The comic Louis CK has this great bit where he laments how over-the-top Americans are when we talk, where everything is “AMAZING!” or “HILARIOUS!” and everyone is a “GENIUS!”
Anybody can be a genius now. It used to be you had to have a thought no one ever had before or you had to invent a number. Now, its’ like: “Hey, I got a cup in case we need another cup.” “Duude! You’re a genius!”
If we are, as CK says, always going “right for the top shelf” of words in everyday conversations, then it’s not surprising that the language of business is becoming pretty hyperbolic as well.
From aspiring entrepreneurs to established CEOs, there’s often too much distance between how leaders talk about their companies and what they really do.
In fact, this overstatement tends to take two distinct forms.
- Leaders of little companies oversell what they can be.
- Leaders of big companies oversell what they are.
The oversell begins with the best of intentions: to excite investors, to engage employees, to win over customers.
But it often ends badly, with damaged credibility, fleeing investors, and disillusioned workers among the considerable downsides.
Here’s how grandiosity can ground businesses large and small.
On the premiere season of HBO’s Silicon Valley, the show takes aim at everyone’s favorite Valley archetype: The hipster entrepreneur.
On the show, some hoodie-clad nerd is always making a megalomaniacal pronouncement about “making the world a better place” or “revolutionizing” an obscure software platform.
In the real Silicon Valley, the messiah act may be annoying. But it’s the overselling of more prosaic matters like the potential size of a market or the workings of a technology that typically gets entrepreneurs in trouble.
The venture capitalist Guy Kawasaki once complained that most of the pitches he got from entrepreneurs were “crap: 60 slides about a ‘patent pending,’ ‘first mover advantage,’ ‘all we have to do is get 1% of the people in China to buy our product’ startup.’”
The frustration led Kawasaki to propose his 10/20/30 rule for all PowerPoint presentations: every pitch should have ten slides, last no more than twenty minutes, and contain no font smaller than thirty points.
It’s an elegant rule to force entrepreneurs to focus on what really matters to investors, but figuring out how to describe what really matters isn’t so precise.
Steve Vassallo, a partner at Menlo Park-based Foundation Capital, says that selling investors on your company “is a delicate balance of audacity and humility . . . of what could go right with what could go wrong.”
Once you’ve found the right investors, you will find that communicating your vision is a 5-minute conversation. Execution, on the other hand, is a lifetime of getting lots of little things right such as hiring the right people, building the right culture, and launching the right product.
Leaders of established companies presumably have better answers to the foundational questions of what their company sells and to whom because they’ve been doing it for longer.
But some leaders have concluded that making good products that people want at a reasonable price is not good enough.
So they go searching for a higher purpose.
In January, the Financial Times reported that “purpose” has become the “preachy new CEO buzzword” at confabs like the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos.
But trouble arises when a company’s purpose is too lofty to be credible or too nebulous to be meaningful.
You can’t define your purpose as “saving lives” when you go to Davos and define it as delivering shareholder value everywhere else.
And you can’t just repeat the importance of being a “purpose-driven organization,” without defining specifically what it means and how it really guides how you run your business.
Living up to noble aspirations gets tougher the larger a company gets. Take Google for example, which once famously proclaimed “don’t be evil” as its guiding principle. Critics have been turning that mantra back on Google ever since, calling the company hypocrites every time their corporate strategies on issues such as labor, privacy, and taxes fall short of perfection.
Leaders sometimes make the mistake of thinking that articulating a purpose is an exercise in messaging or phrasemaking.
People need to be able to understand how core business decisions–how you invest, how you hire, where your philanthropic investments go–flow directly from a company’s defined purpose.
If employees, customers, and other audiences can’t easily make that connection, then your company has the wrong purpose.
The reality is that most successful companies, large or small, don’t save the world, revolutionize an industry, or disrupt an entire market.
And that’s OK.
In an era where everyone is selling hype, there’s nothing wrong with selling competence, understated confidence, and a really specific solution for a well-defined customer need.
For leaders weighing how ambitious to get in defining their company’s potential or purpose, just remember that if you say it, you own it.
If you really want to say your company’s purpose is saving lives or making the world a better place, just prepare to be judged against that high standard.
Your job will be a lot easier if you take the rhetoric down a notch.
Trust me. I’m a GENIUS!
—Ryan Clancy leads the Executive Communications practice at FTI Consulting, where he advises business leaders on communications strategy and thought leadership. He previously served as a speechwriter in the Obama administration for Vice President Joe Biden and Commerce Secretary Gary Locke.