Where there's a 'will...'

I ran the full text of Warren Buffett's most recent Berkshire Hathaway shareholder letter through a word cloud generator. Here's what I found.

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Warren Buffett released his latest Berkshire Hathaway annual shareholder letter over the weekend.

I wrote about it for Inc, focusing on how Buffett is dealing with the “urgent” question of who will take over after he’s no longer able to be CEO.

(It’s not a distant hypothetical, given that Buffett is 89 and Charlie Munger, is 96.)

Here on Understandably…, however, I’d like to focus on something else.

I've learned a little trick recently, which is to take the full text of documents like the shareholder letter, and drop the whole thing into a word cloud generator.

Last year, I did it with all of Jeff Bezos's shareholder letters, and I found that the single word, “customers” appeared more than anything else.

Later, I ran the full transcripts of the top 25 most-popular TED talks through similar software. The most common word: “laughter,” as in a transcriptionist’s annotation that the audience laughed. There was literally more than a laugh a minute in the transcripts.

Both examples told me something. So, I did the same thing with Buffett's most recent shareholder letter.

The most common word in this year’s letter is "Berkshire," which makes sense.

But the second most popular word was a bit of a surprise: "Will," as in “X will likely happen.”

“Will” comes up 65 times in a roughly 7,000-word document. (So, pick any word and there's nearly a 1 percent chance that word will be, "will.")

Here's a fairly representative sample, where Buffett talks about Berkshire's insurance businesses:

Danger always lurks. … A major catastrophe that will dwarf hurricanes Katrina and Michael will occur ...

Berkshire will get its share of the losses and they will be big – very big. Unlike many other insurers, however, handling the loss will not come close to straining our resources, and we will be eager to add to our business the next day.

Now, from my perspective this is a bit of a work in progress. I’m intrigued by this little data point, but I’m not yet ready to say it’s really a “thing” worth making a big deal about.

So, I’m taking you behind the scenes. The next step is that I’ve now downloaded the full text of all of the last 43 of Buffett's letters, going back to 1977.

Running all of them through similar software is a bit of an undertaking, because combined, they add up to about 528,000 words. By way of comparison, that's just a shade under the length of Tolstoy's War and Peace or David Forster Wallace's Infinite Jest.

But a lot of people spend a lot of time poring over these letters, hoping to get a little bit of unique insight from the so-called Oracle of Omaha.

I’ll let you know soon if the larger test yields bigger results.

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