A version of this article previously appeared in Forbes.
Serial entrepreneurs agree that it is best to communicate with investors in clear and simple terms. To illustrate this point, former Founder and CEO of DoubleClick (acquired by Google) and Graphiq (acquired by Amazon), Kevin O’Connor, often begins his entrepreneurial talks by asking the following question:
Select the real software product from this list.
A. 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
“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, British Author
The correct answer is… none of the above. All of these “products” were created with a few clicks of a buzzword generator.
As Kevin 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 investors are too busy to decipher obtuse buzzwords. If your pitch deck cannot be comprehended by an eighth grader, it’s probably won’t be read by the typical investor.
Effective corporate communications are not just applicable to investors. You must also place yourself in the shoes of other uniformed and indifferent stakeholders, including: customers, partners and suppliers. Do this by crisply explaining how you will resolve each of these constituents differing 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 painkiller.
Stephen King Startup Tip
In describing effective writing, the best-selling author Stephen King notes that, “Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word.” In business, 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 the National Adult Literacy Survey, “The average adult reads at the 9th-grade level. This accounts for the fact that the popular blockbuster novels are written at the 7th grade level. People like to read recreationally two grades below their actual reading skill.” Not surprisingly, newspapers’ reading levels range from ninth to twelve grade, with the New York Times comprehensible by the typical High School sophomore.
There’s no question that they average stakeholder can comprehend language above a seventh grade level, but since most of our daily communications are in the Junior High reading range, text significantly more complex quickly becomes burdensome.
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 following Flesch-Kincaid Readability formulas.
Grade Level Test
Your college English Composition Professors be damned, literary flourishes written at an elevated reading level may alienate potential investors and customers.
By the way, I assessed a few random paragraphs from this entry via the Flesch-Kincaid test and it clocks in at a grade 12 reading level! I clearly have some work to do if I am to obtain parity with the New York Times.
Follow John’s startup-oriented Twitter feed here: @johngreathouse.
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