A Seattle-based writer is getting some notoriety for a pretty mean-spirited article he wrote about Startup Riot Seattle 2012. He describes it as "an American Idol for startups" and denigrates nearly everything about the event, the startups, and the attendees.
But if you can get past the insults and snarky invective, the writer hits on something that should resonate with all founders and startup teams -- the language you use to name and describe your product is absolutely critical, and cliches and buzzwords can destroy an otherwise good idea.
They praise the “cool ecosystem” between a traveler and a concierge. They assure each other that ““Our retail metrics are cost-effective.” They use “input” as a verb, as in, “They turn to our app and input the selections.” “Mobile multitasking in real time” is a promised result. Nobody communicates, they “engage.” Everything is “curated.” They pronounce “integral” like “in-trickle.”They ask each other, “What’s the biggest challenge going forward?” and they decide together that “it’s a marketing challenge, at the end of the day.” They discuss how one app is “a purpose-built tool” with “added value.” There are no words, no photographs, no graphic design. It’s all “content,” which is “consumed.” The event’s website features a Twitter testimonial that reads, “Startup Riot was so good yesterday I couldn’t tweet. I was just deeply engaged in meaningful 1-on-1 conversations.” It’s linguistic nihilism, in which everything means nothing and nothing means anything at all.
The big problem is the cliches and extraneous words. This world of business, these job creators, have specialized to the point where they have developed their own language. This is normal, but the problem is that their language is as tepid and lifeless and dumb as any language that ever existed.
The problem isn't that words like "engage," "curated," and "input" are grammatically or colloquially incorrect. The problem is they have no flavor. To those of us who read and hear about new apps, services, or startups frequently, these words become background noise -- a generic drone with no vitality or punch. The best pitches are those that toss these linguistic crutches to the side and stand on their own two feet.
Obviously I have a special interest in this stuff -- we're hosting our second App It Out contest at the Future of Web Apps / Future of Mobile conference in London this fall, and I'd rather get excited about an app that lets me "dominate the produce aisle" than "interface with my preferred grocer."
I've been writing professionally for almost 10 years, and I know how hard it is to avoid cliches. But it must be done. IT. MUST. BE. DONE. The best advice I have for any startup or founder crafting a pitch for an app contest or anything else is to forget about writing and focus on editing. Some folks chew their nails off trying to come up with the perfect pitch on an otherwise blank screen, when the easier way to do it is to write what comes to mind first -- including all the cliches and boring phrases -- then go back and fix it. Look at each phrase one-by-one and think about the best possible way to say it. Then move on to the next idea, and so forth. Pretty soon you'll have a tight, clear, vibrant pitch that will land squarely.