So What? – Language and Clarity in Financial Writing

“Will my grandmother understand this?” this was a valuable lesson taught to me by the editor at a financial magazine, my first job in financial journalism eleven years ago. The publication had a sophisticated audience of large institutional investors and finance professionals yet the focus on simple straight forward language was key in everything we wrote.

Renowned author George Orwell says a scrupulous writer should ask himself: What am I trying to say? What words will express it? What fresh image will make it clearer? Could I put it more shortly? Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?

The general public, including finance professionals, are barraged by news, information and data so when writing to engage, making articles relatable and easy to read should take precedence. Too often the complexity of the subject matter creeps into our writing and we lose focus of what a story should really do – show the reader what it is about rather than pedantically take them through every minute detail.

In my role as a financial journalist and now as a research writer and consultant, my writing needs to be clear and concise. My words act as a filter for the complex concepts within the financial services industry, whittled down into something people are going to want to pick up and read.

Fund managers and institutional investors, the audiences and clients I deal with, often get caught up in technical jargon, losing sight of the bigger picture and the message they are trying to put across. The aim of someone in the writing profession within the financial sector should be to absorb the information given by these highly intelligent people and bring the story to life with clarity.

When focusing on being straightforward, a writer can run the risk of being simplistic. A writer or a journalist should not patronise their audience but provide a well-rounded picture of what they are trying to express.

The skill of a journalist is to understand the subject matter as well as the individuals they are interviewing or writing about. A writer should be able to sift through large amounts of detailed and sometimes technical information to draw out the big picture, highlighting the most important and news worthy elements.

Another question a journalist or writer should ask themselves is: “so what?” If something is worth writing about, there has to be a greater purpose, otherwise the audience will not care. I can explain further by drawing upon a personal experience when working with a large asset management firm in London.

A property fund had bucked the market, which in my view and experience was newsworthy – this happened during a time when property was under fire, just before the financial crisis broke in September 2008. However, I entered into a battle of wills with the press relations officer at the time. She thought the new fund manager’s name should have led the press release while I knew we should lead on the fund’s performance.

This represented the dilemma between stroking the fund manager’s ego or issuing a press release which would get press coverage. Editors of magazines, especially the trade press, tend to shy away from stories which make an individual the ‘star’ rather choosing to showcase stories which address broader industry issues. In the end, my journalistic experience won out and the press release ran with the fund performance as the lead. As a result, it got covered by a number of trade magazines.

So in addition to clarity of language, when writing in finance, people need to always keep the bigger picture in mind if they want to engage their readers. Something that might be ‘big news’ within the microcosm of a company will probably not matter to most of the broader readership.

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