What you say matters

3 min read

Published in ifa 5 June 2017.

It’s important to have standards in the language financial advisers use to engage with clients, ensuring we are tailoring our delivery as well as our messages.

What you say matters. Words and language are the primary tools of communication – whether delivered face-to-face, phone, email, text or via social media.

First, our messages need to be clear and concise before we think about how we are going to send them.

Today, because we use social media and short bite-sized messages, it’s important to make our messages succinct and to the point. But we also have to make sure they are right for our audience. Our friends will expect a different message to our boss. We tend to communicate in a range of shorthand – some for friends and others for business. However, when we are talking to clients outside those businesses it’s another audience again – maybe like a friend, maybe like ourselves if we were a client.

We have to make sure that the words, tone and impact of our messages connect with their recipients whether they are employees, clients, family or friends, and that we are not isolating people by the way we are structuring our messages.

In business, sometimes we use different language internally and for clients. But it’s worth considering if we are comfortable using words that we know won’t work outside the business, do we need to consider why we are using those words inside the business?

The voice we use – whether it is friendly, collegiate, condescending – is vital in making sure our messages are heard. The voice is also an important tool for us to connect across different cultures, age groups, genders and socio-economic groups.

Culturally, it’s important to be inclusive when we give examples of our products and services. And keep in mind that no-one is average.

  • Not everyone lives in a city;
  • Not everyone has 2.5 children and a wife or husband;
  • Not everyone wants to stop working at 65;
  • Not everyone wants to marry and have children;
  • Some people want to take care of extended family members; and
  • Everyone has different interests – whether it’s sport, arts, family, education, politics or otherwise.

And while language can be a positive tool there is an ever-present risk if we use it incorrectly.

Take, for example, situations where someone regularly uses male pronouns in their speech of ‘he’, ‘him’, ‘his’. This may be unintentional or subconscious. But if you are advising to a couple, it’s important not to make assumptions around who is the primary and secondary client. Even if for the purposes of communication, the male is the primary client, and the wife is secondary, clearly not every client relationship will work like this. It’s important to factor in that in some instances, the opposite may be the case, and the communication needs to be reversed.

Personally, I don’t want to be condescended to, I don’t want to feel like things need to be oversimplified or that I need unnecessary background because my knowledge is assumed at nothing. I also don’t want to hear “weasel words” – which are words which avoid saying anything.

I want to hear words and language that is clear and direct.

And some terms I don’t want to hear again are:

  • Fake news (it’s not news if it’s fake – it might be a popular term, but we don’t have to adopt it);
  • Uptick (ticks go up,that’s how they are – uptick is a tautology – there is no such thing as a downtick);
  • Impacted by (are we referring to your teeth? It’s a meaningless phrase – are you affected by? or hurt by… we can use better words here ); and
  • Moving forward (next???).

So, we need to make sure that we are inclusive in the way we talk to people, put ourselves in the place of who we are communicating to and think about who they are and what they care about. What would make sense to them? Most of us manage to do this in a personal sense – we don’t talk to our mothers about the same things and in the same ways we talk to our friends or partners and that is often also different from our colleagues and bosses. It’s about tailoring our delivery as well as our messages.

Language influences so many areas of our lives:

  • Advertising brings snappy sayings into common usage – ‘not happy, Jan’;
  • TV shows start trendy sayings/statements – ‘no soup for you’;
  • Politics also starts influencing the language – ‘fake news’ is an example. The way it is rapidly taken up into common usage can be quite alarming; and
  • Pop culture, theatre, movies, music, idols, icons, etc. all have an influence.

It’s important in light of this to have standards in the language we use to ensure honesty and accountability.

Language is living and does change over time, but while words and meanings change it’s important to use the best language we can to connect with people. The better we are at choosing the right words with the exact shade of meaning we intend gives us the best chance of getting our messages across for sales, marketing and for building our loyal customer bases.

Julia Newbould, Stella Network Leader, BT Financial Group

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