The language of trust

Written by Alan Gow

The language of trust – Money marketing – view article

The Financial Conduct Authority has made it clear for years now that they want us to write shorter suitability reports. But the length of the report is only part of the story, and the Consumer Duty rules place more emphasis than ever on how we communicate with our clients.

It’s still the norm for reports and official letters to use very formal language, and contractions are considered a no-no. Why do we say ‘I will facilitate’ when what we really mean is ‘I’ll help’? I wondered whether it was habitual, rather than a conscious attempt to come across as ‘professional’.

If the internet is to be trusted, the Romans are to blame.

When England was under Roman rule, Latin became the language of religion and administration. After the Roman Empire fell apart, Latin was still used by high society to set them apart from the general riff-raff. But because writing at that time was slow and complicated, it was mainly used for important stuff, like legal contracts. That wordiness is now commonplace.

The problems with words like ‘facilitate’ is that we don’t use them when we’re talking, so they don’t come across well on the page. We might want to sound professional, but maybe we come across as slightly detached and not very human. I’d argue this doesn’t help us to build relationships and trust with our clients.

Instead of trying to sound authoritative, we should be trying to sound authentic. We’re writing about serious topics, but formality doesn’t necessarily give clarity. We can be serious in terms of content without having to be quite so formal in tone. All we’re trying to do is put the client in an informed position.

A few years ago, we started wording our reports as if we were talking to the client, including using contractions. Our clients are financial advisers, financial planners and in-house paraplanners.

Mostly they liked the change, but some weren’t keen on it. However, we noticed that most product and platform providers’ key features documents take the same approach as us, written like they’re talking to you on a personal level. The providers have probably put lots of research into how they do this. We felt that Suitability Reports should be written in the same style.

Here’s an example from one well known provider’s KFD, about tax on a pension withdrawal – “There’s a chance you might pay too much tax. If this happens, you’ll need to complete a tax return to reclaim the overpayment.” Clear and concise.

Here’s an example from a template provided by a large network “Emergency Month 1 tax will never accurately deduct the right amount of personal tax and depending on the size of the withdrawal probably result in an overpayment of tax which will need to be reclaimed by HMRC. You will need to reclaim any over paid tax via your self assessment” (sic).

This template also included pages and pages of dense text, no colour, no white spaces, and the headings were buried in amongst it all. There was, frankly, little consideration for the poor client; it felt like it had been written mainly with the compliance department in mind.

Big long dense blocks of text make you feel fed up before you even get started. Think how you’d react to a page of A4 writing without any spaces in it. Because it looks like more effort from the outset, it leads to slow thinking and you’re less likely to engage with it.

Templates like this are sadly still very common. They were part of the reason we decided to specialise by providing our paraplanning services only to directly authorised and independent advisers and planners.

It’s taken some time to adopt our new style, but the work has been worthwhile. I’m happy that we no longer need to use that old Mark Twain misquote: “Sorry for the length of this report; I didn’t have time to write a shorter one”.

This article was first published in Money Marketing, September 2022