Tag Archive for: plain English

Simple language helps your readers, even when they understand technical terms

Plain language helps your readers, even when they understand technical terms.

The Yahoo! Style Guide makes a great point on this topic:

Even if more technical or sophisticated language is appropriate for your site, your readers will appreciate simpler language in the areas where their eyes are scanning to determine what a page is about.

use simple language infographic

Example of how to use simple language

How does this apply to you? Let’s assume, for example, that you’re writing a piece about the Bloomberg Barclays Capital US Aggregate Bond Index. That’s quite a long name—too long for a snappy headline or heading.

If you are speaking face-to-face with bond geeks, you can probably refer to “the Agg” because you can judge from your conversation—and their faces—whether they understand your language. If you say “Bloomberg Barclays Capital US Aggregate Bond Index,” they’ll probably become impatient with the long-winded, overly precise language.

However, such “insider” language probably isn’t right for a printed piece. It’s too casual.

What’s the solution?

You could substitute “bond index” or “investment-grade bond index” in your headline or heading. As Yahoo suggests, this will help your readers to skim. If they don’t immediately realize you’re talking about the Agg, they’ll quickly pick it up when they dive into the body of your piece, where it’s good to be precise about your index.

Try using plain language. If you do it right, you’ll enjoy the results.

To learn more about plain language and other pillars of powerful written communications, check out the June 26 webinar, “How to Write Investment Commentary People Will Read.”

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.
Note: I’ve updated this post, which originally ran in April 2014.

Underline your way to less financial jargon

Using less financial jargon is a goal that most writers can agree on. But how can you get there? Reading Helen Sword’s Stylish Academic Writing, a book that’s useful for non-academics, too, gave me an idea.

Here’s a suggestion from Sword:

If you suspect that you suffer from jargonitis, start by measuring the scope of your addiction. Print out a sample of your academic writing and highlight every word that would not be immediately comprehensible to a reader from outside your own discipline.

Underlining the jargon would also be a great first step for financial writers. But simply underlining what you perceive as jargon won’t get you to your goal of using less financial jargon. I  have some suggestions for you.

1. Ask a member of your target audience to help

Your perception of jargon and your target audience’s perception may differ. For example, in a comment on my post, “Words to avoid in your investment communications with regular folks,” Dan Sondhelm said, “I teach portfolio managers to not say anything to do with a ‘bet’ or ‘exposure.’ ” Those words—especially “bet,” a one-syllable word that’s widely used by regular folks—may not sound like jargon to a financial project. However, in context, a member of your target audience may be confused.

To get a sense of your target audience’s perception, ask one of them to underline words in your sample. Don’t specify that they’re looking for jargon. Instead, ask  them to underline words that they’re not sure they understand in your context.

If your volunteer doesn’t underline much, perhaps they’re embarrassed to reveal their ignorance. Another test is to say, “Please explain this text in your own words.” If they parrot back your vocabulary, you must be using jargon—or writing in a way that’s difficult to understand. Either way, you’ve gained valuable feedback.

2. Rewrite your sample’s jargon-heavy sentences in at least two different ways

Play around with different ways to rewrite your jargon-heavy sentences. Then, let your rewrite sit overnight, at a minimum. The ideas will marinate in your head while you wait.

You may come up with your best rewrite on your last attempt.

I know you can’t invest this much time into writing every time. But doing it occasionally will shake up the way you think about writing.

3. Look up jargon in dictionaries or glossaries

Sometimes people use jargon because they don’t understand their topic well enough to use plain language.

Looking up jargon in one of the online resources I mention in “How to make one quarterly letter fit clients at different levels of sophistication” (see point #4. Provide a glossary), will help you to understand it. Then, you can replace the jargon with wording that your readers can grasp.

YOUR suggestions for using less financial jargon?

I’m curious to hear your suggestions for cutting the amount of jargon in financial writing.


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.


Image courtesy of stockimages at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

Keep it simple–or else!

If you want your readers to understand you, keep it simple.

You may be surprised by the American public’s low level of reading comprehension. More than 40 percent of adult, English-speaking hospital patients didn’t understand the following sentence:

Do not take this medication on an empty stomach.

This is according to Roger Lehrman’s “The Political Speechwriter’s Life,” which appeared in The New York Times (Nov 4, 2012). Yikes, this is scary.

