The importance of clarity


March 28, 2012

Bob Hunt is chief executive of Paradigm Mortgage Services


It can sometimes be easy to overlook the finer details by focusing too hard on the wider picture. One area this is particularly applicable to is communication and the way we interact with people on a day-to-day basis.


With precious little spare time, much of our contact with others is hurried e-mails and snatched text messages, rather than phone calls or face-to-face meetings. While we may think we are effectively getting our point across once we have pressed send, consideration is not always given to how our words will be interpreted, what tone the recipient will read them in and whether the end result will ultimately be what we intended.


The importance of style and tone is something that is not often discussed when we laud how developments in technology have made communication so much more convenient, but it is worth considering how you come across to your clients and colleagues. You may have agonised over the exact choice of words in a letter you sent to your customers, but have you stopped to consider the feel of the piece?


A recent study by the government’s Behavioural Insights Team – known as Cameron’s ‘Nudge Unit’ – has apparently produced some telling results. The unit works by using behavioural science techniques to subtly inform the processes and language used by government departments when they communicate with the public.


In a recent trial, it sent out letters to 140,000 self-assessment taxpayers. One letter was a standard HMRC reminder urging recipients to file their returns on time, while the other contained the statement that ‘nine out of 10 people in Britain pay their tax on time’ and mentioned the fact that most people in the addressee’s local area had already paid their tax. This sleight of words resulted in a 15% increase in prompt payments from those receiving the localised letters, proving perhaps the real power of the pen (or computer).


Because of this you may find it useful to conduct your own experiments with the way you interact with your customers and see if it makes any difference to the relationship you have with them. In an age when we are bombarded with ‘reply all’ e-mail forwards and circular junk mail, it can make all the difference to receive a personal missive which has been well thought out.


After all, it is no use having a one-size-fits-all letter or e-mail template if you are trying to cater for a vast audience who have different needs or expectations. You wouldn’t speak to a teenager in the same way you would an octogenarian, so why think, for example, that first-time buyers are going to want to communicate in the same manner as equity release customers?


Next time you are hovering over the send button on an e-mail or about to hit save on the latest draft of a letter intended for your customers, take the time to consider what the reaction to your words is likely to be or if there is any possible way in which you may be misinterpreted. Canvas the opinions of your colleagues or friends and see if they all see it in the same light.


Interestingly, the end result of the anecdote above was that HMRC estimated it could increase its tax take by £160 million simply by tweaking the language it used, so imagine the possibilities for your business if you can get your message across more effectively.

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