When the “meaning ratio” drops to zero, you’ve got a problem

meaning ratioEvery word you write should be meaningful. We can measure this as the “meaning ratio,” which should approach 100%. Conversely, when the meaning ratio nears zero, you’ve got froth, not content, which is an accurate characterization of the job description I analyze today.

The brilliant Edward Tufte analyzes graphics with the “data-ink ratio”: the proportion of ink in a graphic that’s used for data. I’m stealing his concept to create the “meaning ratio”:

The meaning ratio for a piece of writing is the number of meaningful words in the passage divided by the total number of words.

Canadian reader Alana Phillips led me to this job description for a “Leader (Marketing Product Manager) Non-Regulatory Services” at the BC Safety Authority (“a bold vision for the future: Safe Technical Systems Everywhere.”) This writeup has a boilerplate description of the company and the job, both of which are pretty frothy. But I’d like to concentrate on the least meaningful part of this piece: the “qualifications” section. I’ll take it apart sentence by sentence, bolding any meaningless words.

The candidate requires a unique combination of talents, drive, experience and values. [Means nothing.]

The ideal candidate has completed a university degree and has had at least 7 years of relevant business development experience.

The candidate must have an entrepreneurial mindset, a solid appreciation and understanding of technical systems, equipment and processes, respect for the role of regulators and the ability to see opportunities for providing services that improve safety and add value to client organizations. [Meaning: you must be able to get things done in a regulated environment. “Appreciate” and “respect” are not qualifications; anyone can claim them.]

The person must have a knack for, and experience in, new service development, from idea generation through to development and launch. [You launched something.]

Able to cultivate and maintain positive, long-term relationships, the candidate must have a strong drive for results, the ability to negotiate “win-win” contracts, a high tolerance for ambiguity and a track record that speaks to the ability to identify and secure new business, influence internal change, and successfully manage multiple projects, on time and on budget. [You were in business development and weren’t a total failure.]

The candidate must have excellent business acumen and superb oral, presentation and written communication skills and the ability to influence a wide range of audiences. [You can write and talk — unlike the author of this job description.]

Fluency in English is a requirement for this role. [You speak English.]

Get rid of the fluff, and you’re left with this:

You need to speak English with a university degree, 7 years business development experience, and experience launching a new service.

My description: 20 words. Original description: 185 words. Meaning ratio: 11%. One word in nine of the original description means anything. That’s poor.

Job descriptions that are full of bullshit attract bullshitters. If you seek good writers, don’t repel them with badly written, vacuous descriptions. If you wonder why your candidates suck, you might want to think about that.

Photo: Michael Coghlan via Flickr

2 responses to “When the “meaning ratio” drops to zero, you’ve got a problem

  1. Good one – incidentally, if you ever come across a really “good” meaningful and insightful job description, let me know because in 20+ years I have yet to meet more than maybe two 🙂

  2. The meaning I get from that first line is “We already have someone for this position, but HR requires me to post this anyway.”

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