Buzz Kill – Entrepreneurs Cannot Afford To Muddle Their Message With Empty Catchphrases

In his book, The Map of Innovation, DoubleClick Co-founder Kevin O’Connor emphasizes the importance of describing your adVenture in clear and concise terms. When discussing his book, Mr. O’Connor often gives the audience a quiz similar to that shown below.

Select the description below that describes an actual software product.

Kevin O'ConnorA. Assimilated, zero-administration, standard database-queuing schema

B. Open-architected, workforce-neutral, productivity assimilator

C. Modularly reduced Graphical User Interface heuristic

D. Profit-focused, fault-tolerant encoding interface

If you can select the legitimate product from the list above, you are well on your way to buzz-cutting through the forest of buzzword BS.

Buzz Off

As Mr. O’Connor points out, “Your prospects are busy people and they don’t care about the innards of your product. They care about finding solutions to their problems.” In the same vein, most people will not care enough about your adVenture to take the time to decipher your corporate communications code. Most customers place zero value on the elegance or depth of your technology and they have no desire to read an academic whitepaper.

Effective corporate communications require you to place yourself in the shoes of your largely uniformed, indifferent audience. As noted in Pulp Facts, your primary corporate communications goal is to generate revenue. The best way to accomplish this is to educate your prospective customers regarding how your solution will resolve their problems, and not bore them with the inner workings of your technology. People care about salving their pain, not the origin, design and composition of the salve itself.

In describing effective writing, the best-selling author Stephen King once said, “Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word.” The natural extension of this adage to the business world is that any word in your corporate messaging that causes your audience to access an online dictionary is the wrong word. To avoid diminishing the impact of your messaging, couch your corporate communications in conventional terms that an intelligent Grandmother would readily understand. If your audience focuses on your words, instead of your message, you are using the wrong words.

Worried that short, simple words will sound condescending? Don’t be.

According to Common Sense Technology, most newspapers are written at a third-grade reading level, White House press releases average a fourth-grade reading level and the New York Times is easily digestible by the average fifth grader.

Still not convinced? In his book Fiction Writer's Brainstormer, James V. Smith applied the Flesch-Kincaid Readability Test to the writing of ten best-selling novelists. Smith determined that the average grade level of their collective prose was 4.4 (i.e., the fourth month of the fourth grade) and that the average number of characters per word was 4.15.

If you are unsure how your corporate communications stack up against these mass-market benchmarks, run your text through the Flesch-Kincaid Readability Test (see the formulas at the end of this entry). If your corporate communications are written at an elevated reading level, then you may alienate potential Stakeholders, including paying customers.

I assessed a few random paragraphs from this entry via the Flesch-Kincaid test and it rated the text at a grade 14 reading level! I clearly have some work to do if I am to obtain parity with the New York Times.

Buzz Index

Overuse of buzzwords is often an indication of the author’s relative lack of understanding of the subject at hand. Although startups are also often guilty of buzzword abuse, Big Dumb Companies (BDCs) are world-class offenders.

You can also utilize the Flesch-Kincaid test to evaluate a BDC’s verbosity. However, a less time-consuming approach to determine the veracity of an organization’s messaging is to simply count the number of buzzwords in its written communications. If you locate more than 10-buzzwords per paragraph, it is highly unlikely the BDC understands the issue being discussed and highly likely the BDC should fire all of its MBAs.

Buzzword BS

“The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.”
- George Orwell

BDCs often abuse buzzwords in an attempt to disguise the fact that its underlying message is not compelling. When entrepreneurs overuse buzzwords, particularly when describing their adVenture, they are potentially involved in one of the three activities described below.

Value Confusion - The entrepreneurial team does not adequately understand their value proposition or the market opportunity. In such instances, buzzwords are used as placeholders to vaguely describe an opportunity that is vaguely understood.

Faux Gravitas - The entrepreneurial team naively believes that the frequent use of buzzwords and industry jargon will add gravitas to their messaging and will enhance its sophistication. In actuality, buzzword overindulgence highlights the team’s lack of maturity and judgment.

Operation Obfuscation - The entrepreneurial team utilizes buzzwords to purposely distract from the inadequacies of their opportunity. This generally occurs when an ongoing venture is unable to execute its initial operating plan and is forced to reposition itself and raise additional funds. This insidious use of buzzwords to hide the ball and disguise the true nature of an opportunity is clearly unethical and potentially fraudulent.

Irrespective of the reason for such buzzword abuses, they are detrimental to an entrepreneur’s ability to effectively communicate his or her message. If you do not clearly communicate your message, you may forgo an opportunity to Thrill The Messenger gatekeepers, who are capable of broadcasting your message to audiences that would otherwise be inaccessible.

Buzz Lightyear Hyperbole

buzzMark Twain once said, “I never write metropolis for seven cents when I can write city and get paid the same.” The payoff for avoiding buzzword purgatory is significant, because use of clear, concise messaging will ensure that your employees, potential investors, customers and other Stakeholders will understand your adVenture’s mission and thus the specific manner in which they can help your company achieve its goals.

Avoiding buzzword BS might just empower your adVenture to live up to Buzz Lightyear’s hyperbole and propel it, “to infinity and beyond.”

Quiz Answer

If you do not have an answer in mind, go back and take a second look at the quiz at the outset of this entry.

And the answer is…

…none of the above. All of these “products” were created with a few clicks of a buzzword generator. There are a number of them available online. A few include:

Flesch-Kincaid Formulas

Readability Test

readability test

Grade Level Test

grade level test

Copyright © 2008 by J. Meredith Publishing. All rights reserved.


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John Greathouse is a Partner at Rincon Venture Partners, a venture capital firm investing in early stage, web-based businesses. Previously, John co-founded RevUpNet, a performance-based online marketing agency sold to Coull. During the prior twenty years, he held senior executive positions with several successful startups, spearheading transactions that generated more than $350 million of shareholder value, including an IPO and a multi-hundred-million-dollar acquisition.

John is a CPA and holds an M.B.A. from the Wharton School. He is a member of the University of California at Santa Barbara's Faculty where he teaches several entrepreneurial courses.

Note: All of my advice in this blog is that of a layman. I am not a lawyer and I never played one on TV. You should always assess the veracity of any third-party advice that might have far-reaching implications (be it legal, accounting, personnel, tax or otherwise) with your trusted professional of choice.

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