Quit hiding your meaning!

Don’t make it hard for your readers to understand your meaning.  Speak directly to your readers instead of hiding your meaning with nouns, passive verbs, and indirect references.

A letter quoted by Joseph M. Williams’ Style: Toward Clarity and Grace illustrates failures you can find in financial writing. His solution can also help financial writers.

Bad example: automotive recall letter

Williams skewers his example of an automotive recall letter as “an example of how writers can simultaneously meet legal requirements and ignore ethical obligations.” What did the writer do wrong? Williams says, “The author—probably a committee—nominalized all the verbs that might make a reader anxious, made most of the rest of the other verbs passive, and then deleted just about all references to the characters, particularly to the manufacturer.” “Nominalization” means turning a verb into a noun.

Here are two sentences from his example to give you an idea of what he’s talking about:

A defect which involves the possible failure of a frame support plate may exist on your vehicle. This plate (front suspension pivot bar support plate) connects a portion of the front suspension to the vehicle frame, and its failure could affect vehicle directional control, particularly during heavy brake application.

Partial rewrite of automotive recall letter

Williams suggests the following new sentence as a partial replacement for the sentences above:

If you brake hard and the plate fails, you will not be able to steer your car.

Williams’ suggestion is much clearer than the original—and way scarier for the reader.

Let’s look at some of the original wording and his replacements to see the techniques Williams used.

  • The original sentence’s “Heavy brake application” becomes “If you brake hard.” Williams undoes the original’s nominalization by turning a noun, “brake application,” back into a verb, “brake.” He also adds “you,” putting the reader in the sentence.
  •  “Its failure could affect vehicle directional control” becomes “You will not be able to steer your car.” Williams changes “vehicle directional control” to “steer” and again puts the reader in the sentence.

Mutual fund prospectus example: before and after

I looked at fund prospectuses. In a quick search, I didn’t find anything as bad as Williams’ example.

Here’s one example with room for improvement:

Many emerging markets have histories of political instability and abrupt changes in policies. As a result, their governments may be more likely to take actions that are hostile or detrimental to private enterprise or foreign investment than those of more developed countries, including expropriation of assets, confiscatory taxation or unfavorable diplomatic developments. Some emerging countries have pervasive corruption and crime that may hinder investments. Certain emerging markets may also face other significant internal or external risks, including the risk of war, and ethnic, religious and racial conflicts. In addition, governments in many emerging market countries participate to a significant degree in their economies and securities markets, which may impair investment and economic growth. National policies that may limit the Fund’s investment opportunities include restrictions on investment in issuers or industries deemed sensitive to national interests.

You can simplify the emerging markets example to something like, “Emerging-markets investments are riskier than investments in developed markets because their governments have historically been less stable and more like to meddle in their economies and stock markets.”

Actually, to be fair, higher up on the page, the prospectus says, “The risks of foreign investments are usually much greater when they are made in emerging markets.” On the other hand, you could be even more direct by saying, “You have a greater risk of losing money when you invest in emerging markets instead of developed markets.”

Do YOU have a favorite poorly written disclosure?

If you have a great example of a poorly written financial disclosure, please share it with me. Perhaps it will inspire a future blog post.


Disclosure: If you click on the Amazon link in this post and then buy something, I will receive a small commission. I only link to books in which I find some value for my blog’s readers.

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Fonts: By the numbers

The look of your financial reports makes a difference in the effectiveness of your communication. Fonts are part of your toolkit, as Professor Joyce Walsh explains in her guest post.

Fonts: By the numbers

By Professor Joyce Walsh, Boston University, College of Communication

Walsh_JoyceFor financial professionals, numbers are the heart and soul of client communications. But working with them in documents, presentations and online can be painful. Anyone who’s wasted an hour trying to get the decimal points to line up in a vertical column knows what I’m talking about.

