Wednesday, May 29, 2013


MarketPsych analyzes investing psychology.  But in order to do that, we analyze language.

The words we choose with shareholders, clients, and the media sometimes convey much more than we ever intend them to. Tim Cook, CEO of Apple recently gave an interview about the state of his company and one of the headlines quotations taken from it was this:

"I think we have several more game changers in us."

It was meant to reassure investors about Apple's strength for the future.  Unfortunately, it conveys a sense of weakness.  There are at least THREE distinct problems with his words. 

1) "I think..."  You "think"?  So you're saying you don't know?  That this is, what, like an opinion you hold?  The same way you "think" your jokes are funny or you "think" Sean Connery was the best James Bond?   The use of  "I think" is not a confidence builder.  (Nor, for that matter, is the use of "I know".)   When you know something to be true, you declare it.  Usually quite plainly.   Imagine this isn't Tim Cook, CEO of Apple.  Imagine it's Joseph Martelli, owner and head chef at Martelli's Ristorante.

"I think I make the best lasagna in town."

"I know I make the best lasagna in town."

"I make the best lasagna in town."

One sounds like he doesn't expect you to agree.  One sounds like he's trying to convince himself.  One sounds like he actually means it.  See the difference?

2)  "...several more..."  You've only got a few?  So the creative well is running dry then?  Apple's defining characteristic has been the company's uncanny knack for producing "must have" products.  Words like "several" feed into investors' biggest fear - that the company's famous ability to innovate died with its founder, Steve Jobs.  What investors want to hear is that we ALWAYS have game changers in the pipeline, because we're freakin' Apple, and it's part of our DNA.  Suggesting there's a few bullets left in the gun (you think) has the whiff of desperation.  Moreover, the word "several" means "more than two but fewer than 'many'." 

In other words, it's vague, if not outright evasive.  Picture yourself  mingling at a cocktail party and simply trying to make friendly conversation with a guest.

YOU:  So do you have kids?

GUEST:  Yes, I do.

YOU:  That's great. How many do you have?

GUEST:  Several.

YOU:  Oh, several... (pause) so, does that mean you have three?

GUEST:  No. It means "mind your own f---ing  business".

3)  "... in us".  Okay.  What's the the word that usually precedes "in us" in statements such as this.  It's practically crying out to be heard.  Take a moment....

Time's up.  The word you find yourself wanting to insert is "left", as in we have "several game changers left in us".  (You also get credit if you said the word "still"). This phrase borrows from the language of that which is being used up, that which is winding down.

It the language of old racehorses ("she's still got a few more good races in her") of old ballplayers ("Jeter's still got a few  more good years in him"), and beer kegs on the verge of being kicked ("It's still got a few more drops in it".)  What it ISN'T is the language of leading technology companies. (NOTE: For a more Western flavor feel free to use the words, "I reckon" before the sentences above.  Then picture them being spoken by Sam Elliott.  Awesome, right?).

It is also the language of wishful thinking.  You know this because you've seen it before in EVERY action movie. The bad guy (frequently name "Drago") is about to commit some atrocity, but just before doing so he is beseeched by his old flame or old partner who knew before his soul was dark...

HERO/HEROINE:  "Please Drago, don't do this!... There is still good in you.  I know it."

At which point there is a dramatic pause, and then Drago orders the guillotine to come down. Or the missiles launched on New York City.  Or the commissioning of a sequel to the movie, "Beaches." Some horrible thing.

Which brings us back to beleaguered AAPL.  Investors are looking for more than a CEO who "thinks" his company possesses "several more" good ideas 'in them'.  They want strength.  They want a vision.  Like Fox Mulder, they want to believe.

Alas, it's too late for Mr. Cook to take a mulligan.  But perhaps some clarification would be in order. One in which he uses stronger language to bolster his reassurances.

After all, I'm sure he still has a few good press conferences in him.

As always, happy investing.

And hey... let's be careful out there.

Dr. Frankenstocks
Frank Murtha, PhD
Managing Member of MarketPsych

NOTE:  For more information on MarketPsych's training/consulting/analytics, please contact us at

Frank Murtha, Ph.D.
Dr. Frankenstocks


1 comment:

Tyler said...

While I am sympathetic to reading a lot into small bits of text (hell, I just put together a blog post about Justice Kennedy's favorite phrases and a quick analysis of "Well..."), I don't think this breakdown is fair to what we know about how people speak.

For example, while we have a dictionary difference between "think" and "know" that works the way you describe, the framing "I think" is not really a solid marker of uncertainty. I believe you could establish whether it is for Tim Cook if you looked across more of his speech and found that he consistently reserved "I think" for things he must surely be unsure of. But I doubt you'll find that.

"I think" has a lot of uses--it can stall as you think through the rest of your answer. It can do some politeness work (in cases where a bare declarative wouldn't work). Taking only a dictionary semantics ignores how it actually works in the world.

An example would be thinking about pragmatic pressures that allow you to say "There's beer in the fridge" and not be taken to mean that there exists an alcoholic liquid in a big cooling container--no, it's an invitation.

Btw--phonetic cues would be great to report. For example, if this is said with the kind of intonation pattern that is like a wink, you're seeing playful language. But even if it's earnest I think there's a lot more work you have to connect the dots. Because the pieces of the phrase don't have single meanings. They have ranges. So it's much harder than simple combinatorix.

Alright, I'll knock off here. Fwiw, the blog post I referred to earlier is at You might get a kick out of the "Economic Powerhouse Languages" post, too.