How to Translate Vendor Talk into Plain English

My job as an industry analyst is listen to pitches from different vendors, from small startups, to the web giants. I get paid (yes I’m a professional BS filter) to listen to their pitches –and then translate it into reality for reports and for our clients, the buyers.

Here’s a few things I’ve learned to translate, and I’m going to share with you here now –so you, as a buyer, will know the danger zones when you’re buying from a vendor. In most cases, you can skip the first 5 slides of any presentation, a great time to fiddle with blackberry, smack talk on twitter using your iphone, start a game of bullshit bingo, or figure out a way to sound relevant.

How to Translate Vendor Talk into Plain English

The Famous Two by Two Grid
For some reason, vendors think anything in a chart is believable, even if they made it up themselves! Typically, in the first five slides of a presentation, there’s a two-by-two grid (image: sample grid, not for re-use) where the vendor always positions in the top right. The competitors are scattered in all the other quadrants, but are never more further ‘up and to the right’ than the vendor. The funny thing is, the X and Y axis are often criteria that you won’t find on any research report –and every vendor’s 2×2 is different so they’re ‘up and to the right’. Update: I forgot about this post from former analyst Carter Lusher, now AR advisor, he says to get rid of grids all together.

Translation: We know up and to the right is best, so we created our own X and Y axis labels, we’re hoping you won’t read the small print “tallest CEO” or “best ping pong players in support”

We’re the “Industry Leader”
I’ve heard this one over and over, in fact everyone’s an industry leader at something. “Industry leader at wom in Facebook in Tuesdays” or “Industry leader in community interactions in Fresno at YMCA” The trick here is to ask them who determined they were the industry leader, and if the category is large –and believable enough.

Translation: Leading is a good term to use, but the size of the industry and how we segment is up to us, don’t ask questions as we’ll just tell you “We’ll get back to you on those details”

The Logo Smorgasbord
Vendors love to put many logos on one of the first 10 slides, it’s meant to amaze you and show that they are with it with the big brands. The trick here is that even the smallest of deployments will validate a logo on that slide –and sometimes without the permission of that brand. If you’re interviewing competitors you’ll notice that many of them share the same customers as others in their space, it’s likely true. I often see Cisco, IBM, Microsoft, and other big tech companies on nearly every logo slide from even competitors.

Translation: The more logos we cram on here the more you’ll be impressed, if you rotate your head back and forth real fast, it’s kinda like a kaleidoscope…but digital.

The Fallacy of Vendor Math
You’ve probaly heard vendor math before: “We’ve 39 of the Fortune 50” or a variation on a theme “17 of the top 20 pharmaceutical companies use us”, or we’ve 150% year on year in new clients in enterprise space. While factual, deciding on numerators and denominators can be tweaked to fit the needs of every vendor. Secondly, the universe of “Fortune” companies changes annually, if not more frequently. Vendor math may sound impressive –but it’s likely skewed, of course, this is coming from the 7th most popular Jeremiah above in most Google searches. (thanks to analyst for this one Laura Ramos)

Translation: Whoever told you numbers never lie was right, ‘cept perspective is a son of a gun. We didn’t want to tell you that 150% year on year growth of new enterprise clients could be going from 2 customers to 5 (but one was my brother’s company)

Our Many Awards
Everyone loves a shiny trophy, and we see accolades and awards from just about every vendor. Contests from blogs, conferences, editors, and even analysts. With everyone getting awards, and touting it too, it’s hard to put any real value on any of them.

Translation: We’re hope you’re impressed with this shout out and award from this blogspot blogger in 2005 –it’s hanging next to our elk head in the den by the wetbar.

Most Successful Investors Ever
Hearing about investors is common in the nascent social media space, so there’s often a slide on company stats that touts the experience of the management team and vision. Notice that Reid Hoffman is on everyone’s investor slide? Me too, I think he’s invested in the entire internet!

Translation: Reid invested in the whole internet! No seriously, he really did! (Ok really it’s about 60 companies, but using Vendor Math, that’s nearly the whole internet, at least the north west side of the ‘nets.)

Now if you’re a vendor (or perhaps their PR agency), don’t be offended and use this information to improve your communications. In all due fairness, if someone has a list of ‘translating Analyst/Client speak’ I’ll link to it here too (I made fun of myself here). Oh, and for the record, Reid Hoffman really is successful, and I’m scheduled to meet with him soon.

