How can financial services be more accessible?

“We need a little less selling, a little more conversation.”

Upfront is here to find out what’s getting in the way of people having a better relationship with their finances and financial services. And, like all good relationships, it’s got to start with good communication and finding common ground.

We shouldn’t expect people to need a dictionary to decode their investment advice, or have a PhD to understand their pension plans and super statements. If we can educate everyone about eating five-a-day to stay healthy and ‘slip, slop, slap’ to avoid sun damage, can’t we make financial services easier to understand?

That was the upfront question we put to two experts who spend their working days immersed in the language of financial services - Julia Newbould, former editor of Money Magazine Australia and now Managing Editor of Conexus Financial, and Charlie Corbett, ex-FT journalist and founder and director of the Plain Speaking Institute in the UK.

We asked Julia and Charlie what needs to happen to make the language of financial services more accessible. You can listen to the full podcast or read on for a little of what they had to say:

Let’s get straight to it, do we need to mind the language of financial services?

Charlie Language is a big challenge, as we know in this sector. I don't think there's enough effort to relate directly to people's experiences with finance and the importance of finance in their life. I think with financial services, it's a prisoner of its own vague generalities. It's marketing speak, and everybody's got an innovative fund with long term, sustainable returns and all this kind of thing. But it doesn't have any meaning. Everyone is innovative. And if everyone's innovative, no one is innovative.

“If your audience doesn't connect with that language, they’re not going to connect with you.”

Julia There is a lot of talk about wealth management and wealth creation but if your audience doesn't connect with that language, they’re not going to connect with you. Think more about the questions people ask themselves and the language they really use - ‘can I afford to send my kids to private schools, can I buy that car, quit work?’. Companies that can do that successfully will come out on top. If it's a group that wants to connect with women or people of a certain income or an industry, whoever gets there first will be able to profit from that and then the others will follow.

What about jargon? Is there too much jargon in financial services?

Charlie 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. It's because the person who's writing it probably doesn't understand it. And so they just used all the words that they hear and they put them all together. And that’s a problem.

Julia I always feel that when you try to explain concepts, you've got to be able to explain it to, you know, the people in your house, no matter how old or young they are or what kind of educational background they've got because they're real people. And drop the jargon. When a piece of marketing material goes out, if a real person could just have a read and say, ‘I don't get this’, that would be really helpful. Then whoever wrote it , could then go back and put it in plain speak so it helps the consumer, and it would also help the companies.

There is obviously a market and a space for people to look for financial advice. What do you both think about people getting financial advice on Twitter and Facebook and from influencers on TikTok?

Julia I think it's good to have more information out there and to have people actually talking about finance. That's a good thing. And for some of the influencers and the Facebook groups that I follow, you also get really good information from the other people in those groups. You need to do a bit of your own research, but just to have that conversation out there and maybe then you learn who you can trust and so on. But it's also a bit of an unregulated area at the moment, so that's a warning as well.

Charlie Yeah, I think it's great. I don't know if you have Mumsnet in Australia, but there’s nothing wrong with something like Mumsnet for finance because it's reassuring and there will be people that explain in words of one syllable, and it will break down the barriers. But as you say, it's not regulated, so you've got to be a bit careful.

Julia Just generally editing Money Magazine in Australia, we had a lot of people just seeking financial information during the pandemic, just worried about how they could save what they had, how they would manage if they lost work. It really increased our readership, to be honest, and I think it's kind of stayed that way. People are a lot more engaged with their finances now.

If we put the issue of language aside for a minute, is there anything you'd like to share that you love about the financial services industry?

Julia There are a lot of things I love about it, like the fact it can help people. Financial services companies can really help people achieve goals by helping you put your money into something hard working. There are a lot of financial planners who do a really great job of helping mitigate risks, budget better and generally help people get to a better place. A lot of people just don't understand the simple concepts of budgeting and saving and so on and good financial services can help fix that.

Charlie Financial services is actually so innate, it is part of us. Everything we do, it underpins and has done since mankind invented the wheel. It is so fundamental. I love being able to explain its relevance to people or to take complex ideas and simplify them, make them easily understandable for people - and this idea that, you know, the butterfly changes interest rates in Washington and there's a financial tsunami in Asia. Everything matters, and it underpins all politics, all our everyday lives, supply and demand. It'll never go away. And yet, because it's financial services, it just feels like that's something other people do.

Julia Just as a basic concept, you can borrow money and achieve things today that you couldn't otherwise have, or find someone who can invest for you, who can put money into things that will make you more money that you probably couldn't choose yourself. So I think there are a lot of opportunities, but I think it's what Charlie says: it's called financial services. It's distant, or over there.

When I wrote The Joy of Money, it was about the idea that money is actually part of your life. Whatever it is in your life, whatever changes you want to make - whether it's jobs, relationships, location - you've got to figure out, can I afford it.

What needs to change for financial services to be more accessible to everyone?

Julia The industry really has to look at the customer and figure out what it is they want. Stop trying to push and try and get the customer to come to them because they've got something that the customer wants.

Charlie Speak like a human being. Speak like you. I have five rules of good writing. My number one rule is to think about your reader. Think of them as human beings who got up that morning, spilt the coffee, are really stressed out. Think about them in those terms. We need reassurance. We fear for the future. We love to laugh. Try and hit those buttons rather than just spew out words.

Terry Wogan was a UK radio host and had five million listeners every morning. He had a lovely Irish lilt, which helps, but he used to say, ‘I have one listener and I speak to them’. And that made it feel like he was talking to you directly. And that's the key to good writing. If financial services really want to connect, write as you speak.

Julia I often think of my mum because she's a really harsh critic, and if I can sell an idea to my mum and explain it to her in a way that she understands and can ask me questions about it, I think I’ve won. But she's a hard critic!

Charlie It also shows you understand it really clearly. That's when you know. Financial services can do a lot to help improve people's lives. But maybe we need 
a little less selling and a little more conversation.

“If financial services really want to connect, write as you speak.”

How can financial services be more accessible? Share your thoughts with us at upfront@iress.com