Technically speaking: from confusion to clarity in 5 easy steps

Whether you’re explaining the workings of a discounted gift trust or the ins and outs of flexible access draw downs, it’s very easy to lose clients when trying to communicate technical concepts. And yet the ability to be able to convey complexity in a way that makes sense and is easy for clients to understands marks good paraplanners from great ones.  

The glazed eyes.

The furrowed brow.

The confusion written all over their face.

We’ve all been there. It’s frustrating and awkward when clients don’t understand what we’re saying, especially if we’ve tried to explain the concept a couple of different ways.

Some clients won’t admit they’re not quite following along, other clients might begin to sink under their confusion. And we want to avoid this at all costs because it’s hard to trust someone we don’t understand.

When I first started working in the finance sector, over ten years ago, I was overwhelmed by the amount of new vocabulary, concepts, acronyms and jargon. Part of my journey has been to help others to simplify their messages so that clients can understand where their life savings are being invested and hopefully be reassured that they will have enough to live on.

Explaining technical concepts to someone without investment experience is challenging because once we know something, we find it hard to imagine not knowing it. We slip into using shorthand – jargon, we miss out crucial parts and details because we think they are too obvious. Crossing the gulf of experience and expertise that exists between you and your audience is no mean feat.  

So, what to do? How do we start to build the bridge of understanding?

1. Begin differently

When faced with explaining a technical concept, it seems logical to start by explaining what this thing is.  And we might begin with a definition so that we are all on the same page about what these terms mean.

However, I want to offer you another starting place.  One that makes it much easier for those with no experience to understand and follow you. And this is to start with what this concept DOES not what it IS.

For example, take compounding: “I want to explain how you can make your money grow, while you do nothing.” (What it does for you). Contrast this with: “Compounding is the return you get on your original investment and the return you get on your return”. (What it is, not what it does)

Here’s another example that relates to wrappers: “To pay less tax on your investments, you can take advantage of a wrapper. (What it does) There are 2 types of wrappers – ISAs (Individual Savings Accounts) and pensions. The government gives these tax breaks to encourage more of us to save and invest.”  Rather than: “The most common tax wrappers are ISAs and pensions.” (What they are, not what they do.)

If you’re a bit stuck, here are some questions to help you start:

  • What’s the purpose of ….?
  • What’s the intention of …?
  • What is this trying to achieve?
  • Why do they need it?
  • What’s the result of this…?
  • Who is this for?

A very common mistake is for paraplanners to dive straight into the nitty-gritty detail. But this can make it hard for clients to understand because, as John Medina writes in his book Brain Rules, “Normally, if we don’t know the gist – the meaning – of information we are unlikely to pay attention to its details.” You can also use the above questions to zoom out, if you’ve headed too quickly into the detail.

Can you see that when we understand what this does – we pay attention? As a client, we’ll realise why this is important and relevant to our objectives. We are bought in. When you explain what something does, you are also providing context.

2. Context is crucial

Why? Here’s an illustration: For emaxlpe, it deson’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod aepapr, the olny iprmoatnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer are in the rghit pcale (Cenotxt). The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit pobelrm.

Context is the container within which we perceive more meaning.  So, to help clients easily understand the concept, paraplanners have to discern which context to set. For example, I’ve seen reports that include detail about legislation changes. You could argue that this is context. However, you also have to ask: does my client care about this level of detail?

Let’s move onto some techniques for illustrating the concepts.

3. Use examples

As Stephen Pinker says: “an explanation without an example is little better than no explanation at all.”

Examples bring concepts to life. One way to turbocharge your example is to include comparisons.  Again, this provides context. The numbers need to relate to something to give them meaning.

Here’s how Holly Mackay from Boring Money illustrates compounding: “In the first year, an investor puts £100 into an investment and receives, say, 5% in interest or dividends, bringing the investment to £105.  In the second year, if he makes 5% again, he not only receives 5% on his original stake, but on the extra £5 he has made. By the end of the second year, his investment is worth £110.25.

4. Use metaphors and analogies

Metaphors work because we are borrowing something already familiar and applying it in a new way. For example, I’ve heard paraplanners liken themselves to a Sat Nav – where the financial advisor or planner will agree the destination, the paraplanner plots the route.

Neil Parker, CEO of PlanHappy Academy, uses a range of analogies in his first meetings when talking about pensions. An annuity, he says, is like a steel box, which churns out a set amount of money each month.  And he contrasts that with a drawdown, which can be exhausted. At this point he draws a barrel with a tap.

Neil uses a small whiteboard in his meetings so that clients can visualise what all these concepts and scenarios mean and look like.  This brings us onto another important technique.

5. Use visuals

Have you ever tried to explain the workings of a discounted gift trust in plain English? It’s much easier to use a diagram to explain who, when and how much money goes to who. And it helps us remember. Here’s John Medina again:

“If information is presented orally, people remember about 10%, tested 72 hours after exposure.  That figure goes up to 65% if you add a picture.”

Get to grips with the Smart Art feature in Powerpoint. Or else use the diagrams from the provider’s literature. You can use the snipping tool or screenshot and add them to your reports.

In summary, when trying to bridge the gulf of expertise, start by showing what the concept does and provide some context – this helps to give your clients the gist. Then illustrate with examples, metaphors and diagrams to bring it alive.

You are no doubt extremely talented and skilled in what you do.  However if you can also turn complicated concepts into something your clients can easily understand, feel reassured by and act on, then you’ll be strides ahead of the pack. 

As Sydney Harris said: “The two words information and communication are often used interchangeably, but they signify quite different things. Information is giving out and communication is getting through.”

If you’d like to learn more about how to improve your communication so that it’s clear, concise and client friendly, then check out the Communicate for Impact programme. It is an online self-paced course, specifically for financial advisers, paraplanners and support staff. It includes 6 steps which have shown to increase efficiency engagement and confidence. You can enrol as an individual or it can be run in house.


Stephen Pinker: The Sense of Style

John Medina: Brain Rules

Sydney Harris: American Author and Journalist

This article was written for the Professional Paraplanner.

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