Clear Business English for Financial Services Professionals: Structure, Content and Story

Many people in financial services and other professions would like to be able to write clear business English in their day-to-day working lives.

Especially – but not only – non-native English writers.

English is a complicated language. It’s hard to know how to achieve a balance between being clear and fulfilling the rules.

But it’s possible to rise above the rules, even while paying attention to the ones that matter. Some principles – like consistency – matter more.

Any piece of business writing, however long and whatever the format, has three essential elements: structure, content and story.

Keeping these elements explicitly in mind will help you write more confident, more effective business English.

Structure-Content-Story

Finance professionals write lots of different types of content.

Operating manuals, policies and procedures, research reports, technical analyses, regulatory papers, audit reports, new product proposals, project documents, training and marketing material, blogs, and more personal things like CVs and covering letters: and others.

But all these types of content have three things in common, whatever their format, whether they’re 140 pages, 140 words or 140 characters.

They all have structure, content and a story.

What does structure mean?

For a longer piece, there are seven different elements of structure:

  1. Title
  2. Headings
  3. Layout
  4. Basic grammar
  5. Key punctuation
  6. Style
  7. Readability

For a shorter piece, the structure is just as important but more implicit.

It’s still necessary, to help convey the story and content as efficiently as possible, but isn’t as obvious.

What does content mean?

This is straightforward. It’s the substance of what we want to say: the core material. The information, meaning and detail we’re looking to convey.

In this blog we focus more on structure and story, but we also look briefly at some types of content common in financial services, and give some tips on writing in different formats.

What does story mean?

You could think of other words like ‘summary’, ‘synopsis’, ‘message’, ‘narrative’ or even ‘pitch’. Anything that conveys the very essence of the piece, the reduction of the piece to its essential core element.

Story is convenient shorthand for these other ideas. There’s a bit more to it than that, as I’ll explain later, but think of it as the core essence of the piece.

In ultra-short pieces the story and the content might be the same thing, or almost the same. Once again, there’s more to this than meets the eye.

Storytelling

There’s a lot written about storytelling in business, almost to the point of cliché.

I’m not going to deconstruct what it is about the word story that makes it so primal and powerful, or define it in psychological or typological terms.

In some ways the other words for story mentioned above – like ‘summary’ and ‘message’ – are perfectly apt in finance and business. Certainly they’re commonly used.

As is the term ‘elevator pitch’, which is actually over-used but can help us think about the concept of story. You have 30 seconds of undivided attention to make your point. What’s your story? The essence of the pitch, in clear, accurate but interesting words.

In the end, all these terms lack something compared to the word story. They lack its universality and broad appeal; its magical, invisible, connecting thread. Its intimations of childhood and reward.

Please substitute your own alternative if it helps you visualise the point more clearly.

The Power of Tweet

Twitter is not popular with everyone. It’s derided by some, and judging by the headlines in recent months it’s not even clear the company will survive in its current form.

140 characters is restrictive. But it’s a reality, a fact, and a democratic one at that. It applies to anyone trying to use the medium, whether they have 10 million followers or ten, whether they are the President or someone else.

I like the 140-character constraint. It’s good for clarity, a good mental discipline, and a good proxy for the story.

What is a tweet but the essence of an idea, the reduction of an idea to its core element? In 140 characters you can achieve nothing else. If you can tell your story effectively in 140 characters you’ve probably got the essence of it.

Not easy, but a valuable discipline in making things clear.

The Tweet as Story

I will illustrate this – in a slightly cannibalistic way, I admit – by looking at the story of this blog.

A longer summary

First I summarise the main ideas I want to convey in three paragraphs, around 200 words, highlighting some key words in bold.

This blog is a practical guide for professionals working in financial services and other business sectors who want to write clear, effective business English, whether they’re non-native or native English writers, using simple principles that apply to any format.

Business writing needs a story, to hook the reader and convey the essence in just a few words. It needs an underlying structure to help deliver its message clearly; including title, headings, layout, some basic rules on grammar and punctuation, and some basic criteria on style and readability, including sentence length and vocabulary. It also needs content. Many different types of content are used in financial services and other businesses, from long technical documents to 140-character tweets. The underlying principles are the same whatever the format, and matter as much as the rules. How a written piece sounds to the ear, and consistency, are just as important.

