Advocating for “Plain Language”

My husband, a bona fide rocket scientist, recently threw down a trade confirmation in complete disgust. Now I’ve seen that man read technical manuals from cover to cover, but he couldn’t get through that confirmation. He doesn’t care much for many other financial disclosure documents.

And this is despite the “plain English” mandates laid down by the SEC since the 1990s. In early 2011, the SEC further expanded its plain-English requirements to cover investment philosophies, fee schedules and conflicts of interest in Form ADV Part 2. (The SEC’s plain English requirements are itemized on the first page of the general instructions for Part 2 of Form ADV.) By April, many investors saw the results in new Form ADV “brochures” and in the fee disclosures on their trade confirmations.

I sincerely hope financial communicators get a stronger say in how these materials are written and designed because many of them still look and read like legal documents.

According to SEC chairman Arthur Levitt: “For years, I have pressed for “plain English” in financial documents that go to the investing public, but with only mixed success. The problem, it appears, is that such efforts get tugged into the ditch by the irresistible pull of legal jargon.” (“A Word to Wall Street: ‘Plain English’ Please,” The Wall Street Journal, April 2, 2011).

While financial documents have less jargon than they did in the past, they still contain long, complex sentences with multiple clauses. The avalanche of words exhibits the irresistible pull of the legal department.

I’ve been writing for financial firms for a long time so I understand that lawyers are a critical member of the communications team. However, the SEC mandate says that “[t]he items in Part 2 of Form ADV are designed to promote effective communication between you and your clients.” Their italics, not mine. This is the province of professional writers and editors.

Communication is, after all, about making connections. That’s why I think the financial industry should focus on “plain language.” Language is more than word choice. It should give readers information – in the words of the Center for Plain Language – information they can “find, understand and use.” The center’s Plain Language Checklist goes beyond the words to advocate for design, structure and hierarchy. Design reinforces meaning and makes it easier for the audience to see, process and use the information. The structure is well-marked so the audience can find the information it needs. Hierarchy helps the audience distinguish between critical and less important information.

Which brings me back to that trade confirmation my husband tossed aside. The document included two pages of disclaimers about fees printed in entirely in capital letters and without a single subhead or bullet point. It would have benefited from the experience of someone who understands the importance of design, structure, and hierarchy—in other words, a financial communicator. We can help.

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