It’s good to be #1. And on a list of, say, a thousand items, it’s also pretty darn good to be ranked #7, or #17, or even #47. In fact, just being among the top 50 is really quite an accomplishment, don’t you think?
Yet business writers — particularly in marketing and PR — sometimes get a little consumed with rankings. Maybe this obsession comes from wanting to stand out from the competition, to communicate that you or your client is part of the elite, one of the best. And, for their part, organizations as disparate as U.S. News & World Report, the Zagat Survey, and the Bowl Championship Series feed the phenomenon, doling out top 100 lists and extensive rankings in a wide range of categories.
Look, there’s nothing wrong with this stuff, not really. Inclusion on a respected list might be worth an ad campaign or a press release. But my eyelid gets twitchy when I come across sentences like this one (and yes, I have encountered them):
Widgets International is a Fortune 19 manufacturing company based in Utopia, New York.
I mean, c’mon. There’s no such list as the Fortune 19. Everyone reading this sentence knows that. What you mean, if you must say it, is this:
Widgets International, ranked 19th on the Fortune 500, is a manufacturing company based in Utopia, New York.
The same thing goes for a statement like this one, the likes of which I see all the time:
Brickstone University is one of the top 43 colleges in the Southeast, according to U.S. News & World Report.
This is pure spin, trying to make more of your ranking than it is. But no one will be fooled into thinking that U.S. News just happened to stop its list at an off-round number of colleges like 43 and your institution made the cut as one of 43 equals. Give your readers some credit. Better yet, tell a truer story.
One more example — one of my favorites for its absurdity:
Day and Night Freight Services is one of the top two providers of shipping services in the metropolitan area.
Really? “One of the top two”? As the kids say: Dude. In this reckoning, you clearly came in second. And that’s still plenty respectable. Any of these edits says the same thing without the spin factor:
Day and Night Freight is one of the top providers of shipping services in the metropolitan area.
Day and Night Freight is the second-largest provider of shipping services in the metropolitan area.
Day and Night Freight is the #2 provider of shipping services in the metropolitan area.
I tell you, it’s enough to make an editor dizzy.