Most professionals already have the tools to write clear, proficient business English. You can demystify English if you emphasise principles rather than rules, which anyway aren’t as hard as they seem. This reduces anxiety, increases confidence and gives writers – especially non-native English writers – some touchstones to help shore up their self-belief.

Condense using key words

Next I condense this summary into a 140-character tweet. There are different ways to do this.

One way is to take the words that matter, as highlighted in bold, and combine them in a structured way to convey the essential meaning.

A practical guide to #ClearBusinessEnglish in any format for finance/other professionals using story-structure-content, principles not rules

This tweet certainly has structure. It uses punctuation (a slash and a comma) to separate ideas while saving characters, and a Twitter hashtag. While not grammatically perfect it has a subject, a present participle verb (‘using’) and objects, and some information on what, who for and how. For an ultra-short piece of written English it conveys quite a lot of basic meaning.

Even so, it’s not very interesting!

Condense in a different way

A more interesting way to condense our 200-word extract – to tell its story – would be to pick up on the angle in the final paragraph. Namely the anxiety and lack of confidence that some people feel about their business English, whether they’re native or non-native English writers.

Are you anxious or hesitant writing business English? It’s easier than it seems. Use key principles to demystify the rules & write clearly.

This tweet also has structure: three full sentences, subjects, verbs, objects, two full stops, a question mark and an ampersand. Rather than wasting characters, the punctuation here helps deliver a structured narrative with three separate ideas. It takes a different approach from our first tweet-story, tapping into the emotional or psychological state of the reader rather than just presenting us with bald summarised content.

It’s a matter of taste whether you prefer the first tweet-story, the second, or neither. They both represent condensed versions of the blog, elevator pitches to use if someone asks me what I’m currently writing about. They give me clarity and some underlying threads which can anchor the piece while I’m writing it.

And all within the 140-character Twitter limit. Of course you only need adhere strictly to this if you’re actually tweeting. But using the Twitter discipline we’ve managed to condense a 3,500 word blog into two workable stories via a 200-word summary.

Finding your story

To summarise:

  1. Before you start writing – whatever it is you’re writing – know your story.
  2. Use a 30-second elevator pitch, if that helps you, to get it clear in your head.
  3. If it’s a longer piece summarise it in 200 words, highlighting some key words in bold.
  4. Convert the bold words to a cogent tweet.
  5. Then, if you want a different angle, re-write it as a completely different tweet.
  6. Think of one or both of the tweets as the story of your piece.

More on Structure and Content

In this section we’ll spend a bit of time clarifying what we really mean by structure, in practice.

And we’ll briefly mention some content principles that the business English writer should have in mind, both generally and in financial services specifically.

Principles of Structure

Structure aids comprehensibility and meaning. It should be the servant of those things, not the master. If your writing is dominated by some long-but-wrongly-remembered version of ‘the rules’ it will come across as stilted and old-fashioned.

The structure should support the content, not dominate it.

These days we need simpler, fresher guidance, based on principles.

Earlier we talked about seven elements that constitute structure. What these elements do is reinforce some key underlying principles: space, clarity, brevity and consistency.

1. Space

White space helps the reader. Long, dense paragraphs of text with tight margins and insufficient white space are hard to read, hard to concentrate on and hard to understand. The eye likes and needs space.

Layout

Accordingly, layout is a vital element of structure: short paragraphs; judicious use of headings; good use of vertical margins to aid understanding, especially for sub-points; and enough horizontal margining (top and bottom) to soothe the eye.

And good layout is needed in short pieces as well as long, including emails. Ideally an email shouldn’t be long enough to need much white space, but sometimes it might. Don’t be afraid to give it the white space it needs.

2. Clarity

Clarity is at the heart of this blog and the wider Prism-Clarity philosophy, so this principle is no surprise.

The key elements of structure needed to support it are title, headings, punctuation and grammar.

Title

Title conveys a lot about your piece, so needs careful thought and design. Remember the old advertising cliché “does what it says on the tin”: important then to get right what it says on the tin in the first place.

