The industry is going through one of its periodic bouts of jargon-bashing. Paul Bradshaw was at it on Friday, speaking at an Investment Week conference. Someone – probably Lucy Kellaway – wrote an agitated piece in the FT recently. One of my clients says he’s determined to stamp it out. But of course, the over-arching truth is that despite this latest in a frequent recurrence of paroxysms, jargon lives on.
How come? How has jargon achieved this Japanese Knotweed-like indestructability? If it has so many enemies, who are the friends fighting with such evident success for its survival?
Some are just fools who don’t know any better. But to find jargon’s most powerful ally, you need look no further than the organisation tasked with ensuring that consumers understand what’s said to them – step forward jargon’s best friend, our regulator, the FCA.
How so? Simple. The FCA insists that financial services providers must explain their products and services in microscopic detail to anyone who’s thinking about buying one. (Actually, slightly lesser amounts of detail – say a magnifying glass’s worth – have to be explained to people who aren’t thinking of buying one, for example in awareness-building advertisements.) These requirements are so onerous that in some cases – for example, complex packaged bank accounts – the terms and conditions run to the length of a shortish novel, up to about 60,000 words.
I know there’s room for debate about whether every single word is actually necessary, or indeed required by the regulator. But such is the climate of fear that compliance departments will brook no argument. If in doubt, leave it in.
But my key point is not contentious: if you try to write something technical without jargon, it’ll come out much, much longer. Jargon is basically a system of shorthand – a code, if you like, which allows the compression of communication. Trouble is, it only works if both the writer and the reader can understand the code – and all too often, in financial services, the reader doesn’t.
That’s where my semi-automatic gearbox comes in. Imagine that you have to explain this to someone who has no knowledge of the workings of any kind of gearbox and cannot drive a car. Where do you have to start to make your explanation understandable to them? I’d say that clearly explaining the concept of a gearbox at all would take the best part of a page of A4 – then probably another page to distinguish semi-automatic gearboxes from manual and fully automatic ones.
And of course even if you had the time, talent and energy to do this, you’d still face a terrible problem: hardly anyone would have any interest in reading it. 5% already know, and the other 95% don’t care. So, OK, maybe you can solve that problem by writing with great wit, style and reward, and get quite a lot of people through your two pages-worth. And now you have another 199 systems in the vehicle that you have to explain.
So, of course, you don’t. You use the jargon three-word phrase. And at least arguably, that’s fine. One of the words – “gearbox” – is understood by all drivers anyway, and another – “automatic” – by most. The “semi” bit will baffle many, but a) it’s not going to kill them, and b) there’s no regulator hovering on the sidelines ready to pounce if they don’t like what you’re doing.
Compare this situation with a fund manager offering, say, an actively-managed UK equity fund. The only bit of that which more than 10% of the population understands is “UK” (and even then they don’t really understand it – they’d be fairly stunned to find Khazakstani mining companies listed in London in the portfolio). How long is it going to take to explain these five words? Another page of A4? Two pages?
A phrase I think I use quite often in this blog is “don’t get me wrong.” Of course I’m not in favour of baffling poor old consumers with completely mystifying bullshit. Nor am I in favour of over-complex an/or manipulative products with nasty surprises deliberately hidden away half-way through 60,000 words of small print. And of course I believe that good writing can keep people’s attention even when your subject is of no interest to them.
But, all of that said, the sheer quantity of information required of us by the regulator is the root cause of the jargon mountain still present in our communications. The choice that we financial writers face every day is a choice between incomprehensible jargon, and unmanageable length. Not least because, sadly, we’re not paid by the word, we often choose the former.