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Why business leaders should always use very plain words to describe what they want

By Andy Bass


 “Your mission, if you can understand it … “

The publisher’s editorial assistant had irritating news for me.

“The lawyers are saying you can’t include that anonymised mission statement in your book because it belongs to ABC Corp (a Fortune 500 company – not their real name), and it’s a violation of their copyright.”

“Damn,” I thought. “It’s such a good example of a lousy mission statement. I really want to use it.”


Read it for yourself:

“We are a market-focused, process-centered organization that develops and delivers innovative solutions to our customers, consistently outperforms our peers, produces predictable earnings for our shareholders, and provides a dynamic and challenging environment for our employees.”

You can see the problem: it’s worthy-sounding, but it’s so abstract and anodyne that it lacks any focus. What does ‘process-centred’ even mean, for example? How would we know we were being ‘dynamic’? The statement does nothing to convey the purpose of the business, and consequently won’t help decision-making at any level in the organization.

I was annoyed I couldn’t use the example because it meant a substantial rewrite of the chapter. Then I thought, “Hang on. I didn’t get this from ABC Corp! I’m sure I got it from XYZ Inc.”

So I googled the full text of the statement. It turned out that sixteen US companies were using exactly the same text!

It’s not likely that these are going to be innovative and differentiated businesses, is it?

Plain words facilitate decision-making

Some companies avoid the jargon and get to the point. For example, in contrast to the sixteen lazy, converging copycats, Google declares its intention to gather the world’s information and make it useful and accessible to all.

The beauty of plain words like this is that they can be used by people to make intelligent and strategically aligned choices. Google employs creative and brilliant people with wide and varied interests and encourages them to innovate. It would be easy for them to go off on what the lawyers call ‘frolics of their own’.

Instead, they can say ‘I have this idea, but is it helping organize the world’s information?’ and act accordingly. That means Google Books is in, as is Google Calendar. But what about the company’s more recent efforts in pursuit of glucose-sensing contact lenses or longevity? It’s significant that the company reorganised as Alphabet, with Google as a division. This allows the wider business to pursue a range of other bets without diluting the core that drove its growth and still supplies the lion’s share of returns.

Plain words keep customer experiences consistent with your brand

IKEA’s stated intention is to improve everyday life for the many. While this clearly relates to decisions about their product range, I found that it extends to their after-sales service too. When I bought some bookcases from IKEA and got them home, I found that one of the backboards had split. I couldn’t be sure, but based on the shape of the hole, it looked like I broke it when transporting it home. I went back to the store prepared for an explanation, and if necessary to pay for a replacement. But the assistant took one look and said: ‘I’ll get you another.’ No discussion of what might have happened to the board. It certainly made my ‘everyday life’ easier.

Plain words guide daily behaviour

The Vision Express organisation has nearly 400 retail optician stores in the UK operating on a franchise model. My local store is operated by an energetic French entrepreneur called Benoit. It’s very successful.

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Ben is very conscious that most of his employees are younger than his core customer base (i.e. people like me coming in for our varifocals!). He says, ‘I tell all of my employees to treat those customers the way you would treat your Mum or your Dad.’

That means ‘take the care to make sure their glasses are right: they look right, they don’t pinch, they’re polished correctly.’ It means: ‘don’t try to sell them something they don’t need, but do recommend something that, although it may be more expensive, will be better for them. And just be patient while they are trying to make decisions about frames and lenses.’

‘Treat them like your Mum or your Dad.’ It doesn’t sound like much, but it is an effective guide to behaviour that – without attempting to dictate every detail – captures the essence of Benoit’s approach in plain words. It shapes the whole experience of shopping in his branch, and ensures wonderful repeat business and referrals. It’s no coincidence that Ben has been Manager of the Year several times for running the most profitable store in the company.

Articulating your business’s essence in plain words

Avoid management jargon and use vivid stories and word pictures. Here are four tactics:

  1. Share war stories or anecdotes about moments of truth: FedEx famously has loads of stories about heroic efforts to deliver parcels – these stories provide role models by proxy.


  1. Illustrate your values: One professional services firm made energetic efforts to illustrate its new list of values by finding real examples in plain words. In the case of the value client service, it found and spread the story of clients who got lost on the way to a meeting and were rescued personally by an associate who drove out to them and led them back to the firm’s office. The client has never stopped talking about it, tells anyone who will listen, and wouldn’t dream of taking their advisory work anywhere else.


  1. Use vivid metaphors: One Japanese car manufacturer (Honda, if memory serves) coordinated a design team by having them think of all design elements as fitting for ‘a rugby player in a dinner jacket.’


  1. Gather customer testimonials for internal consumption: In many businesses, employees rarely meet customers. My experience is that they love hearing about them. Customer videos can communicate to your people more vividly than any PowerPoint presentation.

In summary

The following logic is inescapable: results follow from behaviours, which follow from decisions, which are shaped by the clarity of purpose and priorities—the intent—of the leader. If you try to articulate that intent in vague terms, you can only hope for vague results.

People in all roles can only decide and act appropriately if they are clear on how your intent is meant to play out in the real world – leaders need to articulate the essence of the business in plain words.

About author:

Andy Bass


Andy Bass PhD is author of Start With What Works: a faster way to grow your business, published by Pearson Business. Read a sample chapter and download resources here

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