Fortunately, there are ready solutions to numerical challenges. And they come from an unlikely source: your choice of font. You’ve probably spent some time considering the right font for your written material. (If you haven’t, you can read this paper I wrote about typography for financial professionals.) But the right font can also make your numerical life much easier—and your client reports and marketing material more effective.

If you’re having trouble with numbers in your documents and presentations, here are solutions to five common problems:

Problem #1: My numbers don’t align properly in columns

Arranging a column of numbers is a standard feature of most financial and investment reports. Whether you’re showing the market caps of your top 10 holdings or presenting a balance sheet, your figures need to stack up in an orderly way, with all decimal points in vertical alignment. If yours don’t, it’s because your font choice uses proportional figures, where each character varies in width. When 8s take up more space than 1s, your column will never line up properly.

The solution: Use a font that offers tabular figures, where each number is the same width on the page, and 1s take up the same horizontal space as 8s. If your default font doesn’t have a tabular option, consider investing in one that does or use a different, complementary font when presenting a numbers in a column. Many font families, like Gotham, offer both proportional and tabular options.

Pro tip: Not sure whether font figures are proportional or tabular? Here’s a quick way to find out: Type a line of 1s, then type a line of 0s underneath it. If the two lines end at the same place, the numbers are tabular.

Problem #2: When I bold a number in a column, it bulges out

Using bold is a great way to call attention to a significant number. But even if you’re using tabular figures, doing so can still throw a column out of alignment. If this happens to you, it’s because your font doesn’t have weight-duplexing figures.

The solution: Invest in a font that offers weight-duplexing, a feature that allows bold numbers to stack without bulging out of columns. Whitney, a font by Hoefler & Co., is a good example.

Pro tip: Speaking of bulging—10- and 12-digit numbers are common in today’s financial world, and they can wreak havoc in the best of layouts. Consider using a font that offers condensed numbers, which are designed to fit big numbers into narrow spaces without losing their readability or visual appeal.

Problem #3: When I use numbers in the body of a report, the spacing doesn’t look right

Financial professionals often use figures within the body of a report. And, yes, sometimes they just look off—the spacing seems out of whack or the numbers appear to be larger or smaller than the surrounding words. That’s probably because you’re using tabular figures instead of proportional ones. Within any font family, proportional figures are more like letters in their overall shape and appearance, and they tend to be more evenly spaced.

The solution: Always use proportional figures in running text or the body of a document. Their variable width makes them easier to read and lends a more harmonious feel to the content.

Pro tip: Beware of fonts with old-style figures, where the numbers approximate the size and shape of lowercase letter forms. While they work in a sentence, they look tiny and out of place in ALL CAP headlines. You’re safer with a font that offers lining figures, which are all-cap height and work well everywhere. Fortunately, most common system fonts default to lining figures.

Problem #4: I need more currency symbols for my reports

As the global economy expands to include emerging and frontier markets, forward-looking financial professionals need a font that goes beyond the dollar, pound, euro and yen to include symbols for currencies such as rupees, pesos and the new shekel. While it is possible to enter special numbers and codes to produce them, the process is slow and labor-intensive. If you use international currency symbols frequently, it’s just not practical.

The solution: Invest in a font family with extended currency symbols. Gotham, Mercury and Whitney are good examples of fonts with a wide range of monetary symbols.

Pro tip: If you want to make your articles, reports and presentations more useful and attractive for your audience, consider purchasing a font family that offers an extended character set. These typically include vertical and diagonal fractions, ordinals, and advanced mathematical and statistical symbols. Some even come with indices—circles with numbers in them—a very handy item if you want to compare plot points on a graph or add a distinctive touch to financial footnotes and disclosure references.

Problem #5: I need charts in my WordPress blog

The solution: You can apply the principles discussed above and post your charts as graphic files, such as JPGs or PNGs.

