Before you grimace, let’s get one thing straight: this post doesn’t necessarily concern marketing or advertising; it concerns writing clearly and concisely. Yes, I’m going to use businesses’ websites — which are essentially marketing and advertising avenues — as examples. And sure, as the title states, I’ll help you define a product and service, which borders on marketing talk. Rather, I hope if you take anything from this, it will be how to better define all the things.
Before we get into the specifics, what makes for a quality definition? In 1998, author and researcher Simon Winchester had his book The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary published. On page 151 he described five basic rules for writing dictionary definitions. They are:
1. Put the word in a class and then differentiate it “from other members of that class.”
2. Describe what it is rather than what it is not.
3. Don’t use words more complicated or “less likely to be known than the word” you are trying to define.
4. Ensure all the words used to define the word can also be found in the dictionary.
5. If more than one meaning exists for the word you are trying to define, state the additional meanings.
6. Do not talk about Dictionary Club.
Winchester provides us a solid start in deciding what makes for a quality definition, but let’s focus primarily on items two and three. Time for an example. What is boccie? Boccie is “a game in which players roll heavy balls across an area of ground and try to get each ball to stop as near as possible to a smaller ball.” Merriam-Webster tells us what it is and uses non-complicated words to do it. Most anyone with a basic English vocabulary already knows what words like “game,” “ball,” ground,” and “roll” mean. The writer has also written concisely: the definition doesn’t explain all the intricacies of the game, instead focusing on providing the basic premise of the game in as few words as possible.
However, while being thrifty with words, the definition also seems to not be miserly, meaning it gives you enough information to place the newly defined concept into your memory bank. Later, if you wish to know more, you can investigate the topic in a book about the game or an encyclopedia. Some may perceive this as expanding the original definition, and in a sense this additional background research is doing just that. But once all the intricacies of the game are learned from research and possibly practice, could those same people distill the game down to as concise an essence as the dictionary? It takes effort, right?
I find Twitter to be a delightful tool for practicing concise writing. Messages or “tweets” on the social media service have a maximum length of 140 characters. This often gets the creative juices flowing regarding what is essential to what you wish to say. Additionally, I stick to full words and complete sentences in all but a handful of cases, rather than using shorthand like “2” for “to” or “too.” (I’m occasionally guilty of using the ampersand in place of “and” when I simply can’t find anything else to cut.) On Twitter, I also try to capture the essence of what I do professionally while also keeping it interesting, all within their 160-character bio space limit: “I’m a freelance professional who writes, edits, and teaches and tries to find links between them all. I also have a life-long fascination with travel.”
My profile tells users what I am — or at least how I portray myself on the service — and includes language that isn’t overly complicated, at least for other people interested in writing, editing, and teaching. The “definition” is concise, and just like the concept of “boccie,” if someone wants to find out more about me, they can access additional resources like my website or LinkedIn page to get a better understanding of what I am and do.
Now that we have at least a rudimentary understanding of what makes a quality definition, I want to turn to the marketing and advertising world to see how well they state “what it is.” I’m going in this direction because of the research and writing work I do for one of my clients in the laboratory informatics industry. Through that client over a period of more than three years, I’ve examined the offerings of over 500 business entities via their websites. What is their product and what does it do? For now, I’ll focus on the “what it is” portion. Every product entry has a largely one-sentence statement that almost always comes directly from a quote from the company website. “Product X is a Y system designed to do/provide Z.” I’m intentionally looking at the vendor’s web page for a distinctive “is” statement that early on distills the essence, the meat of the product into one descriptive, concise sentence. Let’s look at some examples:
1. CSC LIMS is a laboratory information management system (LIMS) that “increases the speed and efficiency of laboratory activities, helping you deliver improved patient outcomes.” (Source)
2. LabCollector is a modular laboratory information management system (LIMS) that “can be used in a variety of different situations and labs.” (Source)
3. QuaLIS is a laboratory information management system (LIMS) “that helps global organisations to standardise on a single LIMS system.” (Source)
4. AgiLIMS is a laboratory information management system (LIMS) “for laboratory analysis and control.” (Source)
5. “CI-Master is a competitive intelligence application developed in line with the following principle: ‘Competitive intelligence is a process that deals with the identification, critical analysis, structuring, capitalization, management and targeted distribution of sensitive, mission-critical information.'” (Source)
6. VisuaLab is a laboratory information management system (LIMS) solution for veterinary and comparative pathology laboratories. (Source)
The content describing the first piece of software, CSC LIMS, first describes a problem and a solution to the problem. Then a description of what the product is follows, propped up as a viable solution to the aforementioned problem. The company actually first states “CSC LIMS helps staff track samples and testing processes, share results with other healthcare professionals, monitor costs and create extensive reporting, while complying with industry standards and protocols.” This isn’t a pure “is” statement; instead they use the route of a more potent action verb like “helps,” which is great! The attempt to define what the product is ends up being a bit lengthy, but I call this a very good attempt at remaining concise yet descriptive. In the end, I opted for the shorter quote (as stated above), which appears later on the page.
