How to Communicate: Using the Wrong Words at the Right Time

I received an email the other day containing a criticism that I’ve never received before. It raises an interesting and important issue, not only for those of us who write articles, but for anyone who communicates for a living—such as financial advisors, both old and young. 

Here’s a summing up of the email, written in response to my last blog on how advisors should 'Dress for Success': “In my 25 years of business experience I have found that it also helps if one writes and speaks well. I suggest you review your blog and correct some of the grammatical errors: Not speaking or writing well is also a sign of callow youth as opposed to a seasoned professional.”

First, let me say that I agree with this email writer 100%: good grammar is important. It’s important for all of us to present ourselves well. Unfortunately, when you speak or write a lot, despite our best efforts, and the efforts of our copy editors, some mistakes still slip through the cracks. Of course, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep trying to get it right. 

With that said, I’ve found that it’s at least equally important to sound like yourself, and to talk to your audience, rather than talk down to them. When I write and speak publicly, I try to sound natural—using the words and phrases that I would in casual conversation. This helps to reveal who you are as person and shows your personality. It creates a stronger connection with one’s audience. Someone trying to be something they aren’t is worse than being ourselves, even if we’re not always grammatically correct or use fancy words. 

It’s also important to connect with one’s audience. If you’re going to give a presentation to a group of Harvard English professors, you probably should brush up on your grammar. In the real world, blindly sticking to the “rules” often makes one sound stuffy, like saying "whom" instead of "who" in most cases. Of course, one can go too far: for instance, when I talk or write to financial advisors, I leave out "dude" and "rad” and “sweet” on a regular basis. Unless of course, the situation calls for some awesomeness.

Would younger advisors connect better with older advisors and clients if they used more formal language? Apparently you would with at least one advisor. Still, I think an informal, down-to-earth style works way more for you than against you. 

Financial advice is already overflowing with too many technical terms that the vast majority of clients don’t understand. People want to work with someone they can relate to (yes, I should have said “with whom they can relate”), and who translates complicated subjects into concepts they understand. I think we’re a lot better off to sound more accessible, rather than let stiff grammar separate us further. Often, bad grammar just sounds better. Would you really change the Star Trek classic line “…to boldly go where no man has gone before” into “…to go boldly…”?

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