Before getting into the meat of this blog, I need to start with some spoilers and declarations of interest – and, indeed, lack of interest.
First, neither this blog nor the analysis it reports are intended to make any kind of religious point.
This is because second, I’m a godless man, a devout atheist, as content and as convinced in his lack of belief as the most devout believer. That said, I’m no born-again, hardcore-Dawkins, proselytising atheist. I’m very happy for others to choose to believe in whatever god, gods, or Jedi warriors that help them navigate their brief time on this planet. Heaven knows, it’s hard enough. They don’t need atheists giving them a hard time as well.
And third, though originally a classicist, I’m very definitely not an advocate of the old or traditional ways of doing anything – including writing or speaking. As a corporate and brand storyteller, the tenets and principles I hold dear are a blend and roast of ancient and modern, but for me, the establishment is never the starting point. Clarity, simplicity, and purpose matter much more to me – and to impactful storytelling – than any kind of tradition.
So, with the caveats and disclaimers out of the way, here goes.
Earlier this year, here at Insight Agents we published a study into how clearly (or otherwise) the top 50 companies on the FTSE Index communicate. We ran a linguistic analysis of the About Us pages and CEO’s annual reviews in the annual report, and re-ranked the businesses by linguistic simplicity. This was published as the FTSE 50 Clarity Index to mark National Storytelling Week. The original report can be downloaded here, and there’s a blog that explains a whole lot more over there.
We chose these two corporate communication tablets of stone because they are the most controllable and frequently accessed statements of why a company exists (About Us) and the state of the nation (CEO’s annual review). Get these right, and stakeholders inside and outside the business will understand you; get them wrong, and they’ll take a dimmer and rather different view.
While I was writing the report, an analogy popped into my head. Like all analogies, it’s imperfect, and doesn’t compare apples with apples. At least not the same type of apples. What’s more, the analogy is doubtless all the more imperfect because it’s draws parallels from two, metaphorical tablets of stone from Christianity, and as I say, I have always been the most devout atheist.
Consider – not the lilies – but the Lord’s Prayer and the Sermon on the Mount.
First let’s consider Christianity’s About Us page. OK, it doesn’t follow Simon Sinek’s “Why – How – What” prescription, but there are a lot of decent principles crammed in to a finely-wrought 71 words in the King James’ version. It’s a calling card of the Christian Church that even godless folk like me know. We’ve recited it ad infinitum (and sometimes ad nauseam). At school. To mark deaths, births, and marriages. And on those happy and sad and downright dull occasions, we’ve reflected on the meaning and implications of those words, even if we don’t believe they’re anything more than an encapsulation of a philosophy.
And consider the Sermon on the Mount as Jesus’ CEO’s annual review. I’m fairly sure that corporate types who are also Christians would feel happy with Christ described as the CEO, with God as Chairman of the Board, John the Baptist as CMO, and maybe Judas as former – but disgraced – CFO.
But I digress. The Sermon on the Mount is a personal statement from the leader of the organisation and covers a lot of very complex issues in tremendous detail. The King James’ version has 2,470 words, about the length of many a CEO’s annual review. And while linguistic analysis of both texts shows that the prayer (About Us page) is easier to read at first hearing than the sermon (the CEO’s annual review), they’re both considerably more understandable than any of the corporate texts we analysed for the FTSE 50 Clarity Index. There are also some lessons about the language used that all CEOs of the FTSE 50 would be well-advised to heed.
Linguistic analysis of the Lord’s Prayer and the Sermon on the Mount
Both texts are very readable, requiring just primary school education to understand on first reading. The Flesch Kincaid reading ease scores for both texts – above 80 – are in Cosmopolitan online news and BuzzFeed territory, while our CEOs in the original report were more like The Economist in terms of linguistic complexity. And while – of necessity – the number of sentences that have more than 20 and 30 syllables are relatively high for the sermon compared with the prayer (which has none of either), this doesn’t detract from the inherent readability of both texts. Both are strongly conversational, very positive, and – interestingly – strongly female. This means more personal pronouns and less patronising and mansplainy phrasing.
Blesséd are the speechmakers. Or they certainly could be – out of the pulpit and into the boardroom – if they paid attention to the form and structure of centuries-old writing of both the Lord’s Prayer and the Sermon on the Mount.
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 & Purposeful Stories with Data. It was published in April 2018 by Routledge. More at www.narrativebynumbers.com