My company recently ran a job ad for someone to help out in our thought leadership content department. Essentially, the position involves learning what our clients do for a living and coming up with good ideas to get them more exposure. We gave all the people who applied a test. The test presented them with the websites of two B2B businesses and asked them to explain in 6th grade English how each company makes money. There were no restrictions on how they could obtain this information (including calling the company and asking them directly), and there was no time limit.
Out of 94 applicants, only 1 passed the test.
I was shocked. My conclusion: either communication skills are in a serious decline in the U.S., or businesses have become super hard to understand. We spent a while trying to figure out which one was causing this mass misunderstanding. Here is what we found:
First, explaining anything in 6th grade English is a difficult task that 95% of people cannot do. So let’s just work with the 5% of people to whom clear and simple communication comes naturally. I genuinely believe that all of those people could pass the test we issued. And in fact, we only gave the test to people whose resumes impressed us and whose cover letters had no spelling or grammar errors. That narrowed it down to a small group of intelligent people who are good writers. The fact that only 1 of 94 intelligent people who are good writers could explain what a business does for a living told us that many B2B businesses probably can’t explain what they do either.
My own experience backs up the fact that there is a clarity problem in the business world. I speak to groups of CEOs about 35 times per year, and before every speech I get a list of attendees so I can check out their websites. Now, as a person who has worked with hundreds of complex B2B businesses over the past 6 years, I think I’m pretty knowledgeable about the types of companies that are out there. But time after time, I find myself staring at the home page of a website unable to figure out what the business actually does for a living.
To wit, here is the actual text of an About page for one of the companies I’ve presented to:
Jones Medical Company, Inc. (JMC) provides comprehensive management services to networks of health care professionals, emphasizing a personalized approach to meeting each one of our client’s needs. JMC offers sophisticated healthcare management by integrating advanced technological solutions with a coterie of seasoned, highly knowledgeable staff members. JMC has a proven track record with successfully managing diverse networks in a rapidly changing environment along with the inherent challenges associated within the industry and the populations served. Innovation and our commitment to top quality cost effective patient care contribute to the ultimate satisfaction of our clients.
I choose this example not because it’s the worst About page ever written (there are loads of knee slappers out there) but because it’s a pretty average example of the way most B2B websites are written. The company who published this paragraph is successful and has smart leadership. And yet, I had to read it three times before I even began to understand what they actually do.
Explaining what your company does to potential clients should not be the equivalent of an SAT reading passage. Rather, it should be the equivalent of a local news segment: short, entertaining, and made for consumption. You might say “Well, I have a very sophisticated client base.” But no matter how technical your clients are, some folks reading your website will be CEOs and other executives who don’t “talk shop” like certain members of their team do. Those people will greatly appreciate a clear understanding of what your company can do for theirs. A key principle of conversion optimization is convincing people that your ideas are worth adopting, and you can’t convince people of the value of your ideas if they can’t understand them.
So let’s do away with unclear words. One of the worst offenders: “solutions.” It seems half the businesses out there offer “solutions.” What exactly does this mean: that you provide the answers to problems? Well great, but that’s pretty much the definition of a business. If it didn’t solve some sort of problem, people wouldn’t pay for it.
We all know from experience that tired language blends in with its surroundings. You could write “We provide IT solutions for legacy enterprise systems” or instead you could say “We transform old hardware into the latest, cutting-edge technology.” The second sentence not only helps me to understand what your company does; it intrigues me.
If you take a look at your website right now, you’re likely to find some vague language. Please, for the sake of people who wish to part with their money to buy what you sell, tell them what you do!