What tech CEOs said this year (or, earnings calls crunched by AI)

While most of us were working out how to approach hybrid work, tech execs were busy counting their money.

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Many tech companies had a big year in 2021, but did the CEOs talk the talk?

Photo illustration: A. Martin UW Photography/Moment/Getty Images

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Pop culture has told us you can measure a year as 525,600 minutes. You can also do it by analyzing 276,347 words.

That’s the number of words executives from Amazon, Apple, Alphabet, Meta, Salesforce, Zoom, Nvidia, Microsoft, Adobe and Tesla said on earnings calls this year, meaning that back-to-back, the transcripts of those calls are just a bit longer than “Ulysses” by James Joyce — and about as difficult to get through.

That’s why we decided to do the heavy lifting for you. We trawled through that data to find trends and patterns, and even threw it into some machine-learning algorithms to work out what those execs were talking about over the last 12 months. So, without further ado, here’s a breakdown of everything we heard on earnings calls in 2021.

‘Year-over-year growth’

While most of us were trying to figure out what to do about hybrid work policies, this set of tech executives had one other big trend firmly on their mind.The phrase “year-over-year growth” was the third most-uttered four-word phrase on earnings calls this year, showing up 66 times. Add the 20 times that “growth year-over-year” was said to that total, and it jumps up to the top of the list as the most common phrase. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, considering these 10 companies added $3.29 trillion in market cap between Jan. 4 and Nov. 30 this year, which represented 35% growth in total.

A year rocked by COVID-19

That wasn’t the only phrase in rotation, though. Some other interesting words and phrases showed up time and time again, and were a clear reminder of what’s happened the past 12 months.

Phrase Times said
cloud 732
the pandemic 161
headwind 80
supply chain 64
hybrid work 40
tailwind 31
'mute' + 'hear you' + 'cut out' 14
in the office 13
remote work 12

Some CEOs are louder than others

But who said what? After all, don’t we all deserve a CEO who can speak for as long as Elizabeth Holmes’ morning schedule? Here’s how much the CEO of each company said in earnings calls this year.

Adobe’s Shantanu Narayen leads the pack, partly due to a monster two-hour earnings call in December. But even if the data were adjusted for the number of minutes in each call, he would still be ahead of Mark Zuckerberg by almost 1,000 words. Google’s Sundar Pichai is more reserved on earnings calls than his chief executive counterparts, keeping in line with descriptions of Pichai as someone who is “quiet in most meetings and silent in others.” Jeff Bezos famously avoided earnings calls while he was CEO of Amazon, instead letting CFO Brian Olsavsky do the talking. So far, Andy Jassy has continued that tradition.

Letting someone else do the talking

It’s not just The CEO Show on earnings calls, though, and some opt to share the mic more than others. Here’s how much other C-suite executives spoke on earnings calls this year.

While some companies, like Apple and Zoom, had a fairly formulaic approach to who spoke when in earnings calls, others had big ranges in how often certain executives spoke. Elon Musk announced in July that he wouldn’t be partaking in most earnings calls and was true to his word in the company’s most recent investor presentation, though he’s expected to return to action in 2022. And when Bret Taylor was officially named co-CEO of Salesforce, the share of words by the chief executive naturally went up.

Microsoft’s Satya Nadella tended to speak less during calls where the company beat estimates by the biggest margins. Nvidia’s Jensen Huang had a different approach: When earnings were closer to estimates, he let CFO Colette Kress take the lead.

Unsurprisingly, CFOs were often second in command on this past year’s earnings calls: or running the show, in Amazon’s case. However, Philipp Schindler, Alphabet’s Chief Business Officer, spoke more than the company’s CFO Ruth Porat, and Sheryl Sandberg had a sizable role each time Meta presented to investors.

But did they make any sense?

In a year like 2021, even earnings calls get a vibe check. A Flesch–Kincaid readability analysis reveals how comprehensible the ramblings of these executives were, and it’s … a mixed bag.

Salesforce’s calls may have been in the plainest English, but they were also chock-full of emotion. Salesforce executives used the words “awesome,” “amazing” and ‘incredible” 60 times over the course of the year. Maybe that’s just the “Ohana” way, but it’s also 44 more times than executives at Nvidia used those terms, which was the second-highest total.

And were they pleased about it all?

Finally, each company had its own audio aura in this year’s earnings. So what kind of tone did execs bring to their investor briefings? As with any sentiment analysis on text, it’s probably best to take these read-outs with a grain of salt — after all, Adobe added nearly $90 billion to its market cap this year, and it’s hard to find a reason to be sad about that — but the bulk of execs were happy or excited by their earnings this year. It was, after all, a big year for year-over-year growth.

Note: Earnings call transcripts for each company’s last four fiscal quarters were collected from The Motley Fool. Sentiment analysis was provided by Komprehend and ParallelDots. The data excludes words spoken by investor-relations representatives at each company.


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