What exactly is it that stops investment people from writing in English?

Someone told me a story about a meeting in which an investment company client was briefing a very senior adman.  When the client got to the end, the adman said:  “I didn’t understand a single word of that.  Do it again, and for every word you use that I don’t understand, let’s both pay a pound to charity.”  By the end of the client’s first sentence, they owed the charity £7 each.

It’s an easy story to believe.  Here are two current examples on the same theme.

Among the many new second-generation online investment services launching at the moment, probably the one attracting the most attention is Nutmeg (www.nutmeg.co.uk). The brand promise is attractive:  in their words from their home page, “Putting your money to work has never been so simple, smart, or fair.”  But a bit further down the same page, we find this explanation:

Automatic, intelligent diversification and rebalancing.Our investment approach is grounded in Modern Portfolio Theory – the Nobel Prize-winning research that seeks to optimise returns for any given risk level. For each fund you create, we design a unique allocation from a set of carefully selected investments across different asset classes, industries and geographies. The more you invest, the more we diversify your funds, and if your allocation drifts off course, we rebalance it – automatically.”

Well, that veneer of simplicity turned out to be pretty thin, didn’t it?  Within three paras, we’ve broken through it to the usual investment mumbo-jumbo beneath, complete with a full set of the dullest, deadest words in the language – not just “optimise” (one of my own least-favourites) but also “approach,” “allocation,”  “selected,” “asset class,” and “rebalance.”  It’s the worst of both worlds – impossible for most people to understand, and dull as ditchwater to boot. They may be Nutmeg by name, but there’s little spice in the way they talk to me.

That said, I suppose that being boring and incomprehensible is marginally less damaging for the author of the communication than being almost universally misunderstood.  Schroders are advertising in the Tube at the moment, with a poster which, as far as I can see as I walk past, displays only the words “DEFENDING YOUR INCOME” as well as the logo and the small print.  I just can’t begin to imagine how those responsible for this headline, on client and agency side alike, didn’t realise that for Londoners travelling to and fro to work on the tube, “YOUR INCOME” must mean the money you earn from your employer, and if the idea of “DEFENDING” this means anything at all, it must mean something to do with protecting you against the financial consequences of unermployment.

Of course this isn’t at all what Schroders are proposing.  I’m not quite sure exactly what they are proposing, but I’m pretty sure it’s to do with some kind of income-generating fund that may offer some kind of secure or protected level of income – or, perhaps more likely, may just “DEFEND” your income in the sense that it offers you more of it than you can get from High Street savings accounts.

Assuming it’s the latter, it really isn’t a very difficult message to get across.  But Schroders have managed to make a pretty comprehensive hash of it – the problem, I suppose, being that even the simplest messages are quite difficult to communicate when you can’t actually express yourself in English.

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