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.”

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.


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5 proofreading tips for quarterly investment reports

Proofreading quarterly investment communications stresses people. Tight deadlines and client demands add to the pressures on a small department. However, creating checklists and processes will ease the strain. I have some suggestions to help you be accurate and avoid stylistic inconsistencies and typos.

This post started as a response to the tweet you see here.Tweet asking about proofing

1. Create checklists for data

There’s nothing worse than sending out a third-quarter report that’s labeled as a second-quarter report. This almost happened to me early in my days as a director of investment communications. That near miss inspired my love of checklists.

When writing quarterly communications, create a list of data that must be updated. This is especially important if you start writing in a quarterly template document that holds the last quarter’s data.

Another way that I manage this when updating documents with previous-quarter data is to turn on Microsoft Word’s “Track Changes” feature. I know that most of the document should turn red with changes before I “accept all changes” and start proofreading.

A variation of this data checklist is a list of common errors that you review just before you hit “send” on your document.

2. Create a style guide

Typos, poor punctuation, and stylistic inconsistencies are more likely when you lack a style guide. You can adopt a standard style guide, such as the Associated Press Stylebook or The Chicago Manual of Style. However, you still benefit from a style guide specific to your company. Your guide will cover issues those guides avoid, such as how to spell the plural of “Treasury” or whether a portfolio is overweight “in” or “to” a sector.

Read more about my take on style guides for investment managers.

3. Use technology that identifies weaknesses

Your word processing software’s grammar and spell checker isn’t perfect, but it’s still worthwhile. I supplement mine with PerfectIt software, which checks for consistency in your usage.

There’s also software that will help you to identify larger issues of style and grammar. Hemingway is a free app that assesses the difficulty level of your sentences and suggests some ways to improve them. Grammarly is another option.

4. Read your work out loud—or get software to read it

When you do heavy editing, it’s hard for you to see the typos and other weaknesses in your work. That’s why I initially used Adobe Acrobat Pro to read out loud, as I described in “Why I love Adobe Acrobat Pro for proofreading.” Now that I have a version of Microsoft Word that can convert text to speech, I use that. I can hear problems that I can’t see.

5. Use a fresh pair of eyes

In an ideal world, a professional proofreader will review your work. That happens at some of my larger clients. When my client agreement permits, I often hire an outside proofreader to review the first complete draft. A pro who knows the industry will do the best job but any set of competent fresh eyes is likely to help.

If you lack the luxury of outside help, see if a colleague can review your work. Or, leave your work overnight—or at least for an hour—before you review it with fresh eyes.

More resources

For more proofreading tips, check out “Six ways to stop sending emails with errors.” You can test your proofreading skills weekly with Mistake Monday.  Check the Investment Writing Facebook page on Monday mornings.

Six ways to stop sending emails with errors
Six ways to stop sending emails with errors


Do you have tips for proofreading? Please join the conversation.

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NOTE: This post was updated to remove references to the free Consistency Checker, and hOw wE eDiT wRiTTeN cOnTenT, which are no longer available.

If a “nobody” wrote Jeremy Grantham’s quarterly letter…

Jeremy Grantham of GMO is a thinker whose words command attention. Financial professionals will read his quarterly investment letters regardless of how well they’re written. But if an unknown strategist delivered the same content, she or he would not benefit from the same indulgence. In fact, few people might have advanced beyond the initial paragraph about his busy schedule. This realization prompted me to think about how I’d rewrite “The Shortest Quarterly Letter Ever,” Grantham’s December 2011 missive.

Headings: An easy fix for bullet point overload

The first two pages of Grantham’s four-page letter consists almost solely of bullet points. It isn’t easy for the human brain to process more than three to six bullet points.

If Grantham didn’t have time to do more than write bullet points, he could have asked a colleague to group his bullet points by topic under a heading. For example, he has a number of bullet points addressing the position of the U.S., which could have been grouped under headings such as

  • Challenges faced by the U.S. and the rest of the developed world
  • America’s competitive weaknesses vs. other countries
  • American social weaknesses

My headings may not be perfect, but they offer more direction to the reader who skims the letter. Right now, the only headings seen by the reader are not informative: “Notes to Myself” and “Recommendations.” Based on these headings, I’d zoom right to “Recommendations,” missing the views that underlie Grantham’s recommendations.

Bold type: Another easy aid to reading

Bold type is another way to help readers distinguish what’s more important.

For example, the following is a sentence I might have bolded in Grantham’s letter:

When one of these old fashioned but typical declines occurs, professional investors, conditioned by our more recent ephemeral bear markets, will have a permanent built-in expectation of an imminent recovery that will not come.