What of the second example, LabCollector? If not a subpage, you’d expect the front page to at least give a solid “is” statement for its flagship product. The writers for this website trip and stumble with statements like “[t]he main concept behind LabCollector LIMS is that each scientist in the lab can manage quickly his data and make them available to the rest of the lab members.” Sure, it gives me an idea of what the software should do, but guess what? A laboratory information management system (LIMS), by definition, is inherently designed to manage and share data. So instead of making their product stand out, the writers simply repeat themselves: the software is a LIMS that acts like a LIMS. Later they provide other “is”-like statements to flesh out what the software does, but in the end they nearly break another rule of writing a good definition: don’t make your definition self-referential or circular. What makes LabCollector a well-defined, distinctive product? Well, I’m not sure without researching further. Some potential customers would have already moved on.
The description for QuaLIS suffers slightly from a heap of “what it is.” The writers chose to define the software in a bunch of “is” statements crammed together, resulting in an acceptable if not boring introduction. This method certainly doesn’t provide one powerful sentence that captures the essence of the program. QuaLIS is: “an enterprise scale Web based LIMS,” “agnostic to server platform OS,” “works with any SQL compatible database,” “a multi-site capable solution” … Did the writers just take a feature list and turn it into a bunch of “is” statements? Ho-hum, humdrum. Moving on.
French company AgiLab begins with “AgiLIMS is the LIMS (Laboratory Information Management System) solution for laboratory analysis and control.” This certainly was written concisely, but I’m left wanting just a little bit more. The software is a LIMS for analysis and control labs. I know what all those things are, and if I were shopping for a LIMS, I could use this beginning statement to decide if I should continue reading based on the type of laboratory I have. In that respect, this definition seems adequate. Does it make the product stand out from other such systems? Not so much.
Item five, CI-Master, suffers from a lack of conciseness and a bit of circularity in its definition, but the writer was certainly moving in the right direction! The introductory “is” statement would look better as: “CI-Master is a data management application that helps users identify, analyze, manage, target, and capitalize on their sensitive, mission-critical information.”
Finally, the VisuaLab page fails to give the reader any definition of what it is, opting instead for a list of features. Feature lists are definitely beneficial, yet many companies are quite stingy with publishing such details, usually preferring you to contact them for more information. That said, the VisuaLab page certainly could benefit from a small introductory paragraph with an opening “is” statement, setting the stage for what makes it stand out as a product. This seems like a missed opportunity.
Hopefully I didn’t bore you with too many examples. However, I wanted to clearly provide enough of them to point out what I see on a near daily basis: writers failing to understand a product or service well enough to provide a more concise and powerful “is” statement. I should also add that strong action verbs like “help,” “provide,” “support,” etc. often act as an even better alternative; “to be” has its uses, but some writers tend to overuse the verb. Whether you’re writing copy or your Twitter profile, a Wikipedia entry or the biography of your book, take the time to understand what you need to write about and follow the rules for a quality definition as suggested by Winchester. If you take the time to discover the essence, the resulting statement or “definition” should inherently be concise and give readers the opportunity in one or two sentences to know “what it is.”