Startups and the Power of Simple Language

October 7, 2015

10:21 am

Even the most brilliant idea will sink quickly if its creator can’t communicate it to a wide range of audiences.

And before you roll your eyes and mutter something along the lines of “Well, duh!” think of the number of companies you’ve encountered in the technology space whose work is simply incomprehensible to anyone outside of the enterprise. You listen to a vague, abstract pitch, nod your head politely and move on to something more interesting. You’re not alone.

Sadly, the inability to communicate in an easy-to-understand way isn’t limited to the technology sector. I’ve sat in meetings with entrepreneurs pitching ideas in personal services or concepts for cool new toys who were unable to explain their concept clearly and succinctly.

The problem often too often starts with a desire to be seen as the smartest person in the room, a desire that’s understandable in graduate school. In the real world, not so much.

Here, for instance, is the way that a smart person might impress his graduate school advisor with a description of the company that I lead as CEO:

“Onstream provides a hybrid deployable stream processing framework performing near-device transformation of raw streams of disparate device data into intelligent action”

Got it? Or did your eyes start to glaze over at the word “deployable”?

In communication, it’s far better to be effective than to be smart. And effective communication begins with some careful thought about the audience.

Are you talking to potential investors in your big idea? Potential customers? Investors and customers are unlikely to be as smart as you about the product you are selling. If they were as smart as you, they might go out and develop a similar product on their own.

Instead, they want to know what your big idea will do for them.

Let’s take another look at that horrible gobbledygook about Onstream. Let’s say it this way, “Onstream helps make dumb devices smart, and connects smart devices so they can become intelligent.”

That’s better. It uses ordinary language and addresses the question that listeners and readers are likely to raise: What does this thing do for me?

But it’s still a little abstract. The audience needs a solid, real-world example to put the concept into context.

“Onstream’s technology has been used to control traffic flow at a big mine to dramatically improve the performance of big mine trucks that burn three gallons of diesel to move a mile.”

The concrete words — “make dumb devices smart” — and the example showing the use of the technology in a way that the audience can envision sets the stage for the next question:

“How does it work?”

That’s the question that many technology entrepreneurs mistakenly want to answer at the start of the conversation. But before that question can be addressed, the audience needs to care enough to listen to the explanation.

Which brings us around, once again, to the need to understand your audience.

You probably wouldn’t use graduate-school language to teach a group of fifth graders.  If they couldn’t understand you, they quickly would become bored and check out. Similarly, you wouldn’t use fifth-grade language to make a pitch to a sophisticated potential investor.

A tip: When in doubt, err on the side of simplicity. You can gauge pretty quickly whether they are ready for more sophisticated language and examples, and you can gear up your presentation accordingly. It’s hard to gear down to recapture an audience whose attention already has wandered.

Most of us live and work in a concrete world. Concrete language and concrete concepts will play a big role in making our big ideas into reality.

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Craig Macy is the CEO of Onstream, a device intelligence framework. Learn more at

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