Pro tip: If you want to create charts and graphs while in WordPress, you will need a plugin. The WordPress Chart plugin is free and customizable, but is not user-friendly. Visualizer is also a free WordPress Plugin but is much easier to use. Just save your Excel XLS file as a CSV file. Then create a chart in the WordPress editor by selecting Add Media > Visualizations. To display the chart, simply add its shortcode to your post.


About Professor Joyce Walsh

Professor Walsh’s work has been featured in publications, exhibitions and corporate art collections around the world. Her book, Graphic Design Essentials: Skills, Software and Creative Strategies, was the first book to combine design fundamentals with creative software skills

Business data analyzing image courtesy of alexisdc/FreeDigitalPhotos.net


How to capture investment client questions when you lack access?

Investment commentary writers who lack direct access to clients may struggle to understand what’s on those clients’ minds. This makes it difficult for the writers to address those clients’ concerns in their commentary. What can you do in this situation?

I have some potential solutions to this challenge, which came up in a Q&A session for my presentation on “How to Write Investment Commentary People Will Read.”

3 ways to gain access to client questions infographic

1. Ask for feedback from the people with client contact

“What questions are your clients asking you?” This is a great question to ask the people who enjoy direct contact with the investor who use your company’s products or services. Open-ended questions like this may uncover totally new areas of interest and concern.

On the other hand, the question may be too vague to spark a memory among individuals who don’t routinely note client questions. Try asking more specific questions, such as what are your clients asking you about

  • Where to invest
  • Investments that worry them
  • Asset allocation
  • The economy
  • The effect of new taxes

When you get more specific, consider focusing on timely topics and your firm’s topical strengths.

2. Demonstrate the value of sharing information with you

What if the people in the middle aren’t communicative? A participant in one of my investment commentary programs said, “we ask our financial advisors but they won’t tell us.”

First, asking more specific questions, as I suggest above, may spur better responses.

Second, consider recruiting one person with client contact who can serve as an example of the value of sharing information. I imagine that you can find one person who’ll agree to help, especially when they understand that they’re not one of many people whom you’re asking for help. After all, they may have assumed that other people were feeding information to you.

Warning: If you take this approach, you should commit to following through on writing about at least one of your contact’s topics even if the client questions don’t seem worthy of incorporation in your next commentary.

For example, a client may ask a complex question about an investment strategy that accounts for a minuscule portion of your assets. Unless you can tie the answer to broader themes, it’s probably not worthy of incorporation in your commentary. However, the question rates an answer via phone or email. If the answer potentially has broader applications, you can share in on your website or a Q&A document.

Assuming you turn up a great client question, incorporate it in your commentary and give credit to the person who reported the question, assuming it’s okay with the reporter. Good behavior is contagious, as Chip Heath says in Switch. If you highlight and reward good behavior, more should follow.

3. Find opportunities to hear directly from clients

If you can sit in meetings with individual clients, that’s great. If that’s not possible, then look for opportunities to listen in group settings.

For example, you may send a strategist or asset class specialist to speak at events attended by users of your firm’s products or services. Ask if you can send a second person to attend the event. Observers can record client questions. They can also observe what parts of the presentation most intrigue or perplex the audience. That’s valuable information.

YOUR suggestions?

If you’ve successfully tackled this challenge, I’d like to hear from you. Please share your solution.


Image courtesy of sakhorn38 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Revisiting tired topics, with journalist Donald Murray

Financial bloggers sometimes ask me, “How can I take classic topics and make them sound new?”

As Donald Murray says in Writing to Deadline: The Journalist at Work,Writing to Deadline by Donald Murray “All stories, even those in the Bible, are old stories. But there are ways that we can make them new, for the moment, both for our readers and for ourselves.”

Inspired by Murray’s sections on “Old Stories Seen in New Ways” and “Old Stories in a New Form,” I suggest some approaches for you.

1. “Change the angle of vision”

Look at your topic from a different person’s perspective. For journalists, Murray suggests that you “change the angle of vision from the senator to the senator’s aide, the view of the opponent, the voter, the lobbyist, the citizen affected by the vote.”

