All it takes is one business to cut through

Charlie Corbett on the language of financial services

Charlie Corbett has a way with words. A corporate communications specialist, executive coach and author, we invited him onto the Upfront podcast for some serious straight-talking about the language of financial services and how we can make it more accessible.

In a career that spans almost two decades in finance and the media, Charlie’s worked as a senior financial journalist and editor at the FT Group, The Wall Street Journal, Euromoney and Morningstar, and as a communications consultant copywriter for numerous banks and asset managers. Yet the language used in the industry remains a mystery to him.

“I've been in this business 20 years covering capital markets, financial bubbles, all of that. Most days, I'll read something that I have to read three times to get to the bottom of.”

And there’s one thing in particular that gets him going.

“Everyone is using the same language. Name a company or fund manager that doesn’t describe itself as innovative. Everyone’s innovative, and if everyone’s innovative, no one’s innovative. We don’t realise we’re doing it because we’re surrounded by it. We don’t use good, crisp, sharp verbs. It’s always ‘enhancing’ things or ‘empowering’. Why do we have to speak like this? Why the nonsense?”

His frustration with ‘vague generalities’ and ‘marketing speak’ led to the creation of what he calls his ‘quadrant of shame’, a list of words so overused he says they have lost all meaning.

“I started a blog on LinkedIn, this sort of ‘Quadrant of Shame’ that I put up of heinously overused words. There’s nothing wrong with the words, but they become meaningless when they’re used so often. There are many words I’d like to ban, especially verbs turned into nouns”

If anyone knows how to cut through the “gobbledygook” and “nonsense”, it’s Charlie. He won the Plain English Campaign's Communicator of the Year in 2018 for his first book, The Art of Plain Speaking, which also won the Best Short Book category at the Business Book Awards in 2019.

“My book was born out of frustration. I thought I'm going to teach companies how to communicate with the world and write in a pithy, interesting and engaging way.”

Charlie now trains people in business - particularly finance - to take complex ideas and articulate them in a simple, concise and meaningful way. Something that is often easier said than done.

“If you write something short and gets to the point is always like, ‘Oh, that's not worthy’. If you write a huge log, it's suddenly seemed to be more worthy. It’s harder to be concise. As Mark Twain said, ‘I'm sorry, I wrote such a long letter; I didn't have time to write a short one’.

Everyone is using the same language. Everyone’s innovative, and if everyone’s innovative, no one’s innovative.

So what advice does he have for the industry?

“Think of your audience as a human being who got up that morning, spilt the coffee and got stressed out. Think about them in those terms. We need reassurance, we fear for the future, and we love a laugh. Try and hit those buttons.”

For more tips, read our article

‘How to build a financial services business that speaks to people’.

Charlie’s Quadrant of shame

Heinously overused words that have lost all meaning. How many of them are you guilty of using?

There are many, many more. You must train your nose to sniff them out!
Copyright: Charlie Corbett

Listen to the Mind your language episode for more straight-talking advice from Charlie.

What I love about financial services

It is part of us. It underpins everything we do and has done since mankind invented the wheel. I love being able to explain its relevance to people or to take complex ideas and simplify them, making them easily understandable for people. It'll never go away.

Charlie Corbett - Writer