Where does complexity come from? And why it’s always possible to make it straightforward and interesting…

Introduction

There are many reasons you might decide to work with professional communicators and copywriters like the team at Wordtree. Making complex material straightforward and interesting to your audiences is one of them.

Because the complex stuff is often the really important stuff. It’s the information that keeps your company safe – or on the right side of the law. Or it’s the way you can show potential customers that your new piece of technology really does have a place in their home or business – and that it will make their lives so much easier.

The bottom line is that if you can’t make your complex subject matter accessible and interesting to the people who matter, all your great ideas and hard work may as well not have happened. Someone else will come along – possibly with a not-as-good-as-yours product – and they’ll become The Big Thing in your market, purely because they’ve communicated their offer better than you have.

If you’re dealing with complex subject matter, it probably comes from one of these areas:

You operate in a regulated environment and you have to say certain things in certain ways

Wind the clock back just a few years and regulation and risk management were often the reason that financial services communications, energy industry communications and investment and wealth communications were almost impossible for a lay person to understand.

Regulators wanted to see exact wording and exact points covered off in all communications. They were there to protect end consumers from misleading information – and being missold products. But the regulators themselves could be pretty awful communicators. So with the best intentions in the world, regulators introduced Meccano-kits of phrases and sentences that had to be used in communications… and that end consumers really had no chance of understanding.

Regulated industries then hired regulatory risk professionals – and part of their role was to make sure these phrases and sentences existed in every communication. Reg risk experts had the final say in whatever communications left the building – so complex communications from regulated industries was the norm.

In 2011, I was putting forward the case that it was in the best interests of a particular organisation for their customers to actually understand what it was saying to them. And a reg risk professional snapped at me: “I’d rather our customers didn’t understand than they were misled.” Which for me summed up the whole tangled knot of trying to communicate clearly at the time.

Businesses operating in these sectors didn’t want to be fined. And traditionally, it hadn’t been necessary for a consumer to understand how these products worked anyway. These products were generally sold to customers via an intermediary, and so – went the thinking – it was the intermediary’s job to explain everything.

This is a simplified account, of course, but in essence it’s what made communications from regulated industries so baffling.

Now, of course, things are changing. Regulators are placing a firm emphasis on end customers actually understanding information – and will impose fines if they think this isn’t happening.

At Wordtree, we consistently create communications that are both compliant and understandable and interesting. It’s not beyond the wit of man… or at least not beyond the wit of skilled communicators.

What regulated industries are now dealing with is the legacy of this time. From a regulatory standpoint, the balance has tipped more towards customer-centricity, but culturally, some organisations are still set up to do it the old school way.

See how we helped these organisations put their customers at the heart of the communications:

Coutts

Standard Life

InsureandGo

We all know that legal information can be perplexing. And again, there are historical and practical reasons for this.

In a corporate environment, lawyers are there to create documentation that cannot be misinterpreted. They do it to protect the organisations they work for from risk. And organisations face serious risks all the time – from other organisations who want to rip off their ideas, from less-than-scrupulous employees, from mistruths on social media, from hostile take-overs…

But like everything, there is a balance to be struck. And the old-schoolee style of corporate lawyering can be highly defensive. Lawyers sometimes don’t just see customers – and even colleagues – as potential risks, but almost as enemies. And their weapon against these enemies is language.

So the language becomes dense and difficult for anyone except other lawyers to understand. And – as you’ll know if you’ve ever scrolled through any tech terms and conditions – documentation becomes LONG.

Consumers hate legalese. Businesses too. It’s seen as sneaky and slippery and it does nothing to enhance brand reputation or engender trust.And because it’s confusing, it can mean that your teams don’t know how to comply with workplace policy.

Find out how we:

Trained lawyers at Standard Life to communicate for consumers

Rewrote workplace policies for a sovereign wealth fund

Made the law easy for whistleblowers to get to grips with

You and your team understand your proposition, and you’ve lost sight of what people without your specialism understand

You’re a tech specialist, a biotech specialist, an accountancy expert, an investment specialist… or an expert in any other specialist field.