How can this apply to you? Let’s say you’re writing about education savings plans. Instead of writing from the perspective of the parents who are your clients, you could take the students’ perspective, in terms of issues such as how much control they’ll have over the funds. Or, you might look at how providers price the plans and their impact on the plan’s relative attractiveness.

2. Write a case study.

Murray suggests that you “focus on a single person.” You can apply this by writing a case study that shows how you’ve solved a problem for a specific person. Of course, make sure you don’t violate your clients’ privacy or your regulators’ rules about testimonials.

3. Look at rejected alternatives.

For journalists, Murray says, “Focus on the background instead of the foreground—the technology available, considered, rejected, and used in the trauma center.”

You can do the same thing with one of your topics. For example, if you prefer a certain kind of trust for transferring client assets, you might write about one or more of the trusts that you typically ignore.

4. “Tell the story through an interview.”

Interviews benefit from the fresh perspective and personality of someone new. Plus, they may offer specific details that your blog posts and articles lack. Consider interviewing someone who’s an expert in a technique, product, or service that you use.

Or, go to the other end of the spectrum to interview an individual who suffered because of their lack of expertise. An interview with an individual client might also demonstrate the benefits of something you recommend. A personal story can make the benefits seem more real. However, again I suggest that you check with your compliance expert to avoid violating the rules about testimonials.

5. Write the story in a different form.

Changing formats could give your topic new life. Murray suggests, “Write the story as a rhetorical form central to the story: a police report, a political speech, a company memo, a nursing report, a job application, a letter by a participant to a friend.”

For example, if you’re railing against a specific product or service, you could imagine a memo detailing the reasons why it’s good for the seller even if it doesn’t benefit the buyer.

Or, you might create a nursing home’s report on the finances and experiences of someone who bought long-term care insurance vs. someone who didn’t.

There are lots of possibilities. Another is the approach taken by Chuck Rylant in How to be Rich: The Couple’s Guide to a Rich Life Without Worrying About Money. Chuck wrote a fictional story to illustrate lessons of financial planning. However, when you write fiction, make sure you label it as fiction.

If you’ve used these techniques…

…I’m curious to learn about your experience with the techniques. How have they worked for you?

Disclosure: If you click on the Amazon link in this post and then buy something, I will receive a small commission. I only link to books in which I find some value for my blog’s readers.

Communicating your value to clients with Steve Lishansky

Focusing on your clients instead of your firm is something I hound my clients to do in their written communications. It’s also important in your sales conversations, as Steve Lishansky of Optimize International reminded me in his presentation, “Get Paid For Your Value: How to Attract, Win and Retain Clients Who Happily Pay You What You Are Worth,” to the New England Chapter of the National Speakers Association on March 8, 2014.

Steve told a story that made his point. Imagine you meet with two designers to redo your kitchen. One launches into a discussion of his great, technologically advanced tools. The other starts by asking, “What do you want to accomplish with your kitchen?”

Which designer would appeal more to you? Is there anyone who wouldn’t prefer the second designer?

Lishansky shared several questions that can help you connect with new prospects. They include the following:

  • What’s the most important result you’re looking for?
  • What are your biggest opportunities?
  • What are your biggest challenges?
  • What are the most important measurements you’ll use to gauge your progress and success?

These questions place you on the “same side of the table” as your prospects, as together you uncover what matters to them.

This discovery also helps you to justify your fees. As Lishansky said, “when people see a chasm, they’re willing to pay you for a bridge.”

Image courtesy of Photostock / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Investment commentary – How do you keep it fresh?

How do you keep your investment commentary fresh quarter after quarter?

This is especially challenging for writers who cover a narrowly defined investment strategy and lack the freedom to go off on tangents. I’m thinking about writers of institutional investment performance commentaries rather than writers of high-net-worth quarterly client letters.

