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© 2010 Ugur Akinci
Movies come with taglines that summarize the story in a hurry.
- ALIEN (1979): “In space, no one can hear you scream.”
- ERIN BROCKOVICH (2000) : “She brought a small town to its feet and a huge corporation to its knees.”
- FARGO (1996): “A lot can happen in the middle of nowhere.”
- STAGECOACH (1939): “A Powerful Story of 9 Strange People!”
- DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944): “From the Moment they met it was Murder!”
Corporations also do have taglines but we call them mission statements that summarize what a company does — hopefully.
As this Wall Street Journal front-page story describes it, some companies are so well-established that they don’t even need such a written-down statement. Cases in point: Coca Cola, Ford Motor Co., Disney, etc .
But others, that is to say, a vast majority of corporations, are not that lucky. They are in a constant battle to define who they are since that self-definition is vital to their communication with their customers.
A corporation that cannot communicate what it does, will not be successful in the long run. That principal axiom is the reason why corporations are at an endless struggle to define their boundaries in a way that would not leave anything out while still being comprehensible to their target audience. In that effort, failure awaits if the doze of high-sounding abstraction is not kept under control.
Here are some examples from the WSJ article:
“World leader in creating and sustaining safe, comfortable and efficient environments…” What Ingersoll-Rand company actually manufactures is “locks, air-conditioning equipment, and battery powered golf carts, among many other things.”
“The global leader in active and passive safety…” In reality, TRW Automotive Holdings Corp. manufactures “brakes and safety belts.”
How about this: “[Cognizant Technology Solutions] will leverage an innovative outcome-based, managed services engagement model with committed productivity benefits over the long term.” (Huh?…)
Corporations like these are in a dilemma. On the one hand, they want to describe what they do without leaving anything out — which can be “mission impossible” for a company like 3M that manufactures well over 55,000 products of all kinds.
But they also don’t want to create a blanket of fog while trying to sound important, global, and substantial.
“Sounding important” can certainly be achieved by abstraction.
After a certain level of abstraction, however, the mission statement severs its contact with reality and at times crosses over into the domain of unintended-humor. So there is a really delicate balance between comprehensibility and inclusiveness that needs to be preserved.
This is pretty much the same goal espoused by the Plain Writing movement which defends in all business communications the kind of English that can be understood easily by an average high-school graduate. Yet as the examples above show, some corporate slogans muddle the waters to such a degree that even people with graduate degrees cannot understand what the company is exactly doing. Clearly, such corporate messages need to be overhauled and rewritten to reveal the core functions of the organization without creating any ambiguity. When customers have question marks in their minds, they delay their buying decisions. It’s as simple as that.
Technical writers can help companies upgrade their mission statements by clarifying corporate core functions and rewriting those statements at a minimum level of abstraction, without keeling over into the territory of obfuscation and counterproductive euphemisms. They are well-trained to do that.