By Cameron Leberecht
“Ok. Now explain that to your mother.”
The first time I heard that, I had just finished “convincing” Dad that actually, the dog was responsible for the partially digested box of cookies gracing the new couch.
I came to a couple of critical realizations that day. The first was my personal limit on Keebler Fudge Stripes. The second was nearly as profound: telling a complex story is really hard.
Many brands shrink from that challenge. They dance around tough questions. They hide behind impenetrable language. And, boy, they can overcomplicate just about anything. But Mom sees through the bullshit—she always has. Which is why every time we talk about refining mission statements, writing elevator pitches and creating anything else related to a brand’s story, I make one really simple request of the client:
“Explain that to your mother.”
The first attempt almost always goes poorly. Intent gets muddled, differentiators get flip-flopped with proof points, a stray “synergy” or “revolutionize” inevitably sneaks in there and three minutes later, somebody’s head is in their hands. It’s not a unique problem, and it’s certainly not a shameful one. Hell, I have a hard time explaining my job to my parents… and I’m a writer.
But it is a big problem. Somewhere, somehow, companies lost the ability to articulate their own value—to explain, simply and succinctly, who they are and what they do. Many now spend more time confusing potential customers with empty jargon than they do demonstrating their value. You know it, I know it… Even Weird Al knows it.
I’m not here to lay the blame at anybody’s feet. After all, we’re all guilty of it. We’re abusing language all too often, and that abuse comes in all shapes and sizes. For example:
Stuffing strategic buzzwords and corporate jargon into executive comms, like this layoff announcement: We plan to right-size our manufacturing operations to align to the new strategy and take advantage of integration opportunities … We plan to shift other manufacturing and repair operations to Manaus and Reynosa respectively, and start a phased exit from Komaron, Hungary.
Trying to capitalize on powerful trends with highly-publicized strategic announcements: “For many in the tech industry, ‘blockchain’ and ‘cryptocurrency’ are hot buzzwords, but for photographers who’ve long struggled to assert control over their work and how it’s used, these buzzwords are the keys to solving what felt like an unsolvable problem.”
Or just trying to keep up with the market, as shown in these findings from Quartz: “A search of transcripts of more than 5,000 companies contained in FactSet’s database reveals that “Big Data” has been mentioned during 841 conference calls and investor presentations this year. That’s up 43% from the 589 calls and presentations it featured in last year.”
There’s no simple solution to problems like these. But I’ve got a few thoughts on where to start.
Don’t use your Inside Voices outside.
If your company is like most, you spend all day talking to people just like you: colleagues with insider knowledge of the organization. Jenna from marketing understands that “transforming the way humanity connects” is a rallying cry for your brand. Maggie, CFO, doesn’t have a clue what that means—or how it helps her bottomline. That’s because employees benefit from critical context the customer does not (and never will) have. Next time you talk with a prospect, consider the context they need to understand your message. Simpler is usually better, which takes us to the next point…
If you wouldn’t say it to your kid, don’t say it to the market.
Write for your ten year-old. Don’t laugh, I’m serious! Writing simply and succinctly isn’t demeaning; it’s inviting. By using language everybody can understand, you open the door for deeper, more nuanced questions. You inspire intrigue. And, most importantly, you are heard. When it comes to writing for clarity and simplicity, I use the Hemingway App’s readability tool to keep me honest. It’s not flawless, nor are its suggestions ironclad. But it has the ability to aid you in limiting the utilization of impenetrable or overly complex language that obscures the intent of your message (yeah… Hemingway doesn’t like this one).
Tell your story.
All too often, companies get swept up in industry trends and try to insert themselves into a conversation they’re not necessarily qualified for. This happens all the time with business strategies, but it’s even more frequent in communications. Yes, “big data” comes with enough buzz to earn you a few extra clicks—but describing yourself as a big data company doesn’t make you one. All it does is cloud your message. Stay true to your purpose, your mission, and your capabilities—the most successful brands are honest with themselves and their audience.
Say what you mean.
I love HBO’s Silicon Valley. I especially love this faux-ad (fad?) they created for the protagonist’s company. Since a “middle-out compression system” isn’t exactly intuitive, the company reached for a metaphor. The result? A delightfully meaningless message that says absolutely nothing about Pied Piper. Next time, they might want to consider something that articulates product value. Something Mom won’t immediately identify as bull. Something like, I don’t know, “Shrink your files?” I’ve taken the long road to get to my point, which is that your message must get to the point, and quick—or at least give readers the option to find their way there.
The tl;dr version? Language is the most important—and finicky—tool in a brand’s toolbox. Use it thoughtfully, be rewarded. Hide behind it, get burned.
Cameron Leberecht | Senior Writer
Chicago born and raised, Cameron’s been convincing employers to trade dollars for words since he started college. Now a senior writer at VSA Partners, Cameron spends most of his time translating his colleagues’ strategic genius into compelling stories for clients like Arity, Allstate, CME Group, and Sappi North America—all while moonlighting as an advocate for the Oxford comma. Contact Cameron at email@example.com.