Straightforward speaking and writing inspires trust and builds client relationships

From Investment News – The Leading News Source for Financial Advisers

By Libby Dubick

President Harry S. Truman, known for his plain speaking, could teach a thing or two to today’s financial advisers.

A survey of 1,200 investors by New York-based branding firm Siegel+Gale found that 66% believed that financial institutions intentionally made information complex to hide something. The use of clear, jargon-free language would engender trust, 84% of those surveyed said.

“If I am choosing an adviser, the truth is that often there is not much difference in what they offer,” said Deborah S. Bosley, who heads The Plain Language Group, a Charlotte, N.C.-based consulting firm that helps companies improve the clarity of their communications. “So if I can understand one and not the other, I am going to choose the adviser I can understand.”

Advisers often dismiss this advice because they assume that their wealthy, well-educated clients understand what is being presented or discussed. “Not so,” Ms. Bosley said. “One of my first clients was [New York-based] TIAA-CREF, a company that has won awards for the clarity of its materials. Their participants include university professors, physicians and scientists. A mailing they sent about minimum-distribution options got an avalanche of calls because they had used the word “options’ to mean the different ways 2 that the distributions could be handled. When many recipients read the letter they thought it meant that distributions were optional. People forget that the same word can have multiple meanings, depending on the industry and the audience.”

Ms. Bosley dismisses the idea that using plain language is synonymous with talking down to clients. “It’s not dumbing down but smarting up,” she said. “It’s easy to be complex but hard to be clear. And clarity actually makes the adviser look smarter.”

To make her point, Ms. Bosley referred to a Stanford University study in which researchers at the Palo Alto, Calif., school asked 71 undergraduates to evaluate writing samples at different levels of complexity. Researchers found that as complexity increased, readers’ estimation of the author’s intelligence declined, as did respect for the writer.

If you are still not persuaded that plain language is the way to go, consider this comment from legendary investor Warren E. Buffett: “Frankly, if I can’t understand a company’s business, I figure their customers must have a pretty hard time figuring it out, too.”

According to the Center for Plain Language, a non-profit group in Silver Spring, Md., a document or spoken communication is in plain language if the audience can quickly and easily find what they need, understand what they find and act appropriately on that understanding.

In practical terms, this means eliminating jargon, using common language and defining your terms. All too often, those who know the content best are the wrong people to communicate that content to the public — they know too much and assume too much.

It is best to assume that the person you are speaking to or writing for is intelligent, but has little knowledge of the particular financial topic you are covering.3

Design and layout also can make a big difference. White space, appropriate illustrations and graphical elements, and the use of an easy-toread typeface, all facilitate understanding. When you are ready to talk about a topic or send a document to your clients, be sure to test it first. Ask a relative or a non-professional in your office to read it, review it and tell you whether it is understandable. I know an adviser who asks for such feedback from clients, which not only flatters the client but builds the relationship.

Much of what an adviser can say to clients verbally or in writing is mandated by regulation, but it is common sense to give investors information they can understand, regardless of the format.

If your written materials don’t pass the plain-language test, you should challenge your firm or broker-dealer to create material that does.

“Using plain language is a marketing and branding opportunity,” Ms. Bosley said. “Advisers who use plain language will find that their assets under management increase and that they are attracting and retaining more clients. If there ever was a time in the market that called for plain language, this is it.”

Libby Dubick is president of Dubick & Associates Ltd., a New York firm that helps advisers and financial services firms develop marketing opportunities. She can be reached at libby@dubickconsulting.com.

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