Why Does Business Talk That Way?

Nov 1st
posted in

It goes like this.

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Place gun to my head. Pull trigger.

How many times have you come across corporate-speak and thought “who are these people trying to kid”? Yet, when many business people sit down to write, that is the sort of thing they invariably come up with.

Why?

Because they are business people. They are talking about business. That is how business sounds.

Well, it’s how they think business should sound, because that’s the way it has always sounded - a monotone drone of description, chest puffed out. These people are stuck in the business-speak echo chamber.

No one sounds like business-speak in real life. If you ask someone how their job is going, a lot of them will invariably say “it sucks”, "too busy", "it's okay". These same people might work for the firm that has says they were nominated “best place to work”. The image and the reality don't match. At best, people will ignore business-speak. No one really believes it.

There are better ways to communicate.

Truth

A lot of business-speak fails to communicate because it isn't rooted in truth.

I once worked at a Telecommunications Company. The marketing team was having a meeting about a new brochure and came up with the slogan - I am not making this up - "(Company Name) - first in service!". Once I stopped wondering how any of these people ever managed to land a job in Marketing, I asked how we knew we were "first in service"? It seemed a reasonable question, but I may as well have asked the Pope if he really believed in God.

Apparently, it was self-evident we were first in service! There was no basis of truth in it, of course. Just an empty slogan, meaning nothing. No measurement. It was a phrase that "sounded positive!"

I doubt any customers believed it, especially those waiting in call queues.

Do you notice how some small companies try to appear large? They list multiple offices, when in, reality they consist of two guys who have a call forwarding service. I’m not quite sure why a company would pretend to be any bigger than it actually is, because as soon as they get a customer, they are going to get found out. The feeling they’ll likely leave with that customer is that they are fundamentally dishonest.

Which is a strange approach to take.

Many customers consider small to be an advantage. Small can mean you are more connected with your customers as there is no barrier between you and the customer. They can talk directly to you. They can email you. They can see you Twittering. Many customers love that. Big companies have “policies”. They have call centers. They have barriers to entry. It’s no wonder they talk in business-speak. It’s just another means to keep people at a distance.

Small companies sometimes try to appear big because they think they need to be big in order to attract big companies as clients. This is sometimes true, but mostly false. It is true that big companies often like to deal with other big companies, mostly so they can successfully sue them if they stuff up. It is false because smart big companies will know a great idea when they hear one, and size simply won’t be a consideration so long as the small company has got something the big company wants.

For example, I mentioned I’d been reading “The Pumpkin Plan” recently. There is a story about a tiny two person company. They came up with a new way of marketing pharmaceuticals.

One major problem many pharmaceutical companies face is that they need to change their marketing approach in different regions, even though they are marketing the exact same product.

In some areas, they have to market based on price (Los Angeles). In other markets they need to influence the cardiologists (Boston). In other areas they must talk directly to African-American patients (Atlanta). Exact same product, different marketing strategy for each city. Get the strategy wrong, and they waste a lot of money and lose market share.

Two guys came up with a way to crunch the numbers that tell pharmaceutical companies exactly what the biggest driver of performance is in each territory.

Through a network of colleagues, they managed to land a meeting with a pharmaceutical company. Not just any meeting - they go straight to the top floor, and talk to the Chairman Johnson & Johnson Pharmaceuticals. They barely get five slides into their presentation when the Chairman stops them to call in his VP of marketing. They both love the idea! This solves a big problem for Johnson and Johnson. The result is that this two person company lands 500K worth of business on the spot, $4m worth of business in the first two years, and $14.2m by year four. They expand, of course.

So, they were two guys pitching to one the biggest pharmaceutical businesses in the world. They landed millions of dollars worth of business because Johnson and Johnson like their idea. They didn’t need to convince Johnson and Johnson they were anything more than two guys with a good idea. It didn't require any business-speak about mission statements, just a focus on finding and solving a real problem.