However, this sentence is currently buried in a 15-line paragraph. However, I do like that the paragraph starts with a bolded phrase: “No Market for Young Men.” This phrase helps readers grasp the point that Grantham gradually builds toward in his paragraph. The graph that follows is also helpful.

Massive overhaul

If I had my druthers, I’d rewrite this piece into paragraphs. The piece would start with an introductory overview. It would use headings, and possibly subheadings.

Here’s my quick, bullet-pointed introduction to Grantham’s content, with an emphasis on his strongest point.

S&P Headed for a L-O-N-G Correction

The U.S. stock market could be headed for a 14-year correction, if historical averages for corrections following bubbles hold true. Other negatives for the U.S. include

  • Demographics that also plague the rest of the developed world
  • Inadequate savings
  • The weaknesses in our infrastructure, education, and government
  • Social issues, such as greater income inequality

In light of these and other factors, I recommend

  • Avoiding low quality U.S. stocks
  • Tilting toward safety
  • Avoiding duration risk
  • Moving slowly into resources in the ground

If you’re not a “Grantham”

If you write investment commentary–and you’re not a strategist of Grantham’s stature–please keep my suggestions in mind as you draft your quarterly market commentary.

You’ll find links to more investment commentary tips in “Resources for quarterly investment commentary writers.”

Feb. 8, 2018 update: I removed the broken link to Grantham’s commentary, which is no longer available online.

Six tips for snaring reporters with your market commentary

Chief investment officers, strategists, and portfolio managers sink a lot of energy and brain power into their quarterly market commentary. If you’re among them, your return on investment should include greater visibility in the media.

Here are six tips to help you achieve your publicity goal.

1. Publish your investment commentary – or at least some brief observations – prior to quarter-end.

Most newspapers publish their quarterly stock and bond market report the day after quarter-end. So they must conduct their interviews before asset management firms receive final benchmark returns and other analytical inputs. Journalists can’t wait for you to polish your commentary. Consider writing a first draft of your quarterly commentary two to three weeks prior to quarter-end, so you can send it to reporters on the timetable that works best for them, not you.

In calm markets, you may only need to drop in benchmark returns after quarter-end. This was often the case when I wrote economic as well as stock and bond market commentary with Columbia Management’s chief investment strategist. Even in volatile times, you’re unlikely to find yourself discarding all of your pre-quarter-end writing.

2. “Think different.”

Just as Apple successfully, although ungrammatically, markets itself as different from other computers, you should stress to reporters how your views differ from other investment commentators.

This is easiest when, for example, the crowd fears inflation, but you foresee deflation. But even when you agree with the consensus, you can distinguish yourself with a striking analogy, statistic, or sound bite.

3. Make it easy for reporters to grasp your market commentary’s main points.

Just like you, journalists are busy, so they may only skim your headline or first paragraph. Don’t title your piece “Fourth Quarter 2010 Commentary” or lead with “During the fourth quarter, the S&P 500 returned X.X%…” Instead, smack the reader with your most interesting point. For example, “Trading volume indicators suggest a less volatile 2011.”

Follow your provocative headline with a brief summary of your main points. A few bullet points may make your introduction easier to scan.

4. Connect electronically with reporters.

Your commentary will get stale if you wait to send a professionally printed copy via U.S. mail. This is why I recommend email and social media.

As for email, you’ll get better results if you ask reporters’ permission before adding them to your quarterly email. Plus, a phone call gives you the opportunity to start a personal relationship with the reporters by asking about their “beats” (the topics they cover) and what kinds of sources they need.

Social media are also a great way to circulate your commentary. LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook can get broader exposure for your compliance-approved material with little additional effort or legal risk.

One of the easiest ways to do this is to post your commentary as your Linked In status update, as I explained in “How can I post my investment commentary on LinkedIn?

5. Find reporters who are looking for you.

Your professional association may have a media relations manager who fields requests from reporters looking for sources. Wearing my reporter hat, I’ve often contacted the CFA Institute, Financial Planning Association, and National Association of Personal Financial Advisors for help finding sources. Some associations send email blasts to any members who sign up. Others hand-pick interviewees. Some handle PR locally; others work best at the national level. Contact your professional association to ask how its PR activities work.

6. Make it easy for reporters to work with you.

  • Reply promptly to journalists’ inquiries. They’re almost always in a hurry.
  • Give your full name, title, company name, city, state, and phone number in your emails to ensure any article gets your details right. This also makes it easy for the reporter to contact you with follow-up questions.
  • Listen carefully to reporters’ questions before answering them.
  • Offer to email related materials to the reporter. Sometimes a graph or table can earn you bigger play in an article.

What are you waiting for? You can start today by posting your firm’s third quarter commentary as your LinkedIn status.

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