Friday, January 15, 2010

Choose your words carefully

Hi to everyone in 2010. Hope you all had a good break over Christmas-New Year. If you didn't, consider your views on being indispensible and make sure you get one soon. There's a great article in the Australian Financial Review this morning about the personal insecurities that discourage people from taking leave, but that's another subject.

First week back at work for me this week and I've run into two items that highlight how customers can completely misconstrue messages. And in both instances, it all comes down to choice, or context, of words.

The first resulted in a call to my own office, where we had issued a letter to investors saying our fund was transferring to a new administrator. For this investor, the word 'administrator' translated to 'fund going into administration' rather than the true meaning, which was the fund transferring to a new member administration service provider. A huge gap in interpretation! Fortunately, as far as I know, we only had one investor who interpreted it this way out of 7,000 that received the letter. So let's no over-react!

The second encounter was a report that another superannuation fund had decided to remove an exclusion filter from its sustainable responsible investment (SRI) portfolio. A by-product of that story was a comment by the fund's head of investments, that a number of its investors mistakenly believed sustainable to mean 'reliable' i.e. will deliver reliable (positive?) earnings. This was far removed from the real meaning that money would only be invested in companies meeting specific social, environmental and governance criteria.

My view is that you cannot bullet proof communications against any possible misinterpretation because the wires in some people's heads are irrevocably fused in ways different to any other. But these are two examples of interpretation than, for some people, have resulted in wildly different meanings that could have disastrous consequences for their expectations and decision-making.

I think all communicators will get the point I'm making. But I caution there is one sector that will interpret and react to this blog differently - in-house lawyers. Their only interpretation will be that we need to cover the page with more disclaimers and footnotes!  My advice is not to forward this URL to their inbox.

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