When entrepreneurs think about how to expand their companies and compete with gusto, they tend to focus on the obvious: sales, R&D, distribution, pricing. It usually stems from their backgrounds. Those who excel at sales believe that all problems require a sales solution. I once had a client who was an engineer who suffered from the bells-and-whistles syndrome -- he never saw a problem that couldn't be solved by adding another feature.
Maybe they're right. On the other hand, that new sales strategy or technical improvement isn't going to be of much use if you can't explain it properly -- to employees, clients, and the world at large. And when it comes to using language effectively, most business leaders fall woefully short. They certainly lag their peers in the political sphere, where well-crafted terms such as "culture of life" and "death tax" have shifted public opinion and even legislation. In his recent book, Don't Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate, linguist George Lakoff argues that the way a position is articulated, or framed, is a key driver of how it will be received. Not surprisingly, the book has become a bestseller in Washington, D.C.
Lakoff's book contains valuable lessons for business leaders, who I think pay insufficient heed to the way their messages "sound." These days, purchasing decisions -- whether in the conference room, supermarket aisle, or voting booth -- are made as much on the basis of how a message is articulated as on the content of the message itself. The failure to recognize that the sound of strategy can be as important as sales and technology is a big mistake.
Of course, even the cleverest language can't sell something people don't want to buy. (Anyone want an "Ownership Society" T-shirt?) But words can be an incredibly powerful tool. Consider the memorable bit of linguistic magic wielded by Scott McNealy in 1996: "The network is the computer." With just five words, the founder of Sun Microsystems undermined the importance of the mainframe and placed the Internet at the center of the computing business. It's a great example of how head-turning language can recast a business or marketplace.
Focusing on the way your company communicates compels you to set aside what you think about your business and instead be open to what others -- who, after all, are the ones who matter -- might think. I once had a client that had spent many years -- and many millions of dollars -- creating a powerful database of historical financial data. It was a significant achievement, and the company, rightfully proud of having pulled it off, was eager to cast itself as the leading provider of historical data. I reminded the company of an important fact that had gotten lost in the process: Customers do not want data because they are historians. They use it to help predict what's going to happen next. Armed with that insight, the client switched from selling the past to offering the future. Guess which one commands a higher price.
Refining your company's message is an ongoing process and it requires considerable discipline. At the same time, it's crucial not to lose sight of how others are using language to cast you. In a recent open letter, Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott remarked that "most of us at Wal-Mart have been so busy minding the store that the way our critics have tried to turn us into a political symbol has taken us by surprise." It's easy to question how surprised Scott, one of corporate America's toughest executives, really was. But it's a cautionary tale nonetheless. Every company is a potential Wal-Mart. If you're not going to frame your business yourself, someone else will be happy to frame it for you.
Adam Hanft is founder and CEO of Hanft Unlimited, a Manhattan-based consulting, advertising, and publishing firm.