Have you heard any other vendor talk that can be translated into regular English? If I like em, I’ll add it to the above and credit/link to ya!

Update: Who’s the best at making fun of vendors? Independent Analyst Jon Toigo who covers the storage industry created this creative spoof gallery clowning on the 3 lettered storage vendors (IBM, EMC, HDS, ESS-HP, NAP) I used to work at HDS, and always admired his photoshop skills. I think I’m going to start one for social media vendors, hmmmmmm.

50 Replies to “How to Translate Vendor Talk into Plain English”

  1. How do you propose someone (vendor or PR Agency) really uses this “information” to improve their communication? This is fun piece, but overall not actionable.

    I think most of these slides have a place (maybe at the back of a 10 slide pitch) but they are not “useless” slides.

    Most every pitch sounds, looks and feels the same these days anyway. In the words of (I forget who) the great “Everyone in the world should use the same PowerPoint slides and be done with that”.

  2. Jeremiah, great insights and so true. I too have seen my fair share of same style presentations over and over again.

    Another claim I like is the 99.98% or similar variation of either “server availability” or some other type of service metric. Of course when you ask them to put it in writing, the claim comes with all sorts of caveats.

  3. I actually find the 2×2 matrices useful to look at. It gives you a picture of how the vendor views the world. The axes are what makes all the difference – do they adequately capture the critical success factors for that particular industry?

    Agree on the logo page. Ick. Case studies are so much more relevant.

    I still see the hockey stick slide on occasion. I still use the big “markitecture” slide that lists every conceivable feature, API, partner integration.

  4. Jeremiah – Sadly this is spot on. My personal bugbear is that no software vendor will ever admit to having any competitors. Apparently they are unique. And yet when I worked at a vendor, their sales conferences featured signs with “Kill !!!” – which may have been a little extreme but I suspect isn’t that unusual.

    Mukund – Are you a vendor by any chance? Experienced software purchasers will be mentally groaning when they see these slides. They detract from your core message: what you will do for them.

    Sarunas – Ah ha! The old “99.98% server availability but only if you run it on a vegan SuperComputer in Utah” claims.

    This is a take on my own recent discussions with vendors:

  5. Matt

    I rarely hear vendors tell me they have no competitors –that’s absolute hockey crack. I just made that term up “hockey crack”, btw, I haven’t heard the term “bugbear” since D&D was the rage. Enjoyed your blog post, brochures eh?

  6. Good stuff, JO. Also means that mktg and sales are tough jobs, albeit not always on the mark.

    In sw, someone with no competitors may also mean, there’s no market opportunity for that solution.

    Only 1 start-up going IPO I’m aware of with virtually no competition – Could be considered a hardware vendors though since hw required by the restaurants.

  7. 2 short reflections:

    1: Since vendors are not idiots, what does that make us buyers to them?

    2: Vendors maybe are of old families? “I,ve inherited these pp-slides from my great grandfather and they’ve been good enough in every company I’ve worked for…”

  8. There seems to be a kind of communications fallacy amongst vendors that using such terminology portrays sophistication and credibility. Once plain English has been deviated from I usually suspect someone is hiding amongst the detritus of jargon. Sometimes the ‘odd metaphor or two’ can add colour (I quite like turning spaghetti into lasagna when discussing layered architectures), but a metaphor-fest turns into stand-up comedy all too quickly. Any time I ever see a draft internal presentation I always ask for citations on any charts / graphics. Dry running presentations with an internal ‘prove it’ audience really tightens this stuff up and removes unsubstantiated claims. Then again, we are all children of the era of political and media spin and some people just get swept along with their own optimism and rhetoric.

  9. Jeremiah,

    Great post, worth a sequel on what you’d like to see.

    Like: I appreciate your comment on logo pages, but they can work if talked through by s/o w/ knowledge of what the issue was, what the solution is and what the results are.

    Any other suggestions to tackle this and show market momentum?

  10. Guilty of the Grid Technique – but not ashamed. People can relate to it and it can be useful to highlight market positioning.

