There’s this game I play with a couple of my friends where one of us starts describing what our company does while the other is armed with a buzzer taken from a Taboo board game.
Any time the speaker spits out a trendy business buzzword (“disruptive”), they get a single buzz. Any time the speaker leans on the crutch of a startup-related platitude (“democratize the web”), they get a double buzz.
The winner is the one who goes the longest and says the most without getting buzzed.
I know. We’re startup super nerds. In our defense, we only play this game when one of us is working on a big pitch of any kind. Be it a sales, investor, or partner pitch — basically, any meeting where the other party needs to quickly understand why they should write us a check.
And I can’t stress enough how important this game has become in terms of clarity when defining our startups.
Startups and the Art of Tossing a Word Salad
A word salad is a term for a collection of phrases that sound impressive but ultimately don’t mean anything.
For example: “Teaching Startup democratizes entrepreneurship by offering a game-changing evolution in access to the corpus of experiential knowledge of the disruptive growth cycle.”
I mean, that’s pretty good. Read it again. It means… something awesome.
That word salad does indeed mean something. It’s just so convoluted and dripping with buzzspeak and platitude-signaling that I’ve taken all the meaning out of it. So I usually go with a version of: “Teaching Startup makes entrepreneurs better by answering their questions.”
I didn’t just pretty up that basic definition with fancy words. I used words that are intended to inflate the value proposition. All those words are true, and they all have meaning.
And therein lies the problem. Tossing a word salad to describe your company does exactly the opposite of what it’s intended to do. It doesn’t inflate the value proposition, it buries the value proposition.
Why Entrepreneurs Overuse Buzzwords and Platitudes
I mean, the short answer is that old standby: “Because we always have.” But the longer answer is that it’s a trickle-down learned behavior.
I was recently asked to go through an exercise to help a company define a position statement. The founders were all large corporation expatriates, so their position statement was actually just a mission statement. Worse, the options we were discussing were just derivatives of several corporate mission statements, resulting in a bunch of what you and I would call slogans.
As we started walking through them, I told them they needed to throw out every single option and start over.
They got mad at me.
When buzzwords and platitudes happen, they usually happen when the focus of the company moves from customer to shareholder. Every corporate journey begins with this transition, as company leadership stops putting the customer on a pedestal and starts catering to boards of directors, quarterly earnings reports, and share price.
I’m going to be a bit reckless with this particular speculation, and this doesn’t include everyone, but it happens enough to be an undeniably visible pattern. Buzzwords and platitudes are used specifically because they are vague and vanilla. They are meant to mask that shift in priority from customer to shareholder.
As a successful startup begins to level up from focusing on customers to focusing on outside investment, they tend to be driven towards those same corporate ends, prioritizing the return to the investor over the value proposition to the customer.
Early stage startups see this behavior in successful later stage startups, and they too copy those same buzzwords and platitudes that have trickled down.
Know Your Audience
Again, that phenomenon doesn’t happen to everyone. But what I do see occurring naturally quite often is the tendency to pitch the startup from the perspective of whomever is doing the pitching.
Salespeople tend to describe their company in strictly customer-related terms. I feel like I have to hit them over the head to get them to stop touting company successes and referencing well-known customers.
Technical founders will give me long lists of specs and features, but not a lot of it means anything in terms of dollars and cents.
CEOs tend to dive straight into their investor pitch, which includes a lot about the market they’re addressing and why, but can be really light on the how.
All of these pitches are valid depending on the time and the place. But the first step to a buzzword-free pitch is to start with a single cohesive description.
Pitch Your Startup Without Buzzwords and Platitudes
- Always start with an overview.
- Know your strengths and your limits.
- Address your customer directly and your solution indirectly.
Always Start With an Overview
A lot of startups don’t think about describing their company until it’s time to either sell the product or pitch to investors. It’s also why positioning is often ignored during the early stages of a company: Why lock yourself into a definition before you have to?
But I learned a long time ago that it’s critical to develop an overview pitch of my company first. I’ll create a generalized pitch that I can then revise for customers, partners, investors, even my Mom, and get them to an initial understanding of what my company does.
Building an overview pitch also forces me to stay away from buzzwords and platitudes because I’m too busy trying to find the right words to communicate the three perspectives (customer-focused, technical-focused, and market-focused) I just discussed into one cohesive story. There’s just no room for filler. For instance:
- Customers. I need to explain how my customers see my product first and foremost because this is actually the only definition that matters. If my customers don’t understand the product, it doesn’t matter how much technical advancement I’ve achieved or how large of a market I can address.
- Technical. This doesn’t just mean code, this is about how my solution works and how it’s different from and superior to everyone else’s. The focus is mostly around competitive edge.
- Market. When I talk about growth, I’m doing so with the perspective of product-market fit. The focus is all about opportunity and potential.
Know Your Strengths and Your Limits
Once you’re ready to take your pitch to a known audience, think about your company, and focus not just on where the strengths are, but also the limits.
I’ll use my own example again: “Teaching Startup makes entrepreneurs better by answering their questions.”
The value of Teaching Startup is currently in its mission. And while there’s a lot more mission behind Teaching Startup than what’s in that sentence, I need to prove out this part of the mission first — to all customers, partners, even investors — before I start changing games and democratizing entrepreneurship.
So I’ll start with customers. They don’t necessarily want their games changed. And although they’re all wonderful and caring people, they’re not coming to Teaching Startup to make other entrepreneurs better, just themselves. When you go to the gym, you’re not there to coach and train anyone else, you’re there to reach your own goals.
Is my solution the best way for entrepreneurs to reach their goals? I think so. But that doesn’t matter. Not one bit. I can describe my solution as “best” or “market leading” or “most affordable” or “innovative” or whatever salad of adjectives and hyperbole I want to use. It means nothing coming from me.
Instead, I’ll use the end of that sentence to dip my toe, so to speak, into the technical, or at least hint at it. There is a ton of value for an entrepreneur in having their questions answered, so that’s where I start. My goal here is to trigger the question: “How do you do that?”
Then I can dive into a buzzword-and-platitude-free high-level overview of all the technology and strategy and processes that make the product cohesive, repeatable, and scalable, which allows me to segue into that final area, the market.
I’ve already kind of started by saying “making entrepreneurs better” instead of “making you a better entrepreneur.” The implication is that this is for all entrepreneurs at all levels and all stages, which opens the door for me to talk about the market opportunity.
Address Your Customer Directly and Your Solution Indirectly
Your pitch, whether a sales pitch, an investor pitch, or a partner pitch, should always address the customer directly.
Believe me, when your audience is an investor, the first thing they will do when you begin your pitch is place themselves in your customers’ shoes. And not just a single customer, but all your customers.
If they can’t do that, or if they’re confused by what they hear, you’re never going to get to the technical or market part of your pitch anyway.
The same thing is true for partners. In order for them to be successful when partnering with you, you have to be a success. If they don’t have that confidence, there won’t be a deal.
You need to state what you do, not how well you do it or why. Those last two concepts need to be indirectly conveyed when you put the pieces of your solution together in clear, simple terms that can be easily understood.
Even by your mom.