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5 questions to achieve clarity in financial services copywriting

I’m a big fan of Poynter’s Roy Peter Clark. He’s spent years teaching people how to transform hard facts into interesting reading. In September, he put a spin on his traditional approach, framing his tips into a 20-question checklist any writer can use. The goal is to achieve “civic clarity”, taking responsibility for what your readers know and understand.

Reading through these questions, five are ideal to ask in relation to financial services copywriting. When what you write influences someone’s decisions about their money (especially during a global crisis like the one we’re in), your two most important jobs are achieving accuracy and clarity. Here’s how asking these questions can help.

1. How would I explain this to a smart person that I know – who is NOT an expert?

Every year since 2018, VisibleThread has assessed the websites of over 60 of the largest asset management firms in the US. They measure readability, or how easy the content is to understand. And they’ve found that the average readability score of the websites is 37. In comparison, Moby Dick scores 58. That means the book considered one of the most challenging in history to read is easier than an asset management website.

Why is this? Often, firms assume that because they’re dealing with sophisticated customers, they can keep the content more complex. They’re concerned that using simpler language might offend or patronise, or even make their own brand seem less sophisticated. And yet the opposite is true.

As VisibleThread writes: “Even if customers can read content at a college level, they lead busy lives and do not have the time and mental capacity to spend closely digesting difficult content. Try not to assume that complexity is what they’re looking for. Readers appreciate clear and concise information void of jargon.”

Instead, imagine a smart person you know, who is not an expert, and write with them in mind. This will help you strike a good balance. You’ll avoid dumbing it down too far but remain clear enough that they’ll grasp your meaning on the first read.

2. Where is the jargon? What jargon terms can be avoided? Which ones need to be translated so that readers learn the secret codes?

Sometimes, jargon is necessary and unavoidable. It might even be important for your readers to use the terminology themselves in future. If there isn’t a simpler alternative, your job is to make readers totally familiar and comfortable with the terms.

Depending on the audience you’re writing for and where they are on their journey with you, decide how much jargon is necessary and appropriate. For average readers who are new to the topic, use the term, but then tag on an explanation or analogy. Analogies are powerful tools, especially when writing content for financial services. They make alien terms familiar and bring colour to duller topics.

This financial planning service, for instance, likened ‘market volatility’ to flight turbulence, making the concept more accessible to average readers. The benefit of doing this is that you’re empowering your audience, building trust in and reliance on you as a valuable source of information.

3. Where are the points of greatest complexity so that I can slow down the pace of information there?

A good teacher never expects a pupil to comprehend and learn everything at once. Even though the material makes sense to them, they ease learners into it. The same should go for writing.

Customers are approaching you for your experience and expertise. However, financial services copywriting is sometimes guilty of packing too much information into long sentences and paragraphs. It expects readers to follow along and absorb at a pace that actually causes eyes to glaze over. And what happens? Readers feel alienated.

Where there is complexity, introduce one concept at a time. Use shorter sentences and always write in the active voice. Aim for sentences not longer than 15 words, and paragraphs not longer than five sentences.

And if you’re explaining a process, reporting on performance or giving advice (e.g. how to get a mortgage), order the information in a logical sequence. What’s the first thing they need to know? Once they know this, what would their next question be?

4. Which are the necessary numbers? Which ones are unnecessary and can be avoided?

Financial services companies report on a lot of numbers. But when too many are combined with text, they become taxing to read. Your reader is more likely to skim the numbers or easily forget them. To avoid this, keep only the most important numbers in the text. Help your reader understand the significance of these numbers and then pull the rest out into a separate graph, infographic, table or list. That way, your reader will pay attention to and remember the critical numbers, but also be able to easily reference the others.

5. Can I say with certainty that I have found my focus — the one key piece of knowledge I want to impart? If so, do all elements support it?

There’s a lot of subject matter experts in financial services. Their knowledge is invaluable, however, when we know a lot about a topic, it’s tempting for us to want to share all that we know. In writing, we need to shift our mindset to giving readers what they need, not what we want to tell them.

There’s a great technique in speech writing called framing, which is useful for focusing any communication. Sabina Nawaz explains how it works:

“Framing starts with capturing the essence of your [message] as briefly as possible. One sentence (at most, two) is optimal. This frame opens your [message] and should be a continuous thread woven throughout.”

To find your focus, ask: what does my audience care about most? What problem do they want to solve? Frame your writing around this, using headings, subheadings, blurbs and captions to reinforce your message. Scrutinise every paragraph, making sure it supports your main message.

About us

As a copywriting company, we’ve been helping financial services firms implement these techniques, finding their sweet spot with the right tone of voice, influential content and transparent, accessible language. Head over to our financial services copywriting page to learn more.