“I have looked at the linguistic complexity of the Bank of England’s own communications, including my own speeches. These rank well above the levels of a broadsheet newspaper, and way beyond the levels of a tabloid. In other words, the vast majority of the Bank’s communications are lost on the vast majority of the public.”
Andrew Haldane, Chief Economist at the Bank of England.
It probably doesn’t come as a surprise that financial organisations are top of the list for indulging in jingoistic wordplay and bottom of the list of people’s preferred reading material. From sending unintelligible pension statements and adopting chilling labels like ‘Master Trust’, to hiding behind incomprehensible jargon and initialisms such as crystallisation, OCF and UFPLS; the way banks and financial professionals communicate is cited as one of the key reasons people can’t face their finances. But has new research uncovered a simple way we can unconsciously adapt our writing style to help people engage?
In a 2018 study, researchers from University College London reported that England has one of the lowest levels of financial literacy compared to other developed countries. When asked why England ranks so low, Professor John Jerrim said a contributing factor could be the cultural view and attitude in England of saying: ‘I’m not good at numbers’. From a psychological perspective, this explanatory style of internally attributing the cause of the problem — when people blame themselves, rather than external factors — can be a symptom of experiencing a behaviour called ‘learned helplessness’.
Learned helplessness was a term coined in 1975 by psychologist Martin Seligman when studying the causes of stress. He found that once people learn they have no control, they often give up trying to make it better. Later in 1988, cognitive scientist and usability engineer, Donald Norman, used learned helplessness to explain why people having trouble with technology start blaming themselves, and can eventually begin to identify themselves as being technologically inept. In the context of finance, could we argue that repeated exposure to verbose expositions of areas such as annuities, investment yield, and tax wrappers has created a fertile environment for financial learned helplessness to flourish?
Of course, financial experts and economists are not alone in their struggle to write for the general public. The application of technical lexicons and linguistic short-cuts helps nearly every industry efficiently communicate within their sphere of knowledge. If you overheard two car mechanics chatting about a car’s MOT failure, you’d find it sounds as dense and incomprehensible as two brain surgeons debating the merits of orbitozygomatic craniotomies. The adoption of specialist words, or the shortening of overwhelming product names, is a useful linguistic trick when communicating with peers. But when this leaks into communication to non-experts, impenetrable language and excessive use of shortening comes across as elitist, demeaning and arrogant.
While bad financial copywriting can’t take the sole blame for people’s aversion to managing their money, using jargon so dense it even confuses economists can’t be helping. And it’s important we try and help because most people end up making decisions about their money on their own. Most of us are exceptionally unlikely ever to find ourselves needing to change a carburettor, and certainly won’t find ourselves popping open our skull to remove a craniopharyngioma, so leaving it to the experts is the best bet. However, when it comes to managing money, the vast majority of people do it themselves. Or rather, they don’t. In a 2016 poll by Portafina, people’s aversion to financial gobbledygook reached such an extreme that some reported they would rather ‘die young’ than have to deal with their retirement.
“The economy’s ups and downs determine our lives; its forces make a mockery of our democracies; its tentacles reach deep into our souls, where they shape our hopes and aspirations. If we defer to the experts on the economy, we effectively hand to them /all/ decisions that matter.”
— Yanis Voroufakis (2017)
So what’s the secret?
Professor Robert Cialdini wrote about an interesting finding he experienced when writing. Comparing the writing he did at home with the times he wrote at University; he found the former was more suited in style and structure to the general audience he’d envisioned.
“Surprised, I wondered how it could be that despite a clear grasp of my desired market, I couldn’t write for it properly while in my university office. Only in retrospect was the answer obvious. Anytime I lifted or turned my head, the sight lines from my on-campus desk brought me into contact with cues linked to academic research and its specialised vocabulary, grammar, and style of communication.”
— Robert Cialdini (2016)
When missing the cues to link him to his intended audience, Cialdini unconsciously structured his writing to the academic peers surrounding him. At home, with his desk facing a window, he wrote while watching the flow of pedestrians going about their daily business. The influence on his writing was subtle and certainly unconscious but resulted in creating more effective communication.
This example of persuasive geography is an extension of one of the behaviourist approaches to behaviour change: Modify your environment.
“In a moment of strength, change your environment to make it harder to perform the behaviours you want to stop and easier to promote those you wish to adopt.”
You can read more about this principle in my article ‘How to make a behavioural resolution (and stick to it)’, but for our present purpose, it explains how arranging our physical environment is an effective way to gain greater empathy with the audience for whom we’re writing. By sitting in our open-plan offices alongside our peers, we remove ourselves from our customers and write amidst financial cues influencing our words, style and structure.
This influence won’t just be limited to writing; creating financial products and designing their interfaces is also performed away from our customers. At best, we eventually share our creations with people through entirely artificial research sessions and testing labs and then wonder why they don’t react the same way when back in the real world.
Understanding these limitations, B Bank (Part of Yorkshire and Clydesdale Bank), decided to adopt the principle of persuasive geography when opening Studio B, their concept branch in London.
When walking into their distinctive location on Kensington High Street, you probably won’t notice the large black wall lining one side of the space. Behind this darkened one-way glass the B Bank design and innovation team have their working area. Choosing this location allows them to see and absorb the daily customer interactions, experience first-hand their needs and frustrations, and let all this seep naturally into their work. This idea is nothing new, psychologists and philosophers have long championed observational methods of research, but it’s something we can easily forget in our daily writing routine.
“The more observations you make upon other people, the better psychologist you become.”
— J B Watson (1925)
Time for a coffee
While it may be impracticable to manipulate our working environments like B Bank, we can still adopt the behavioural principle of modifying our environment by inserting ourselves into our customer’s world. And where better to be reminded of our prospective audience, to keep your writing or design aligned with their interests and communication style, than the now ubiquitous selection of coffee shops, cafés and eateries.
The psychological insight I want to share here is that background cues in your physical environment guide how you think, and influence what you create. Knowing this, you can work on manipulating your persuasive geography to better influence your writing style. Of course, this isn’t the only way to improve financial copywriting and help customers overcome their antipathy, but it’s something which is quite easy to try. After all, saying that a psychologist told you that you need to spend more time in a coffee shop must be the best advice you’ve heard all day.
Bhutoria, A., Jerrim, J. & Vignoles, A. (2018) The Financial Skills of Adults Across the World. New Estimates from PIAAC. PIAAC_Working_Report_March_2018
Bulman, M. (2018) England faces ‘crisis’ in adult financial literacy as one in three cannot work out change from shopping trip. Independent article
Cialdini, R. (2016) Pre-suasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade.Penguin, Random House UK.
Earle, J., Moran, C., & Ward-Perkins, Z. (2017) The Econocracy: On the Perils of Leaving Economics to the Experts. Penguin, Random House UK.
Norman, D. A. (1988) The Design of Everyday Things. Basic Books.
Voroufakis, Yanis. (2017) Talking to my Daughter about the Economy: A Brief History of Capitalism. Penguin, Random House UK.
Watson, J. B. (1925) Behaviorism: How to Study Human Behavior. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. 180–190