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A Writing Lesson from Warren Buffett

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If your readers can’t understand your writing, you’re wasting their time and yours. That’s why plain language writing is so important.

It doesn’t help that financial services is filled with jargon and technical terms that are truly hard to simplify.

Nevertheless, forward-thinking companies in the financial services industry know why plain language is essential and so do the regulators, as even the Securities Exchange Commission (SEC) has got into the game with its A Plan Language Handbook.

Who do you think the SEC got to write the preface? None other than Warren Buffett, who wrote: “To succeed, I don’t need to be Shakespeare; I must, though, have a sincere desire to inform.”

“To succeed, I don’t need to be Shakespeare; I must, though, have a sincere desire to inform.”

Yes, it’s another keeper from the Oracle of Omaha.

Financial services communications needs plain language

Very few people need to understand a research paper on particle physics … and very few people would even try. From a practical, day-to-day perspective, knowing or not knowing what’s inside that research paper will not affect our lives. So physics papers can stay technical.

But let’s look at financial services communications.

Articles about, let’s say, diversifying an investment portfolio are read by many people with different knowledge levels, from your son to your grandmother. Although their investment knowledge varies, the importance of diversification, for example, does not.

Understanding financial concepts can make or break a healthy and happy retirement for all readers.

Plain language writing can help the financial services industry build trust

The implications of language that obscures, confuses or misdirects are broad. Readers may think the writer is hiding something, is out of touch or simply does not care. Even worse, the reader may misinterpret such convoluted writing.

Obviously, people who write financial services copy (from brochures to monthly commentaries) are not hoping for or expecting these outcomes, but that doesn’t stop these unwanted feelings from forming.

Unfortunately, plain language writing is not easy.

That Buffett wrote “sincere desire” is telling. Because the deeper you get into plain language, the more you realize that putting together a short list of plain language rules, or a “tips and tricks” document, is going to be difficult.

In many ways, plain language is more of a mind shift than a technical one. Here are a few more plain language resources that can help you get started:

Given that we are all affected by the financial world, “readers” are not just investors and savers, but everyone. And everything that gets in the way of plain language writing should be removed.

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