Tell A True Story About You (And Them)

If you’re ever tempted to write business-speak, try telling a story instead. Turn your pitches into stories. Turn your proposal into stories. Turn your presentations into stories. Make them true stories. Tell them in your authentic voice. People love to be told a story as stories are both familiar and revealing. A string of facts is never going to have the same impact. Business-speak will invariably leave an audience focused on their smartphones.

A story can be about how you solved a problem in the past. A problem just like the one your prospective clients are having. What was the problem? Why was it painful? What did you do to solve it? What was the result?

Easy and memorable. You can structure almost anything as a story. Stories move from the status quo, straight into a crisis (business problem), then the crisis is resolved, and a new status quo is reached. Start with a problem. Explain why it is painful. Bring in the hero - you - and tell them what you did to solve the problem. Then tell them the result - the new status quo.

Are you more likely to recall the text of my opening paragraph, or the story about the two guys pitching to Johnson and Johnson?

Stories can be so much more effective than business-speak.

Published: November 1, 2012

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Comments

November 1, 2012 - 1:37pm

Yes this "brochure-speak" is common everywhere and your parody of it is scarily accurate. It's not only the "we're big" lexicon of clichés though. There's also the "we're fun and zany!" image a lot of web dev / SEO companies like to portray - it just comes across as fake and unoriginal (in late 2012), even if some of them really are fun and zany (who the hell cares anyway, I'm paying for a service, not personalities). Then there's the "passionate" image companies love to push too - they're so busy talking about how passionate they are about this, that or the other - and then behind those words, there's just no actual substance - no nuts and bolts. Then there's businesses that simply can't say anything at all in plain English and you simply do not know what it is they actually DO - but hey - who cares, because they sound really, really clever. Somewhere along the line, there is actually a distinct lack of REAL passion within these companies.

November 2, 2012 - 1:23am

"I'm paying for a service, not personalities ... there's just no actual substance"

When one is lacking in substance, one must sell image & the perception of a lifestyle.

November 1, 2012 - 1:49pm

Good post , its always suggesstable to be transparent in busines relationships . It has helped me a lot .

November 2, 2012 - 8:33am

I've been a salesman for 20 years before falling into SEO in 2009.

I can remember several sales managers I had that went to see clients with me.
They we're suprised when I started talking about one or two of my other clients.

Why did I do that ?

Simple, real stories to tell about how our products solved promblems.

No slogans, no "our product is the best" no none of all that.

Just stories, proof, sories, proof.

My managers always said "I don"t agree with your method but it works" so they had nothing else to say.

It all boils down to being honest at what your doing really.

That's how I sell SEO today and it works very well.

I just created an optimized brand content marketing agency in Paris with 3 other people specialised in marketing and PR relations.

They have a tendancy to talk slogans.

My answer to that is always "Yeah, the slogan is great, how are we going to prouve it ?"

Silence...

I'm putting in a BIG effort on educating my clients about the benefits of a Blog to create information about their business without saying "buy our products" all over the place.

A few have understood the importance of writing real stories about their business and it works well.

This post is going to serve me well

Thanks a lot.

November 13, 2012 - 11:11pm

Great post, Peter. I especially like your second main point about telling stories. Storytelling is one thing that will never die when it comes to marketing. I feel like a lot of companies are still in "push mode," meaning that they constantly shove content down the throat of their customers. Instead, they should focus more on the aspect of creating context, or a conversation, with their customers.

Back to your second point about storytelling...

Stories are contextual. People engage with stories because they usually contain things that we can all relate with, and that's why they have worked in business for thousands of years. Small town rules are back and companies need to be aware of how "business speak" will make your customers turn to a human for their needs.

November 15, 2012 - 8:00am

"Stories are contextual. People engage with stories because they usually contain things that we can all relate with, and that's why they have worked in business for thousands of years."

Spot on, Zachary. Context is everything.

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