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Seven Ways to Talk Your Financial Execs Out of Jargon and Bad Writing

by Susan Weiner  |  
October 18, 2013
  |  4,140 views

Marketing and communications professionals know how to write well. However, sometimes you struggle to get your firm's executives to recognize the power of good writing. You edit their text, but the execs put the jargon and longwinded, indirect language back in. I have seven tips for how to win over your subject-matter experts.

1. Use the Oracle of Omaha

When I push for plain language, sometimes my asset manager clients say they're worried they'll be seen as "dumb." That's not justified.

I tell them to look at Warren Buffett. His annual letter to Berkshire Hathaway's shareholders relies heavily on plain language. Yet the report is widely discussed by sophisticated financial professionals. I've never heard anyone call Warren Buffet dumb because of the way he writes.

Buffett writes like you imagine a trustworthy person would talk. For example, "A number of good things happened last year, but let's first get the bad news out of the way," he says on page 3 of his 2012 shareholder letter (PDF). He admits that the firm's 2012 gains were "subpar." He says it's even possible that the firm may lose its record of consistently outperforming the Standard & Poor's 500 Index over consecutive five-year periods.


It's easy to imagine a different company burying the bad news at the bottom of the letter or even in the footnotes. Other companies surely would have used stuffier language to convey such news.

Buffett's style works for various reasons:

  • A plainspoken style instills trust in investors. For example, its 2010 full-service investor survey spurred J.D. Power and Associates to recommend boosting investor trust with methods that include honest communication about investment performance and plain explanations for fees and commissions, according to "Study: Why focus on people, not profits, increases investor trust." On a similar note, "investors are no longer impressed with jargon. They want to understand their investments without learning the definitions to unfamiliar words," according to "New Word Order," (PDF) part of the Invesco White Paper Series. Moreover, "when Invesco tested the phrase 'institutional-quality money management,' one focus-group member asked why prison inmates were handling the money," according to an article in The Wall Street Journal.
  • The directness of Buffett's writing saves time for readers. Everybody's busy. They can save time by reading data-supported statements like this: "Our insurance operations shot the lights out last year. While giving Berkshire $73 billion of free money to invest, they also delivered a $1.6 billion underwriting gain, the tenth consecutive year of profitable underwriting." Though a securities analyst and a portfolio manager might want to dig into the annual report for more details, these sentences give them a quick idea of what to seek.
  • It's entertaining. Whether you're an investor, an analyst, or a random reader, you'll find something to make you smile in Buffett's reports, which are regularly discussed in articles such as The Wall Street Journal's "Warren Buffett's Annual Berkshire Letter: The Highlights."

I imagine that some industry experts would read Buffett even if he wrote terribly; his investment insights are respected. However, weak writing would limit his reach.


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Susan Weiner, CFA, is the author of Financial Blogging: How to Write Powerful Posts That Attract Clients, which is tailored to financial planners, wealth managers, investment managers, and the marketing and communications staff that supports them. Read her blog or follow her on the Investment Writing Facebook page.

Twitter: @susanweiner

Google+: Susan Weiner

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  • by Larry Logan Fri Oct 18, 2013 via web

    Susan, great article. I struggle at times with executives who fight to keep long winded, compound sentences. Often they say, with tighter and simpler copy, "but that doesn't sound like me." I'm trying to show them that maybe we can meet in the middle, but in any event the goal is to get read!

    John Simmons is perhaps the master at creating simpler business communications with some great books on the topic.

  • by Susan Weiner Fri Oct 18, 2013 via web

    Larry,

    Is there a specific book by John Simmons that you recommend?

    I'm so glad you liked my article.

  • by Larry Logan Fri Oct 18, 2013 via web

    Susan, start with We, Me, Them & It. It shows great examples of how to write clearly, simply, and leave the jargon out. Then go with Room 121.

    The Invisible Grail is more specific to brands and how they communicate, but again the examples would be helpful to any business seeking to better connect with their audiences.

  • by Susan Weiner Fri Oct 18, 2013 via web

    Thank you, Larry!

  • by Susan K Becker Fri Oct 18, 2013 via web

    Delightful surprise to find your characteristic sound and sensible advice at MarketingProfs!

  • by Susan Weiner Sat Oct 19, 2013 via web

    Thank you, Susan Becker!

  • by Gracious Store Mon Oct 21, 2013 via web

    the best way to communicate is to use plain terms, you use technical jargon only if all your audience are professionals and they all understand the technical jargon

  • by Elaine V. Marquis Mon Nov 4, 2013 via web

    Susan, this is a great article! This is a struggle that all marketers face.

  • by Richard Pelletier Thu Nov 7, 2013 via web

    Susan, hi,
    Better yet, Susan, take one of John Simmons workshops in Spain, or Oxford or Scotland. They are amazing, fun, inspiring. Here's my review of We, Me, Them, It. I was so excited when I read that book.
    Funny, it was John Simmons who introduced Larry and me to one another. John is a great person and a beautiful writer and mentor.
    http://www.lucidcontent.com/the-empire-writes-back/

  • by Carole Douglis Thu Apr 24, 2014 via web

    Thanks for the article, Susan. Great examples.

    I've led a lot of workshops in clear writing for scientific researchers, and see some of the same resistance.
    My experience has been that the really top-knotch guys (and gals) "get" this and want to know more. The young ones are usually interested and trainable. But that middle batch--sort of middle-management--are most wedded to their clotted jargon and bureaucratese. I even had some tell me, "I get all the funding I need. Why do I need to write better?"
    Is that what you find too?

    By the way, my favorite book on clear writing is still Zinnser, On Writing Well.

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