Solution 1. Express an opinion

“I try to put strong opinions in my commentaries.” This was the solution offered by a participant in a writing workshop I delivered to the Stamford CFA Society. I like her approach.

Your clients will have seen the quarter thoroughly rehashed by the time your commentary reaches them. Your opinions can make you stand out from the crowd, reminding them of why they hired you. Opinions can also address the question of “what makes you unique and why will it persist?”

You may worry, “What if I express a strong opinion that eventually turns out to be wrong?” Here’s my take on that:

  1. Your clients may not remember.
  2. It’s okay in moderation, assuming your opinion is well thought out and consistent with your investment philosophy and process.

Solution 2. Highlight what’s new in an old theme

Many managers repeat the same themes quarter after quarter. After all, some issues in investment markets—such as the prospect for an end to the Fed’s easy-money policies or the search for yield in a low-interest-rate environment—play out over a long time. Don’t abandon a significant theme solely for the sake of novelty.

However, you can tilt your treatment of a theme to new developments. For example, perhaps investor demand has bid up asset classes that formerly offered higher yields at attractive valuations. It’s worth mentioning that change and the market forces that drove it.

Your suggestions?

I’m curious about how you handle this challenge. Please share your strategy.

Need hands-on help with your commentary?

I can write your commentary based on interviews with your investment professionals or based on attribution analysis and other materials provided by you. I also edit commentary you’ve written to make it more compelling and reader-friendly.

If your budget is limited, hire me to evaluate your newsletter and suggest improvements that you can implement yourself.

Image courtesy of foto76 / FreeDigitalPhotos.net


Note: I made minor edits on 12/30/19.

Make an email sandwich for introverts

Quiet influence: introvert's guide to making a differenceIntroverts like to think things over before they speak.

If you cater to their needs with an email sandwich, as suggested by Jennifer Kahnweiler in Quiet Influence: The Introvert’s Guide to Making a Difference, you’re likely to have more productive exchanges.

Here’s what Kahnweiler suggests when you schedule a meeting or phone conversation:

Step 1. Write and send in advance an email with “all necessary background information for a discussion.” This lets your readers think about your agenda or ideas prior to your conversation.

Step 2. Discuss the topics with the other person in person, on the phone, or in some other “live” format.

Step 3. Send an email summary of your conversation’s key points. This helps the reader reflect “before committing to action,” as Kahnweiler says.

This email sandwich creates “thinking space for others,…especially…introverts,” says Kahnweiler.

As an introvert, I heartily endorse the email sandwich. I wish everyone would use this technique.

On the other hand, crafting an effective email sandwich takes time. You may choose to reserve it for high-stakes meetings or discussions that benefit from reflection. In addition, sometimes a quick phone call works better than an email.

If you’ve used an email sandwich with clients, prospects, or other important individuals, has it worked for you? I’m interested in learning from your experience.


Disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book.

Quarterly client letter poll: Where do you put performance?

Performance is an important component of quarterly letters to asset management clients, so I wasn’t surprised to hear the following question at an investment commentary workshop: “Where should you discuss performance—at the beginning or end of your quarterly letter?

Here is what I think:

  • Either spot can work but your placement should be consistent from quarter to quarter. This lets your clients know where you answer the question of “How am I doing?”
  • It’s good to relate performance to your market commentary no matter where you place your clients’ performance.

Below are the results of a poll I conducted. Placing performance at the beginning of the letter was by far the most popular choice.

Performance placement poll results

Need hands-on help with your commentary?

I can write your commentary based on interviews with your investment professionals or based on attribution analysis and other materials provided by you. I also edit commentary you’ve written to make it more compelling and reader-friendly.

If your budget is limited, hire me to evaluate your newsletter and suggest improvements that you can implement yourself.


Note: On January 28, 2014, I deleted the poll and replaced it with a screenshot of the poll results.