In fact, you know your subject as well as anyone else – better than anyone else maybe, and that’s your USP.

But every specialism has its own language. There’s vocabulary and expressions that are frequently used and understood by your peers – but when you use them with your mum or partner, they have no idea what you’re talking about.

This happens to lots of specialists. They know their subject very, very well. And because the language they use prevents others from understanding it, they end up believing that their subject is just too difficult for others to get to grips with.

But there is no subject on earth than cannot be made understandable – and interesting.

Find out how we:

Helped an international accountancy body to tell its story

Transformed communications for a specialist retail supplier

Trained teams at a Fintech company to communicate clearly

A lot of people are involved in creating your information and you feel you have to keep them all happy

If your role is to rewrite information that’s supplied by your colleagues, you can feel torn in many directions. It’s not unusual for people with this task to feel awkward and that they have a duty to not mess around with their colleague’s writing too much.

But the person who’s being forgotten in these situations is the reader – your customer. Instead, your process focuses on internal subject matter experts and keeping them happy.

This can become even more muddled if your sign-off process involves multiple stakeholders who all have permission to throw their opinions and views into the mix. You can end up with contradictory feedback – and even more complexity to add into your communication.

There are two answers to this situation. One is about philosophy, the other is about process.

The philosophy should be the same for everyone across your organisation: Your ultimate duty, in anything you do, is to your customer – whoever she or he may be. Then your communications process might benefit from some streamlining. Define what each person’s responsibility is at each stage – and make it clear that not all feedback has to be incorporated.

This will shave hours and days off the time it takes to create communications and get them signed off. It will also make the communication itself a whole lot more interesting and informative for its audiences.

Find out how to give effective feedback.

No-one in your organisation fully understands exactly how your thing works, so all you can do is keep using the descriptions you’ve inherited

This does happen. We’ve seen it particularly in financial services organisations where complex products like certain types of pensions or investment funds – which were set up years ago – are still operating, even if they’re not being actively marketed to new customers.

The only information anyone has on them is what exists in writing. And that itself is often difficult to understand. So when you write to customers about their products, you have to re-use the existing product information, which you don’t fully understand.

But here’s the thing. Someone, somewhere in the organisation will know how the product functions. You just need to track them down – even if their office is on a different continent. Take time to talk to that person and persuade them to become involved in creating new communications as your subject matter expert. And don’t be afraid of asking them all the questions you need to until you’re sure you understand.

There’s another aspect of this: It’s not unusual for people in an organisation to feel afraid of admitting they don’t understand how a product works. So they don’t ask questions – instead, they just keep re-using the same piece of confusing text.

No-one will ever think less of you for saying: “Could you just explain this for me please?” So ask. Because if you don’t understand your communication, there’s very little hope that your customer will.

Your offer is just complex – with many moving parts. It does so many things in so many ways… and the technology it’s based on is, well… really, really complex

If you’re just launching new technology or service, there’s a good chance that it could be put to many, many different uses. What creates complexity is if you try to tell every audience you could possibly have about every single possible use, all at once.

First off, you need to decide which audience you’re going to target first. Next you need to think carefully about what that audience needs and how your new product could help meet that need.

Then you have to think about your product in terms of the benefits it offers, rather than the undoubtedly very clever technology or thinking that powers it. No-one, for example, thinks: “Wow, my iPhone has the best processing technology I’ve ever read about!” Instead they think, “Great pictures!” or, “I love listening to podcasts on my way to work”. People and businesses love technology for what they can do with it – not for the algorithms or processing units that power them.

Once you’ve identified your target audiences and what’s going to get them fired up, you begin to realise what you need to say about your product, and in what order.

Download our white paper on communicating complex subject matter.

If you’d like a hand turning complex subject matter into interesting, effective communications, please do get in touch.

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