Americans read, on average, at a seventh-grade level, according to Lehrman. If you want to reach them, you must write at their level. Here’s what Lehrman says about this:

You can’t hand your boss a speech saying, “It’s got all of your ideas. But 40 percent of your audience won’t know what you’re talking about.”

If you’re writing for a general audience, use plain English and keep it short. Short sentences also tend to be easier to understand.

What about writing for college-educated audiences?

You may think, “But my clients and prospects are all college-educated. Why should I keep it simple?”

Here’s my reply: your writing’s grade level is a measure of how hard you’re making your readers work to understand you. If you make their lives easier, they’re more likely to stick with you.

If your readership includes some more sophisticated readers, you can still appeal to them. I discuss some of these techniques in “How to make one quarterly letter fit clients at different levels of sophistication.”

Tools to help you assess your writing

To get a sense of your writing’s grade level, use the readability statistics in your word processing program or Hemingway App. If the numbers say you’re writing at a high grade level, you may benefit from rewriting your text.

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

April 2018 note: I replaced a no-longer-available tool with Hemingway App.

Monetary policy in plain English–Can you do better?

Monetary policy. If you’re a financial advisor or investment manager, you know exactly what that means. But what about your clients and other readers of your communications? Do they get it?

Sometimes it’s useful to give a brief explanation of technical terms, as I described in “How to make one quarterly letter fit clients at different levels of sophistication.”

Plain English may not come easily to you. If not, look elsewhere for ideas. The Wall Street Journal is a good source for explanations of such terms.

For example, here’s how columnist David Wessel explained monetary policy in “Central Bankers’ Political Conundrum“:

. . . the interest rates the Fed controls and its ability to print money and buy assets.

I like Wessel’s brief explanation. Sure, he could explain more, but writers must strike a balance between clarity and length.

How would YOU explain”monetary policy”?

There are other ways to explain “monetary policy.” If you have an equally good or even better explanation, please share it below.

If you have plain English challenges

Are there financial terms that you struggle to explain in plain English? If you share them below, I’ll consider them as the topic of a future blog post.

3 ways to speak plainly while giving financial advice

I love plain English.  So I was delighted to find a section called “Speaking in Plain English” in How to Give Financial Advice to Women: Attracting & Retaining High-Net-Worth Female Clients by Kathleen Burns Kingsbury. I’ve known the author since at least 2010, when she guest-blogged for me about “Five Tips for Delivering Bad News to Clients.”

Kingsbury suggests three ways to improve your in-person communications with clients.

1. Work with a partner

Work with a partner, suggests Kingsbury, following a method suggested by Jennifer Moran of Daintree Advisors. If you present to the clients while your colleague observes, your colleague can “be on jargon patrol” and watch for signs of client confusion, she says.

Your partner’s polite request for clarification of jargon, “allows the client to save face.” It’s probably a bit awkward for your colleague to attend strictly as an observer, but you could switch roles for part of the meeting.

If you attend enough meetings using this approach, I imagine that you’ll gradually improve your use of plain English.

2. Record some client meetings

Sometimes it’s not practical to bring a colleague to meetings. In that case, ask some clients if you can record meetings. Phrase your request carefully, so you don’t alarm them. “Explain that the purpose of the tape is to improve your communication skills and that it will be kept in confidence and promptly destroyed after it is reviewed,” says Kingsbury.

Later, listen critically to the tape. When you notice jargon, think about how to explain those ideas better the next time.

To take Kingsbury’s approach one step further, I suggest you test your plain English explanations on family members or friends who are not experts.

3.  Empower clients to stop you

“. . . empower your clients to stop you when you use words or concepts they are unfamiliar with,” suggests Kingsbury. In an email to me, she provided some suggestions about how to word the request.

In the financial field we use a lot of jargon. While I try not to do this in client meetings, sometimes I forget.  Please let me know if there is anything we discussed that you don’t understand or that you would like me to explain again.

Another way is to say,“We covered a lot today and I have a bad habit of talking in technical terms. I know you are very smart, but I want to make sure you understood what I covered today. Is there anything that you would like to go over again or have me explain in non-technical language?



Disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Kingsbury. At a quick glance, this book looks like a practical resource for advisors to women. It’s scheduled to become available on September 7, 2012, but you can pre-order on Amazon.