Guest bloggers: 2013 in review

I’m thankful for the knowledgeable and talented professionals who have contributed guest posts to my blog this year.

Here’s a list of guest posts, with links to the bloggers’ websites and Twitter accounts.






I also hosted some wonderful guest bloggers last year. See “Guest bloggers: 2012 in review.”

The FVP — The Fee Value Proposition

Communicating fees to clients and prospects challenges many advisors. After an interesting LinkedIn exchange about fees with advisor Richard Rosso, I asked him to turn his comments into a blog post. I hope you’ll continue the conversation in the “Comments” or on social media.

The FVP – The Fee Value Proposition
By Richard Rosso, MS, CIMA®, CFP®

If you ask a sample of advisors how they created their fee schedules and positioned them to the public, you’ll hear many different responses. Clients are sensitive to our fees – even more so after the financial crisis of 2008. According to a recent study conducted by Invesco Ltd, surprisingly, the word “fees” drew twice the rate of negative responses compared to the word “commissions,” when investors were surveyed.

I have four suggestions for communicating to prospects and clients the value of your fees.

1. Convince yourself. If you’re not truly convinced the partnership, guidance, and  relationship you provide are worth what you charge, you can’t passionately and straightforwardly converse about your fee structure with others. Each week, I write down three ways I’ve earned my fee, usually on a client-specific basis. I’m very tough on myself, too. I then input notes in Redtail (our CRM provider) so I may follow up on an issue or concern when a client least expects it. The key is to delight my clients so they appreciate what I offer.

2. Value first, fees last.  At times, I’ll be asked about fees even before I’ve had a chance to understand what a prospective client is seeking in a financial partner or if there’s even a fit. With those who are “fee obsessed,” it’s best to acknowledge the question – don’t avoid it. Then state how you will clearly explain fees once you have gained a better grasp on what’s important. Focus on open-ended questions and provide specifics regarding value you can provide. Frankly, prospects who begin with “fees first” are not a good fit most of the time.

3. Convert strengths into differentiators. Create a strong, clear value proposition. In his book, Stop Asking for Referrals, Stephen Wershing, CFP®, writes of converting strengths into differentiators through “Measure, Manage, Master,” which is what I practice. Don’t try to reinvent the wheel, just make sure your wheel has strong treads and gains traction when it counts.

It’s one thing to say you provide “good service.” It’s another level entirely to outline specific service objectives. Written standards are measured, managed (to make sure they’re followed) and mastered by responsible parties.

Our creation of an overarching, eleven-rule list of client deliverables, titled “The Vision Prism,” to complement our two levels of standards, reflects accountability to those we serve. Everyone at the firm must commit to The Vision Prism and sign the written promise. It’s clear: If you can’t commit, you can’t be part of the team.

Clients receive copies of our standards and are encouraged to hold us accountable. It’s one thing to say “you return phone calls quickly.” It’s another to place in writing “you will receive a returned phone call within three hours” and stick to that mandate. That’s how you justify fees charged.

4. Watch your language. Your words and delivery are important. If you don’t believe in your fee schedule, it’ll come through in your voice. If you can indeed deliver on your promises, then be confident. Also, I like to use the word “investment” when describing a fee. The fee is a client’s investment in the relationship, answers to planning questions, proactive communication of relevant issues, avoidance of behavioral pitfalls and financial education for them and their family members.

Try to keep it simple. Our fee is a percentage of assets under management charged quarterly. That’s it. We get paid by the client.

Investors are seeking greater value from their advisers along with a clear understanding of services provided.

No matter how you decide to structure fees for your advisory firm, what’s important is the message, the transparency and the value behind the numbers.


Richard Rosso is Senior Financial Adviser for Clarityfinancial, LLC based out of Houston, Texas. He is the author of the book Random Thoughts of a Money Muse, a cutting-edge, pop-culture and sometimes funny look at money and the real story behind financial dogma.