Banking For Juveniles: Financial Jargon Confuses Readers, Study Finds

If you had trouble wading through Moby Dick as a kid don’t count on understanding emails from your bank.

The Herman Melville classic is easier to read than content from some banks, according to a new study by VisibleThread. 

It’s not clear who that reflects on more poorly — the banks or their customers. But it should scare copywriters.

In old-time journalism training, they taught us that most people had an 11 year-old reading level. That’s now up to age 13 — the study puts the average at 8th grade. Yet the bottom ten banks aim for a 10.8 grade level, which means age 15 or 16 — way too high.

The study mostly looks at web content, but the lessons can be applied to email, which often contains some of the same material. 

Harry Potter has the highest readability score: 72.8. Second is Moby Dick, with 57.9. The Harvard Law Review is at the bottom, with 30.

Here are the scores for banks:

  • Top 10 banks — 50 
  • Middle10 banks — 48.4
  • Bottom 10 banks — 40.5



What are they doing wrong?

One problem is complex language. Financial writing can be bogged down by hard-to-grasp jargon.

The phrase “bespoke-tracking-error-levels” makes us think of Groucho Marx’s line: “Why, a four-year-old child could understand this. Go out and find me a four-year-old child — I can’t make head or tail of it.” 

Give it the old syllable test: If there are too many syllables, find another word. 

Then there are sentences written in the passive voice. These convey an academic tone. Only 4% of your writing should be in the passive voice, the study says. But the average for banks is 9%.

Don’t hem and haw: Use direct verbs that get you right to the point. 

Next are long sentences. Again, any basic copywriting course will teach you that short sentences work best.

Take this 41-word example:

Consider a home equity line of credit (HELOC) when you want to finance purchases or consolidate debt, with easy access to funds, no prepayment penalty, and no minimum credit score, if your current credit history of paying bills is as agreed.

The authors rewrite it this way:

Consider a home equity line of credit (HELOC) when you want to finance purchases or consolidate debt. You can access funds with no prepayment penalty. And once we review your current credit history, you need no minimum credit score.

The result of the bad writing? Declining trust and loyalty, the study states.   

That said, we know people who can get to the bottom of any banking statement. And they probably never even look at Harry Potter.

VisibleThread analyzed nearly 5,000 bank web pages and more than 2.9 million words. 

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