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Big business not telling stories clearly

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The biggest businesses in Britain consistently fail to get their message across clearly. They use language that is too complex on two of the best-read corporate texts: the About Us web page and the CEO’s review in the annual report. These are the findings of a new study we’ve just commissioned and published to mark National Storytelling Week, which starts on Saturday 27 January.

The analysis allowed our researchers to rank the 50 largest companies on the FTSE 100 by simplicity and clarity of the language they use, to create a new FTSE 50 Clarity Index. None of the ten largest companies by market capitalisation features in the top 10 of clearest-talking businesses. Aviva was rated as the best communicator of the 50, and four of the top ten in the Clarity Index are financial services business – RBS, Standard Chartered, and Standard Life Aberdeen, as well as Aviva. BT Group appears to be living its 1990’s advertising mantra “it’s good to talk” by ranking second overall, while media conglomerate WPP would be well advised to employ (another? a different?) one of its creative agencies to bolster its lowly 29th place.

Too often, businesses don’t talk or sound like people. What companies say about themselves sets the tone for how they are perceived, and the About Us page of a corporate website and the CEO’s annual review in the annual report are two of the best-read corporate texts. Our report shows that the biggest businesses in UK plc routinely squander the opportunity to tell their story clearly. In the always-on, on-demand, on-my-terms digital media world, companies should talk clearly and simply. Otherwise, their customers quickly get confused, lose interest, and look for a clearer-talking competitor.

Other findings in our study include:

  • About Us pages are easier to read than CEOs’ annual reviews, but both could and should be much simpler than they are.
  • CEOs’ annual reviews – the chance for bosses to talk directly to stakeholders – are too often dry, confusing, overly formal, impersonal, and relentlessly male in the language they use.
  • The annual review from the only female CEO on the FTSE 50 – Emma Walmsley of GlaxoSmithKline – was ranked the 48th “most male” of all 50 CEO reviews. Only Compass Group and Associated British Foods’ CEOs wrote in a more male way.



The report can be downloaded from http://insightagents.co.uk/national-storytelling-week-2018/

This research and analysis for this study was conducted by researchers from the Catalyst Scheme at the Sussex Innovation Centre based at Sussex University. They harvested and then analysed the text from the About Us pages and CEOs’ annual reviews from annual reports for the 50 biggest companies on the FTSE 100.

National Storytelling Week is held each year by the Society for Storytelling. This year, it runs from Saturday 27 January to Saturday 3 February. More details at https://sfs.org.uk

Sam Knowles
Sam Knowles is Founder & MD of Insight Agents. He helps companies, brands, and third-sector organisations find simple, true, and authentic language. This gives them the tools, permission, and confidence they need to communicate effectively. His purpose is to help organisations talk like people.

Sam has recently written a book called “Narrative by Numbers: How to Tell Powerful and Purposeful Stories with Data”. It will be published in April 2018 by Routledge.