There is a common trait among leading CEOs and entrepreneurs that sometimes goes unnoticed in mainstream media.
Energy, passion, risk-taker, competitor, ambitious, street-smart and other adjectives are all used to describe successful entrepreneurs and corporate executives.
A less typical description is ‘plain-speaking’. The ability to speak plain English is a mark of simplicity and sophistication—and is a lot easier said than done when it comes to business.
The Oracle of Omaha
The king of plain-speak is arguably the world’s most successful long-term investor, Warren Buffett. Buffett's writings and annual shareholder letters are legendary for containing quotes from sources as wide ranging as the Bible and Mae West.
Buffett also delivers advice in a folksy Midwestern style with a sharp wit and canny sense of humour. This is not by accident though. Buffett is a man who takes his financial writing very seriously and he is well regarded as an expert storyteller by communication experts.
Buffett consistently tries to picture his sisters as his main audience—the reason? Intelligent non-finance people should be able to understand what he is saying.
Apples Ain’t Apples
The actual quote, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication” was used by a business leader who utterly transformed the lives of billions of people. The late Steve Jobs was a bastion for the plain-speak movement.
Jobs borrowed the phrase from another master of elegance, Leonardo Da Vinci, to promote the first line of Apple products in the late 1970s.
Jobs stayed consistent with this approach to simplicity throughout his working life. Take the launch of the iPhone in 2007 as an example—the slogan used for the launch of this new product? “Apple iPhone: Reinventing the phone”. That’s it.
Thousands of years of gradual advancements in technology and Jobs summed up the launch of one of the most successful consumer products in history in three words.
Jobs stacked up quite well against his contemporaries when it came to using simple language. A number of studies have been conducted on the language used by Jobs, Bill Gates and Michael Dell.
Studies have consistently shown that Bill Gates mirrors the vocabulary of a university student—Michael Dell—a high school student, and Steve Jobs? When Jobs spoke and promoted a new product, it was found that he mirrored the vocabulary of a 5th grade student.
It's hard to think that one of the most successful entrepreneurs in history could have comfortably waxed lyrical with a classroom full of fifth-graders.
Further evidence of the link between plain-speaking CEOs and their success as business leaders is highlighted in the book, Why Business People Speak Like Idiots: A Bull Fighter’s Guide, authored by Brian Fugere.
Fugere makes note of the close link between plain-speaking CEOs and resulting admiration among their peers. On the contrary, Fugere found that CEOs who are difficult to understand can be closely linked with scandalous behavior.
Fugere used the Flesch Reading Ease test to assess the language from annual shareholder letters written by a number of different CEOs. The results:
CEOs of admired companies / Flesch Reading Ease Score
That Cat Sat on the Hat
Writing and speaking in a plain manner does not mean you have to sacrifice on meaning and tone—equivalent to dumbing-it-down. Using simple language means you should be expressing ideas in the most straight forward manner that you possibly can.
Doing this is particularly relevant when attempting to communicate with private and institutional investors. Having a clear, succinct and compelling message can be the difference between raising capital, and not raising capital.
Adding more weight—verbose and lengthy prose is usually an indicator that something other than getting a point across is the end-game. It can be the case that the writer just wants to sound impressive, or is attempting to obscure a hidden motive, or make cover for the fact that they aren’t entirely sure what they talking about—as was the case with Enron.
There is a practical way to test the readability of the language that you use in your everyday business dealings. For example, you can use Microsoft Word to conduct a language assessment at the end of every spellcheck by following the instructions in this link. This assessment will tell you what your Flesch Reading Ease score is, along with a bunch of other stats.
If your audience is highly technical and they have a good understanding of what you actually do then measuring your Flesch reading ease is not relevant. It is super important if you are attempting to communicate your story with private investors for the first time though.
Keep It Simple
To sum up: if you are trying to raise capital for your business—or communicating with important stakeholders in general—then aim to write your story as naturally as possible. If you weren’t born as a corporate entity then there is a good chance that you are at least one thing: human. Don’t leave your personality at the front door each morning.
And the Flesch reading ease for this article? 50/100—with a very healthy average of 15.8 words per sentence—well below the maximum recommended average of 20. I hope you enjoyed it. Remember to keep it simple.