I was at a post-networking lunch talk a month ago by Angels Den founder, Bill Morrow (g'day, Bill), in which he enumerated the five simple questions that business angels ask of early stage businesses looking for funding.
Number one, which 31% fail on - a bit like falling at the first fence in a horse race - is, "What do you do?"
Yes, you read that right. Three in ten business owners are unable to explain what they and their business do for a living, without descending into jargon, techno-speak and fine detail, presumably leaving their audience either bewildered and confused, or feeling like pouring petrol over themselves and lighting matches.
Of course it's not confined to business owners. The inability of most of the population to communicate verbally and (especially) in writing, has deteriorated markedly since the days when I were a lad. Even the Financial Times managed to mis-spell Murdoch's name IN A HEADLINE last week. (I bet some sub-editor's still got a sore arse).
It came home to me most forcibly when my children were at school in the 80's and 90's, bringing back missives from teacher, including the Head, riddled with spelling mistakes, grammatical errors and hopeless punctuation. Since they themselves had clearly never taken on board the lessons of clear, accurate writing, how could they possibly pass on such skills to their young charges?
Well that generation is now doing the entrepreneurial thing, starting new businesses with zeal and gusto, but while they may be world experts in text speak and Twitter (no, I'm not going there again), getting messages across about their businesses' features, advantages and benefits tends to elude them.
So what can you do about it, I hear you ask (don't I?)
And the truth is there is no quick-fix solution, but there are some initiatives you can take to try to minimise the damage.
ARE YOU TAKING IT SERIOUSLY ENOUGH?
OR AT ALL?
The thing is, if you can't summarise in a simple elevator pitch to potential investors in your business what it is you do, how on earth are your customers going to figure it out? How much business are you missing out on, because you fail to communicate adequately the benefits of dealing and trading with you?
I know, when I ran my marketing services agency, that clients tended to pigeon-hole what we did in terms of the first job we did for them. If it was sales promotion work, we were a sales promotion agency; if it was design of communications materials, we were a communications agency; if we ran a sales incentive, we were an incentives agency. Extending our sphere of activity beyond that first project was always a challenge, however we communicated our 'offering'.
This was brought home to the business's directors most tellingly at a sales training weekend we ran for all our customer-facing account handlers - there were about a dozen at the time, including the owners - and the trainer asked everyone to stand up in turn and give an elevator pitch for the business. And everyone, including the three directors, stood up and said something different. Oh dear, we thought, we don't even know ourselves what we do and stand for.
Whether you're a one-man band or a multi-national conglomerate, if the key players in the business do not take time (that magic disappearing ingredient) to sit down and thrash out a clear statement of what the business does (and what it does significantly better than its main competitors), and who its core business prospects are, there is little chance of communicating your wares effectively to your key markets, whatever channels of communications you use. Take time to sit down and work out exactly what it is you do, in less than 20 words.
In terms of weeding out poor use of English, I would say four things:
1. The tendency to say it doesn't matter, because 80% of the population are ignorant anyway, is both arrogant and ill-conceived: the 20% who do know better are very often the decision-makers or in positions of significant influence.
2. Even if you can't right the inadequacies of a late 20th century education, you can employ people - whether freelance or on the staff - who do know the difference between "Eats shoots and leaves" and "Eats, shoots and leaves" (a book, incidentally, which should be required reading for all; I also recommend its parody, "Eats, Shites and Leaves" - yes, it does exist.)
3. If you can possibly afford to, employ a professional copywriter to produce business descriptions that sell, in terms that your target markets will understand.
4. At the very least, find a competent proof-reader/editor who you can rely on to run through the most important elements of your marketing communications - website, brochures, advertising - and key sales presentations to prospective clients.
In other words, take it seriously, and do something about it. And if you're still not convinced about its importance in the grand scheme of things (you're probably not still with me anyway), it's your loss.
Can I beg a small indulgence from the minority of loyal readers who consistently read all my missives, even down to this end-piece?
I recently met an animator (Lawrence Constantine at Walk The Dog Studios in Birmingham: plug for him) who offered to do a short animation of me presenting my business, for my web-site, and the result is now up on my Home page: www.hilltopconsultancy.co.uk
Boy, it's pretty weird, seeing yourself in cartoon form.
David Croydon: 01844 238692 or e-mail email@example.com