Headings

Headings and sub-headings should be frequent and well-organised. The test is that a reader should be able to glean a significant level of understanding of the piece from the headings alone. If she can’t, there are either not enough of them, or they aren’t carefully crafted enough, or both. The heading structure should be absolutely consistent in terms of its hierarchy or levels.

Punctuation

There should be enough punctuation to support clarity and avoid ambiguity. But no more. Ideally, you’ll avoid enraging the reader by ignoring a small handful of essential English rules: on apostrophes, for example, which are emotive when misused.

I think of punctuation as supporting the sound of the piece. If, from the sound of the piece, a natural break or change is needed – and if punctuation can help avoid ambiguity and support sense by characterising that break or change – then use it. Otherwise consider not using it.

Grammar

The word grammar has two definitions in the OED: (i) the whole system or structure of a language or of languages in general; and (ii) a set of prescriptive notions about correct use of a language.

The first definition reinforces the principle of clarity. A system or structure is needed to achieve clarity, but not much more. The second definition contains more emotive words – ‘prescriptive’ and ‘correct’ – and goes beyond the simple need for clarity. I don’t mean to be inflammatory but in my view there are very few old-fashioned grammatical ‘rules’ that are really needed to achieve clarity in business English. Many of the rules are characterised equally well by the wider principle of consistency.

A small example. A business English sentence does not need a subject, a verb or an object. A sentence can be one word: an exclamation, for instance (“Oh!”). Or it can have a subject or object without a verb. Or it can be a verb without a subject or object. As long as it’s clear, from the context, what is governing the verb and there is no disagreement between them across the sentences: which is where the consistency principle comes in.

There is only one thing he needs to do. Read. Both this blog and others like it.

This is not the purest English, the purist would say. But for business English it is fine. It sounds OK to the ear, and is consistent and compact.

Spelling

A quick word on spelling. Spelling is the exception to the rule that ‘most rules don’t matter’. There’s no excuse for incorrect spelling, even in shortform communications. Any word can be spell-checked, and careful self-editing should ensure no contextual errors (correctly spelled words that are wrongly spelled in context) get through. Incorrect spelling is lazy, discourteous to the reader and inexcusable; and as liable to cause the reader annoyance as an incorrect apostrophe. Maybe it’s a generational thing; or related to my own proofreader training. But even in business English spelling matters, and we should always get it right.

3. Brevity

It sounds odd to emphasise brevity towards the end of a 3,500 word blog. Perhaps it just goes to show that brevity is easily promised, less easily achieved.

In essence it’s about avoiding long words, long sentences and long paragraphs – and avoiding too much length and content overall. So the key structural elements in achieving brevity are style and readability.

Style

Writing style is very personal, and a hard thing to define, but you can make a conscious effort to write with more brevity.

I am a fan of the internal style guide, not only to help you maintain consistency in using stylistic variables (things like numbers, headings, dates and punctuation) but also to guide yourself on long word frequency, sentence length and overall length. I have a guideline for myself that a blog should not exceed 3,500 words and this one won’t. A detailed and constraining style guide can support this principle.

Readability

Readability is interesting and a bit controversial. Writers don’t like being told by SEO programmes that their sentences are too long, or that their vocabulary has too many syllables. [Those being the main factors behind industry-standard readability metrics, as set out in an earlier Prism-Clarity blog on this topic.]

I take a more pragmatic view. In the digital age content readability does matter. The metrics were designed in good faith by credible language scientists, and their underlying principles are sound. I routinely amend my content, consciously, to take account of Flesch readability and other metrics. I think more writers should pay more attention to them, to improve the clarity of their writing. The metrics don’t lessen the humanity of the writing, as some people think. They simply apply some guidelines to make it more comprehensible.

4. Consistency

This is perhaps the single most important principle underlying our definition of structure. It overrides all others in case of doubt.

Consistency plays a part in almost every element of structure. A title needs to be consistent in meaning with the rest of the piece. Headings need to be consistently structured in terms of level/hierarchy. Punctuation and grammar – beyond the few very simple hard rules which are consistent by their very nature – should be internally consistent (i.e. what is and isn’t used when). Style should be managed actively, ideally supported by an internal style guide, so that the same features are employed throughout, eliminating inconsistency. Readability constraints should be adopted consistently to ensure balance and uniformity across the piece.

