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May 7, 2019

How (Not) to Describe a Startup

Summary:

Who’s ready to sign up for “a suite of legacy planning solutions for high-net-worth individuals that offers wealth accumulation, asset diversification, wealth distribution, business continuity and exclusive access to ‘proprietary investment advisory service’?”

If you’re like me, your eyes glazed over during that long list of similar-sounding services that followed “individuals.” Why not just end the description there and come back later to whatever is relevant? [The company is real, but I see no need to name it and embarrass it.]

Maybe you’re excited about “a radical new solution: a modular, trainable, award-winning, ready-to-use Artificial Intelligence construction kit.”

Or, like me, maybe you’re wondering what that construction kit constructs. And why do we need so many modifiers?

Perhaps you thrill to hear about a startup that will “identify, develop and adopt emerging technologies…that are fast, reliable and right for our customers.”

But maybe you’d be happier if the writer left the thesaurus in the desk drawer and chose a single word each time, rather than three. Something like: “We work with emerging technologies to help our customers operate faster.” By the way, what’s with specifying that you’re going to do something right for your customers? Might you ever admit to doing something wrong for them?

As you might imagine, we took company descriptions seriously during my days at Wall Street Journal, where I developed my curmudgeonly feelings long ago. Let me suggest some traps to avoid, based on my experiences there.

We needed to describe every company immediately after naming it, but article ledes rarely exceeded 25 words, so you couldn’t have a long description if you hoped to communicate anything other than the company name and description in the first sentence. Besides, long descriptions are unreadable, and you try to engage people with the lede, not scare them away. (A friend once got punchy late in the day and filed a short item that began, “Playboy Enterprises Inc., the purveyor of fun and frolic….” Fortunately, I read even the short items as they passed through me on the national desk, and I fixed the description, or my 17-year career at the WSJ might have been a two-year career.)

My thinking on company descriptions evolved when I became the No. 2 person in the Chicago bureau in the early 1980s. We covered a host of food companies, and it didn’t help readers much to just describe Esmark as a “food conglomerate,” especially when that was the same identifier used with Consolidated Foods (such a helpful name). I began to have reporters list a few of the products from each company—e.g., Sara Lee desserts for Consolidated Foods—to help readers get a feel for it.

In the end, I evolved a two- or three-step process that could help all of us understand startups faster and stop scratching our heads after reading a news item: 

  • Have a super-short description—maybe two to seven words—that you use in first reference.
  • Develop a clause that you can use at the start the second paragraph. So, the lede would be begin, “Esmark, a food conglomerate, said….” The second paragraph would start, “Esmark, which makes x, y and z….” This clause, while longer, still has to be simple. You’ll lose people if you have a bunch of ideas embedded in it, nested inside each other with commas, or use it to provide a list of complicated ideas, as in my example on legacy-planning solutions.
  • Go ahead and produce a full paragraph on what you do and put it at the bottom. (At least at the WSJ, we had readers trained to skip there once they had ingested all the news they wanted and needed a bit of background.) But skip the jargon. Use short sentences. And give us a for-instance: “Our company/product lets customer X do something (very specific) that he/she/it couldn’t do before, producing Y benefit.”

While you’re thinking about descriptions, I’ll ask you to indulge me in four smaller ways:

  • Cut way back on the word “new.” You can’t create an old product or technology, so why do you keep telling us you’ve created a new one? “New” only makes sense if you could put “old” into the sentence and have it still read right.
  • Cut way, way back on “proactive.” Verbs are actions, so you don’t need to tell us that you’re “actively” working with clients or whatever. Yet “active” turned out not to sound strong enough to corporate writers, and they tacked “pro-” on the front, even though the prefix’s meaning overlaps so much with “active.” Business writers wanted us to know that they are actively, actively taking action. Please don’t. “Proactive” only makes sense if you’re drawing a sharp contrast to something reactive.
  • Don’t ever describe something as a “value-add.” If it isn’t adding value, why are you doing it? If there’s actual value, then why not take four or five words and specify what that is?
  • Stop with the word globs. For reasons that have never made sense to me, business writers often take a bunch of ideas and smash them together as modifiers for a noun, forcing readers to untangle the word globs to understand who is doing what to whom when and why. Just a couple of prepositions here and there and the occasional verb would let the ideas flow in their natural sequence and be much easier to read. A simple example: A startup described the “business insurance application process.” Isn’t it easier to grasp “the process of applying for business insurance”? It is for me.

There, I feel much better now after the venting. I hope you do, too. If you know someone who could benefit from this advice on writing (and there are a lot of them out there), please pass this commentary along. Thanks.

Paul Carroll
Editor-in-Chief 

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About the Author

Paul Carroll is the editor-in-chief of Insurance Thought Leadership. He is also co-author of Billion Dollar Lessons: What You Can Learn From the Most Inexcusable Business Failures of the Last 25 Years and the author of a best-seller on IBM, published in 1993. Carroll spent 17 years at the Wall Street Journal as an editor and reporter; he was nominated twice for the Pulitzer Prize. He later was a finalist for a National Magazine Award.

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