    The value of the grid relies on the relevance of what is on the axis. This should link to your core positioning

    As a vendor you should be clear on what is is that distinguishes you form competitors and adds value to your customers. This is your unique value statement. Plot yourself against competitors on this on a grid and naturally you will be placed in the top quadrant.

    As per an earlier comment – I would agree that this is more towards the back of your slide pack.

  11. Hilarious! I’d prefer to simply have a conversation and skip slides altogether. But, many prospective customers ask for the info you point out. Maybe everyone should go back to using slides as secondary media to support what they say, instead of making them the main “entity” during the meeting. Also, does it help if all of our quotes and graphs come from Forrester reports? 😉

  12. Interesting and I agree with you. Everyone is trying to find a niche and be “the leader” in the niche hence the dance around.

    Now reading your comments I think you should publish a guide for vendors on “how to talk in English” when they engage with Industry Analyst.

  13. Mukund if the only action you take from this is to remove the word “Leading” from all PR and marketing materials, then Jeremiah will have earned a spot in heaven.

    (Is that “leading the witness” or “leading the witless”?)

    Esther Schindler
    senior online editor,
    who getting the lead(ing) out

  14. Hi Jeremiah,

    Excellent post as always. A couple of points.

    Logo Smorgasbord “ Another problem with the logo page is that is often does not support the key messages of the presentation. Frankly, customer logo slides are often copied from colleague™s presentations with no thought about how it will support what the vendor is trying to get across. We recommend that vendors list their one to three key messages (fewer is better) for a briefing in a row then list in a column under each key message “ in plain text “ the customers that support that key message. Cleaner and ensures the customer examples support the key messages.

    Partner Logo Smorgasbord “ A variation of the customer logo slide, the partner logo slide compounds the clutter by adding dreaded shaking hands clipart to signify partnership. Rather than expand on the above here is a post on the partner slide

    Completely agree with on the The Famous Two by Two Grid, which we call the Pseudo-Magic Quadrant ( Total cliché and a waste of a slide.

    Keep up the good work highlighting how vendors can be more effective in briefing the analyst community.

    Carter Lusher, Strategist

    SageCircle, analyst of the analysts and AR best practices

  15. Reading this just made me smile. Just think how many Vendors receive “pitch coaching” from so-called experts and sales trainers. This blog ought to be required reading for all of the above.
    To be remembered: only a small percentage of the population, let alone musicians, have “perfect pitch”.

  16. Interesting post but I think the premise is a naive. The purpose of the vendor presentation, be it for analysts, investors, or customers, is to set the scene for the conversation that comes next. And vendors often don’t have a lot of time to bring everyone up to the same level for that conversation, so they use these shortcuts to get everyone on the same page as fast as possible.

    Every one of your “issues” with vendor presentations serves a purpose –

    Grid – who we are, who else is in our market, and where we think we fit

    Industry Leader – this is the core value proposition. Do you think a vendor isn’t going to put a lot of thought into exactly what they say they’re the industry leader at? And, as a customer, do you really want to do business with a company that thinks they’re not a leader at something?

    Logos – we play well with the other vendors you use. This is often a critical validation slide in sales calls.

    Vendor math – again, this is who we are and who are our customers, defining market segment and providing validation

    Awards – further validation (We didn’t just dream this up, other people think it’s cool too)

    Investors – another critical one for young companies. As a customer, I have limited time and attention to validate what you say, but investors do a lot of due diligence before getting involved with a company. If they think you’re OK, it makes me feel better.

    This post really is a cheap shot at vendors who are trying to get their message across as quickly and effectively as possible. If you can think of a better way, please let us know.

  17. Very true, very sad, and very dull. I think the main reason vendors include these slides is simply that everyone expects these slides to be there. It allows the presenter to warm up with “the basics” before talking about the product itself.

    As an analyst, it must be mind-numbing to sit through the standard presentation deck over and over again. But is it useful to customers, who may not be familiar with the space?

    And what’s the alternative? I’d prefer to skip this stuff and dive right in to the guts of the presentation, but that seems risky to some.

  18. Nigel

    There’s a difference between hyperbole and straight talk, I know you know the difference as that’s what you do for a living. Judging but what I see on a weekly basis, as well as some of the comments here, sounds like I’ve highlighted the need for your services.

    It sounds like you got your work cut out for you, and vendors should pay more attention to communicators, perhaps you can help.