Consistency is king and – like kingship – excuses a multitude of other offences.

Principles of Content

We don’t have to space here to go into detail on some important principles relating to content. They are the need for good etiquette, minimal jargon, and rigorous editing, whether supported by external professionals, internal peers, or simply a good self-editing process. Editing is a vital discipline and an indispensable aid to writing clear business English.

All three justify their own chapter in a book on this topic.

Perhaps most relevant to financial services are the principles of plain English and treating customers fairly.

Clear English in financial services matters, for good reasons related to consumer, regulatory and legal needs. Perhaps we should go further. To protect consumers English should be plain as well as clear, given the complex environment they’re operating in. Plain English campaigns are increasingly influential in many countries, in consumer, legal and government circles. Treating customers fairly (TCF) is an overriding theme for UK regulators. They’re running out of patience with firms who – by continuing to insist on using contractual language that’s tortuous, legalistic, intimidating or just unclear – are not TCF.

Indeed it’s becoming evident that clear customer communications have commercial as well as regulatory value.

So the drive for clear English in customer communications is an inexorable tide which won’t go out. It will swallow up any Canute-like firms who continue to use unclear language in their customer relationships.

Practical Tips on Financial Services Content

We now look briefly at different examples of content common in financial services, with some practical tips for dealing with different formats and lengths. Again, all these topics justify their own section in the book but for now we keep it brief.

Shortform content

We covered tweets in some detail earlier. Other examples of business communications which fall in the shortform category are SMS (text) messages and forum posts. The same principles apply to all. Focus on keywords – or on your more interesting angle like the second tweet in our story section above. Don’t be afraid to use punctuation to support sense and avoid ambiguity. Concentrate on the story: there’s little room for anything else.

Email content

Keep emails short. Send them to the right people. Make the call-to-action (or purpose if there isn’t one) absolutely clear upfront. Readers don’t have time or inclination to trawl through lengthy emails. Use supporting attachments to give optional access to additional detail if there is a real need. Make judicious use of headings, bullets, bold, italic and colour, for emphasis and clarity, but don’t overdo it. Be consistent, and be very aware of etiquette.

Summary content

For things like executive summaries, CVs and powerpoint presentations, make strong use of the story. Use it upfront. Make excellent use of headings and different justification (with bullets). Keep paragraphs short – no longer than 150 words each – and sections no longer than 300 words. For powerpoints make good use of story – a sub-story on each slide – and keep the rest visual.

Longform content

We mean here things like manuals, policies, research papers, funding proposals, project documents, audit reports, and many more. It is hard to be generic for such a varied and lengthy population. But the principles still hold. Use the story. Use smaller stories section by section. Make frequent use of visuals (charts, tables, infographics, illustrations) to break up space. Pay close attention to the supporting information on the piece and the mechanics for delivering and updating it.

Ask the Right Questions

To end this blog I take a slightly different tack.

Maybe clear business English can be achieved just as easily by asking ourselves some basic questions before we actually write anything:
– Why am I writing this piece in the first place?
– Who am I writing it for?
– Who does the reader think is writing the piece?
– Where are they? What are they likely to be doing when they read it?
– When will they read it?
– What are my reader’s expectations from this piece?
– What follow-up does it need, by whom and when?

Answering these basic contextual questions will help your clarity.

I’d say they are necessary without being sufficient. Perhaps they help you decide on your story, as outlined earlier in the blog. Or help you decide on your structural framework, what layout or headings to use, to help your reader get the message. Or help you decide what format and length of communication to use, to convey your story and your content.

If you keep in mind only the few key questions above, the business English you write may be good enough.

But you should be aiming higher.

If you consciously keep in mind the principles outlined in this blog – actively use the story-content-structure device and adhere rigorously to the principles of space, brevity, clarity and consistency – you’ll write clear business English and achieve better results from your writing every time.

Contact Prism-Clarity for further information, including where to get the best advice.