They say that to a person who only has a hammer, everything looks like a nail. I don’t have a hammer, but what I do have is a degree in English, and a lengthy career in which I calculate that I’ve written not too far short of five million words, mostly in the form of advertising and marketing copy.
So to me, an awful lot of things look like writing problems – or, more accurately, problems that can be solved, wholly or in large part, by the way we express ourselves in writing. Two good examples would be:
- How to differentiate our business from the many others doing more or less the same thing
- How to engage, involve and interest customers and prospects in what we want to say to them.
Many people would agree that right across the world of financial services – from the very biggest institutions to the very smallest one-person advice firms – these two questions are both important, and difficult to answer.
I certainly agree that they’re important. Seeming different from other firms, in some positive, affordable and sustainable way, may well be the single most powerful secret of business success. And engaging and involving customers is probably the single most powerful secret of building valuable, loyal and profitable relationships with them.
However, I don’t really think I would agree that either of these things is difficult to do. In fact, both these birds can be killed stone-dead with a single stone. Our world is still an exceptionally verbal one. Words matter in financial services. Whatever the subject, there’s a lot we have to say (often, though by no means always, at the insistence of the regulator) and a great deal more we can choose to say. In this era of so-called content marketing, for example, literally millions of words of investment commentary and analysis are published every single day on the internet.
And yet, off the top of my head, I can’t think of a single UK financial services business that expresses itself distinctively and engagingly in writing. In fact, I can’t think of one that expresses itself distinctively or engagingly. To put it another way, if you gave me samples of organisations’ copy with all the branding taken out, I’d have absolutely no confidence that I could recognise a single one of them. And I can’t think offhand of a single organisation whose copy I positively look forward to reading.
Even if you think I’m exaggerating, you have to admit I’m not exaggerating much. And you also have to admit that it’s a very odd state of affairs. Good writing costs no more than bad or mediocre writing. It’s not significantly harder to get. It doesn’t take up more space, or cause any practical problems. It’s no more likely to get you into trouble with the regulator. And yet, try as I might, as I hunt around the websites of literally dozens of firms – concentrating today exclusively on financial advice firms – I simply can’t find any.
If you know of examples that I’m missing, please do let me know – it would cheer me up to read a few. If you can think of reasons for this boundless ocean of mediocrity, please let me know them too – you’d solve a mystery that’s been bugging me for years.
And finally, if you feel the need to grumble about any aspects of the tone of voice in this article – always an occupational hazard whenever I write about writing – then I guess that’s fine too. But, for goodness sake, not that ridiculous nonsense about how you can’t start a sentence with “and” or “but.” If it’s good enough for 32 out of the 34 sentences in the first book of Genesis in the King James Bible, it’s more than good enough for a blog on the Nucleus website.