  19. Dean

    Unlike other analysts, I only allow for 30 minute briefings, I expect clear concise communications, as well as leave room for questions.

    I have a lot of meetings, and many, many vendors in my nascent market, so it’s almost out of need. In most cases, they, or myself choose to move pass the hyperbole slides.

    In many cases, the best “briefing” I’ve had was a casual visit from one of the execs –folks like Jive’s Dave Hersch (Jive), Aaron Stout (Mzinga), Lyle Fong (Lithium), and David Carter (Awareness) have done this, come to mind, (although I’m sure there are others).

    The fact is, I can remember where we sat, and what we talked about –without going to my notes.

  20. Jeremiah – from the vendor side, thanks for the constructive criticism, although I must say the constructive aspect is not immediately apparent.

    ‘Tis true the 6 slide flavors you mention are pretty common, and I know any of us would take pity on the poor soul who would be subjected to a parade of vendor prezos containing an undifferentiated, unimaginative pile of cookie cutter slides.

    Being one of a handful of ppt junkies at Pluck I can tell you that we consolidate about 4 or 5 of the ones you mention into one quickie slide. Don’t typically do two-by-twos about ourselves. But point well taken, and I understand this is common.

    I agree with Mukund’s comment regarding “actionability” of your observations. In the spirit of making this exercise more constructive for those of us on the vendor side, I’ll share with the group here what I believe to be the purpose of each of the six slides you mentioned, and let’s see if we can get get some creative ideas/alternatives flowing on how to convey the important points in way that is more interesting, less coma-inducing for the buyer.

    1. Two-by-Two
    Purpose: What (we believe) we’re good at relative to the competition.

    2. Industry Leadership
    Purpose: We are the best in the space (this is usually aspirational).

    3. Customer Logos
    Purpose: Credibility; name brands trust us, and we’re a safe bet.

    4. Growth/Success Stats
    Purpose: Demand for what we’re selling is headed in the right direction – that means its good, and worth the price.

    5. Awards
    Purpose: We are recognized in the industry; we’re not the only ones who think we’re great.

    6. Investors
    Purpose: We are backed by “smart” capital, and we’re funded to be a long-term partner

    A few good suggestions/alternatives that have been offered so far:

    * Have a grid, but be clear on what is is that distinguishes you form competitors and adds value to your customers.
    * Use logos as handles for actual case studies.
    * Be conversational, use slides in support of that, if needed.

    BTW, Jeremiah how does Forrester (also a vendor) rate on the above slides in its own marketing and sales presentations?

  21. Adam

    I came across snarky didn’t I? I admit, I had fun with it, but despite the criticism, it’s opened a great dialog here, if it was a bit over the top, I apologize for that. Either way, let’s get to the meat of it:

    This isn’t a critique on powerpoint itself, but really on hyperbole vs facts. You get that, as do others who’re commenting here.

    Some responses:

    1: Why have that grid at all? Unless it’s from a third party, how can it be objective? Or is the argument, we know it’s not going to be objective as it’s a sales presentation. We should really thing this through.

    2) Agreed, inspirational.

    3) Depends, some vendors slap on logos even though they’ve done very little work with that vendor. It’s about deeper credibility, not just merit badges picked up at thrift store.

    4) Maybe we need to think about some more standard metrics that can help buyers compare apples to apples. The wave meets this need. I’ll think this through more –I may have a solution here.

    5) Ok, makes sense.

    6) Also agree.

    Enjoy your point about being conversational. What’s the biggest piece of advice I give to presenting vendors? “Breathe” It gives me a chance to ask a question.

    Regarding Forrester’s presentations, I have no clue, but I’ll forward this post to my friends in sales to find out.

  22. @jeremiah, informal discussions are good no doubt, but its not scalable (if you have to talk to 10-20 analysts, press, prospects etc). What you are indicating I think is use different slides for analysts vs. press vs. customers. Which makes sense, since you are indicating that analysts dont care about these slides. I can agree with that.

    BTW check out Forrester’s slides. Its got EVERY one of these slides. I have one from 2003.

    @Esther – sure, but shows how little understanding there is of the vendors needs by press and analysts. Propose a differentiation (which you all ask for anyway and still beat up vendors when they give it because you dont want to acknowledge it) strategy please for the vendor.

