of Buffett’s intro:

“One unoriginal but useful tip: Write with a specific person in mind. When writing Berkshire Hathaway’s annual report, I pretend that I’m talking to my sisters. I have no trouble picturing them: Though highly intelligent, they are not experts in accounting or finance. They will understand plain English, but jargon may puzzle them. My goal is simply to give them the information I would wish them to supply me if our positions were reversed. To succeed, I don’t need to be Shakespeare; I must, though, have a sincere desire to inform.

No siblings to write to? Borrow mine: Just begin with “Dear Doris and Bertie.””

Takeaways:

- Can you explain what your company does in 2-3 easy to understand, yet compelling, sentences? If not, write, revise, and redraft, until you can.

- Is your insider knowledge of your company and industry creeping into your press releases and content on your web site? Ask a spouse or friend – in a completely different line of work – to take a look at a recent press release or website redesign and give you their feedback. Can they easily understand what you’re trying to say?

- Does your company’s press releases and external communications have a stiff, formal style? Question that style? Why are you writing that way? The goal of communicating is to be easily understood.