Consider Your Words

Who doesn’t want to look smart? In our efforts to appear knowledgeable, it’s all too tempting to begin switching out simple words and phrases for more complex ones or to use words that can mean one thing to us but something very different to clients.

In the classic book, The Elements of Style by Strunk & White, the authors recommend omitting “needless words.” For example, don’t say “owing to the fact that…” when “because” will do.

Our tendency to over-inflate our language was examined in a study published by Applied Cognitive Psychology, humorously titled, “Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly.” The study found that when someone uses overly complex words and phrases, the listener actually rates the speaker as less intelligent. A few examples from our world include:

  • Holistic—when advisors want to convey that they look at all aspects of a client’s financial life. Other than the practice of “holistic medicine,” I can’t recall anyone using this word in everyday conversation. If you want to emphasize that you are thorough or take a complete view of finances, just say so directly.
  • Transparent or transparency—when advisors want to explain that nothing is hidden or that they are upfront about something. No one describes Abraham Lincoln as “transparent,” nor should you describe yourself that way. Much better options are “clear” and “straightforward.”

“Risk” is an example of a word that can carry different meanings. To a financial planner, risk may mean uncertainty or degree of volatility. To a client, risk is more likely to communicate danger or the possibility of losing money. No one seems to mind upside risk; it’s the downside risk that everyone worries about.

Take time to consider your words. Keep them clear and be concise. After all, your goal is to communicate your message.

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