Give It to Me Straight

As financial tools become more powerful, being able to explain services with simplicity is paramount, writes Thierry Campet.

As I put the final touches to a 2022 budget spreadsheet that I had been working on for about three months, I realized it had morphed into this macro-enabled document with a complex array of interlinks, multiple formulas, automatic sorting and formatting, and multi-tab and multi-currency charts. The software allows so many options and sophistications. I love it.

But one last bit of fine tuning was needed. I had to show a daily run rate of spend and therefore needed to include calculations using time as a currency. Given all the formula options, I had no clear idea on how to do it, so I reverted to Google.

This spreadsheet tool is so complete, I can literally do anything with it. But then I wondered: do I always need something so complex? Many times, I have wished for a simpler tool, with easy access to the functions I use regularly. But, at the same time, there is great satisfaction in controlling such a sophisticated tool, even if we do so just once a year.

So, the question remains, would I actually change to a simpler tool? Probably not. Perhaps it is human nature to go for the tools that can do much more than we ever plan to ask of them. But we know they can… It’s kind of like how, while living in London for 10 years, I only went to the theatre twice – but it was there, available to me at any moment! I loved knowing I had that option even though I didn’t use it.

Similarly, I may innately trust my lawyer more when she resorts to complex legal tactics (that only she can understand) to explain how we will resolve my issues; or my doctor who explains that I twisted my ankle without ever mentioning the words “ankle” or “twisted”; or my banker who persuades me to invest in this or that pension scheme because the rates are so different from the competition and the financial vehicles so powerful, with tax benefits I will certainly enjoy. The list goes on of the people to whom I give my trust because of the complexity of their language and their expertise.

So, what is it that drives us to prefer the extra-offering, to trust the complicated?

That would be the complexity bias.

According to Farnam Street Media, “Complexity bias is a logical fallacy that leads us to give undue credence to complex concepts. Faced with two competing hypotheses, we are likely to choose the most complex one. That’s usually the option with the most assumptions and regressions. As a result, when we need to solve a problem, we may ignore simple solutions — thinking ’that will never work’ — and instead favor complex ones.”

In my line of work in financial services, I have noticed alterations to this complexity bias, with some odd and even destructive behaviors linked to this mentality. For example, there is the case of the smartest one in the room. Financial advisors have one mission: selling. In order to sell, they revert primarily to two techniques: show how complex the options are to choose from while demonstrating their own acumen on the subject, thereby presenting themselves as the only capable enough to be trusted. This behavior has generated numerous cases of misleading sales, and regulators around the world are now sanctioning harshly any type of unnecessarily complex sale process. However, “Small print” remains one of the industry’s favorite sports.

“Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.”

— Confucius

Then there is the preacher who wants to educate. In financial services, we never tire of educational content. We want everyone to love what we do and understand it. So, we produce what I call how-to’s. Articles and blogs and pdfs and cheat-sheets on a variety of topics, such as how to understand a mortgage, understand the latest economic downturn, why saving rates are the way they are. The more expensive the product we are trying to sell, the more specific and technical the how-to content. Equities, yield curve, obligations, bullish…

And here comes the twist, because, in such a commoditised industry where differentiation becomes more and more subtle, we have increased the complexity of the products, of our explanations, yet it is also important that they are understood. So, do all these explanations and such complexity actually allow us to engage better with clients? It is key to remember – in fact, it is a secular holy pursuit for every marketeer who operates in industries still governed by products – that the one who sells is not the one who buys. We do not share the same goals. We do not share the same interests.

How can we be transparent, remain compliant, exhaustive yet simple, and adapt to our audience?

Difficult as it is for those of us in the financial industry to believe, our clients do not want to become financiers. They do not care about how financial instruments work. This is similar to how, for example, most Ferrari buyers are not necessarily that interested in the engine under the hood. They mostly care about the color and the noise. Today’s mobile phones are not shipped with a complete guide on how the chip and the battery work, but most consumers don’t bother with those details. Yup, the majority of financial services clients are mostly interested in whether they’ll have enough to retire or can buy their dream home.

In fact – and here I’ll let you in on a little secret – clients care about what’s in it for them! They care about what will resolve their concerns, what will improve their situation, and whether you can help or not.

Often, we seem to confuse the means with the end. When producing content, we focus more in selling the mean and trying to build trust by injecting complexity. We explain what we do, how the Ferrari engine works, how fast the chip goes, and we explain this in great detail. We do all this at the expense of actually adapting to our clients and responding to their needs.

“Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius — and a lot of courage — to move in the opposite direction.”

— Ernst F. Schumacher

Thus, it’s important to ask whether complex content can be engaging enough for the majority. Often, and particularly in financial services, there is this notion that serious matters (for example, one that touches our hard-earned money) cannot be dealt with simplicity or humor, because it would be misconstrued as flippant. In fact, experts seem to be expected to be serious at all times and show acute understanding of their topic… maybe even be a bit boring about it. Those of us in financial services are therefore confronted with two opposing situations:

  • Financial services matters are serious and deserve to be treated with respect, sophistication, and detail. Furthermore, the general public must understand the concepts we are talking about in order to rightfully engage and build a trusted relationship with us.
  • Engaging content often wins because of factors such as fun, relevancy, timeliness, appropriateness of format for the reader (whether they are simple or complex.)

The first point focuses on what the expert wants to say. The second centers on what the receiver needs to know. Can this dichotomy be reconciled?

It’s a question of choice. In the end, like pretty much all successful marketing approaches, we must leave it up to the customers as to how they want to engage with us. Clients are different from one another, they do not operate consistently, and their behaviors change based on context (place, time, emotions.) In order to sufficiently engage with clients, we should produce content for them based on their “clusters of behaviors,” and provide them with information based on their needs, whether that is high-level discovery, deep-dive into specific theme, or simply looking for entertainment.

In this approach, there is not one unique piece of content for one type of client. Clients are fluid, and the way they engage with content is unpredictable. Trying to guess is futile. Content is as much based on who reads it than it is about why and when they read it.

Therefore, in financial services, we must produce content for those who could basically care less about the financials – as well as for those who love having mathematical conversations. And everyone else in between. On top of that, we must assume that those who may not be interested in the financial details at first, could become fascinated after a while. The same concept applies to the different motivations (or clusters). A bit like how Sean Carroll, physicist and research professor at CalTech, explains the concept of dimensions to five different audiences, each representing a different motivation: a child, a teen, a college student, a graduate student, and an expert.

Finally, instead of assuming linear consumption of content, all pieces should be available simultaneously and at all times.

Newspapers, of course, have been doing this forever: Title, sub-title, intro, text, and quotes. All these techniques allow the reader to engage with the content at the speed and depth they choose.

 “I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time.”

— Blaise Pascal

In my classes where I teach content for IE master’s students in communication, I give them numerous written tests, all with one commonality: responses are limited to 200 words. This teaches them to develop clear messages and express them in direct, simple, and unambiguous ways. This helps students focus only on the information the reader needs in order to understand the message, rather than showing me how smart they are. I’ll take it for granted that they understand the complex concepts if they can explain them in simple and straightforward terms.


© IE Insights.


Sign up for our Newsletter

Newsletter Subscription