Laura Petrolino

Innovation in Business: Why Words Holds Us Back

By: Laura Petrolino | November 9, 2015 | 
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Innovation in Business: Why Words Holds Us BackBy Laura Petrolino

There are many obstacles to successful innovation in business, but time and resources are the ones we often focus on the most.

  • Do I have the creative talent?
  • Do I have the financial backing?
  • Do I have the brain space and time to focus on innovation while still generating revenue?
  • Do I have the tools and technology I need to support my ideas?

The list goes on.

But successful innovation in business requires another very important factor—one that all of us here should be concerned about….

No need to raise your hands class, just call out the answer…

That’s right! Communication.

Internally we must be able to communicate a vision—one that might be very blurry or scattered at the start—to a team tasked with innovation (that team might also just be ourselves). We must being able to translate the idea of something new into words that help give it at least some structure.

Externally we must then explain something new in a way that resonates and helps potential consumers see it as a positive addition to their world view and daily life.

No easy task, especially if the words we have to communicate can’t accurately express the idea we are trying to translate.

Innovation in Business and #FirstWorldLanguageProblems

We talk a lot about how the PR model is broken, and why we must change as an industry, but the problem in many ways is the language we use to describe ourselves and what we do is outdated in and of itself.

Here at Arment Dietrich we’ve struggled a lot to define who we are and what we do in a way that resonates with potential clients.

  • Are we are PR firm? No, not really.
  • We aren’t a marketing firm either.
  • We work in digital communications, but that’s definitely not all we do.
  • We focus on business goals, operations, integration of organizational structure—but we aren’t necessarily business consultants, like you’d think of a Mckinsey, because our focus and scope is different.

So what do you say to someone? 

If you say stuff like “integrated communications,” or “PESO model,” people look at your blankly. Heck even people in the PR industry will often look at your blankly.

We’ve often been told by prospects, “We love what you do and the strategy you are presenting, but we aren’t there yet.”

Why aren’t they there?

Because there is a language gap. They (and/or the C-levels/board they need final approval from) are fluent in old PR language.

We speak a completely new dialect.

Innovation in business (both our clients and our industry) is therefore stalled simple because it’s lost in translation.

Language Lags Behind Innovation in Business

I read a fascinating article years ago about Netflix struggle to define what their original series were.

They weren’t really “tv shows” or “episodes” because they were released all at once, but they served the same purpose, just in a different way.

They only way to define what they were putting out was through archaic language, and it didn’t fit.

As the author chronicled—if you look at our lives, there are many, many ways we are stuck in this trap and use old language to try and express new operations and concepts.

Likewise, we use old icons to visually communicate new concepts (a magnifying glass to search, floppy disk to save, envelope to “get mail”).

So we are stuck in a catch-22. Innovation in business requires language to express it, but language requires innovation to adapt.

Language Anchors Connection

At the same time, because words are for the most part all we have to create understanding and really allow things to exist, we can’t totally abandon old language to describe new concepts and innovation in business.

In order to allow something to resonate in a way that matters and allows any connection at all, “out-dated” language must be used as an anchor.

So back to the example of PR—we have to use language people know to give them an anchor of association for who we are. This helps them with the initial classification.

The art is to engage in a way valuable enough to encourage them to keep walking farther down the road with us and allow us to explain the concept and value of what we do.

It’s not easy, it’s clunky, and for the most part it’s a work in progress.

How do you deal with translating innovation in business when confined by words not created to describe it?

Image courtesy Pixabay

About Laura Petrolino


Laura Petrolino is the chief client officer at Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She also is a weekly contributor to the award-winning PR blog, Spin Sucks. Join the Spin Sucks   community.

  • It’s really hard to think of anything to add because you make a solid point. The thing I was thinking was: sometimes even the absolute best words for a situation don’t help, because the listener doesn’t have enough experience. Therefore, adding to your strategy a testimony/recommendation from one of their peers who have “seen the light” — because coming from someone who is not in the position of selling them something, the info would be taken differently.

  • biggreenpen Great point! This can also increase the trust factor which is inherent with trying something new. Finding those earlier adopters is key.

  • BillSmith3

    So well put Laura.

  • BillSmith3 Thanks sir!!

  • Such an interesting post, especially since I’m a word person. I do some freelance writing for an especially innovative company and find that storytelling — either sharing a customer testimonial (excellent point biggreenpen) or creating a possible scenario — helps customers envision the way a new product provides a solution to some challenge in their lives. Communicating innovation is not unlike having to take highly technical product information, the kind engineers love to fill with jargon only they understand, and write a one-page flyer for sales people to take to prospects. Ugh.

  • BillSmith3

    LauraPetrolino BillSmith3 I’m thinking things are evolving so quickly and exponentially in the business world, not just in the marketing and PR component, the end result is overwhelmed C-suite. 

    Their thought process is probably along the lines of this, “Damn my CMO and Comms director are talking about a wholly different means of reaching my customers, on top of that I see rumblings in Business Insider there’s a start up that could evaporate our business model. Can’t I kick this can down a little bit further so it becomes my replacement’s problem?”

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