    @Matt – I have been at both ends. These slides have value – for some audience, customers. Maybe not for analysts.

    @Adam good points.

  23. I really enjoyed reading this – it was fun – but I have to say, blaming the 2×2 grid on vendors is really the height of irony, when it is the analysts who have pretty well foisted this thought tool on the industry! (or was it the business schools… chicken, meet egg. egg, meet chicken)

    At any rate, I think Nigel has it right – if done well, what each of these slides TRIES to address should be addressed – but it is probably worth thinking about other ways to get there than the standard logo slide for example – and make sure any awards are actually awards with significance… basically apply some common sense to the presentation-building process.

  24. Mukund – The question of audience is really important. If the audience have never sat thru a vendor presentation then these slides will seem fresh and impressive. One issue is that many vendors have standard presentation packs that get used regardless of audience. “Ms Vendor – do you know who your audience is or are you churning out the same presentation you always give?” is a question that needs to be printed on the front of the ppt packs.

    Adam – Vendors can mention growth claims by all means but should expect audience members not to accept them at face value and likewise with claims about awards and investors. The two key things are:
    – People are buying our software and it’s good for them. That sounds like case studies. And how about getting a customer or two to present your deck instead with the vendor staying silent?
    – We won’t go bust in the near future. How about opening your books up?
    I don’t expect vendors to do either of these things as a matter of course just yet. BTW have you read Presentation Zen? Lots of ideas for good presentation techniques there.

    Jeremiah – No “No Competitors”? And yet I hear it all the time. Either i. vendors think customers/resellers are more gullible than analysts or ii. the size of the companies I deal with (typically at the smaller, younger end of the spectrum) might mean that they perceive what they do as genuinely new. They certainly have issues positioning & marketing themselves (hence the “brochure” comment). Hockey-crack? Nah, gibbet-pockle.

  25. Jeremiah – thanks for the plug 🙂

    Yes, absolutely there’s a difference between hyperbole and substance, but I suspect a winning pitch contains a little bit of both.

    Good discussion.

  26. Scott

    Glad you found the humor in a real topic that I live. I’ve never used a 2×2 grid in my work, except to play “tic tac”.

    You can’t do “tic tac toe” unless you have a 3×3 grid…I learned that in business school.

    Kidding aside, we’re hearing all the issues come up in vendor communications that we should: audience, objectives, delivery, marketing, hyperbole and conversation.

  27. Great post and right on, Jeremiah. I can say we’re guilty of some of this vendorspeak in our PPT slides, too.

    But, ahem, Forrester seems to be a big fan of using X-Y grids, too 🙂

    Bryan | @BryanPerson

  28. The GUTSY way to do the 2×2 grid is to ask the CUSTOMER to make up the axes…and put you and your competitors on the grid. It will quickly let you know if you are wasting your time with any customer…and also, give you valuable feedback on what the customer values.

  29. Nice post. It certainly brings up weak points in the standard vendor pitch.

    I’d be interested in seeing a follow-up post that has your Top 10 things a vendor can do to get your *genuine* attention.

  30. This was a fun read, particular the comments are at times side splitting.

    I blogged on a related topic last year how vendors can make outrageous claims in the particular niche I serve (content technologies). The link is here if anyone’s interested:

    I’ll add that sales people tend to move from company to company, so their training and approaches to these kinds of presentations becomes rote — almost like a lifeless etiquette that goes unquestioned.

    Sometimes I wonder if the right approach is to bring a sealed vat of raw sewage, place it on the desk of the analyst/customer/whomever, gesticulate at it and say “we don’t do that kind of work. Would you like to learn more?” Maybe that would get the audience’s attention, plus then you can forgo the PPT deks.

    Just one approach — hey I wonder if Jeremiah’s now going to get a slew of presenters back to back over the next few weeks toting vats of…

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  33. Vendor speeches are not quite appropriate for getting attention of the buyers. If a vendor’s behavior is polite and speaks quite gentle and plain English, the buyers are very much attracted to buy their necessaries from that store rather than that of who’s vendor does not possess a good behavior. To learn and speak English one can follow some rules and tips which I got from this site: You can check it if you like. Thanks for sharing such valuable thoughts, Owyang.

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