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Who Writes a 51-Page Client Questionnaire?

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Have you ever noticed that shareholder reports are not always models of clarity or that user agreements for things like cell phones seem longer than strictly necessary?

Fear of lawsuits is one reason why a user guide will add such gems as “use of a phone while… riding a bicycle may be distracting,” but lack of skill also explains the inelegant, sometimes unintelligible communications found in government, academia and commerce.

To highlight the importance of clear expression, the Center for Plain Language held its fifth annual gathering to honor good communicators with its ClearMark awards, but also to extend its booby prize, the WonderMark award, for writing that would leave a reader wondering what exactly was meant.

Unsurprisingly, financial and advice-related communications were not absent from this year’s awards, held Tuesday evening at the National Press Club in Washington. The winner of the dubious WonderMark award was The Columbia Bank for its merchant agreement—a nearly 10,000-word contract whose opening words foretell an unpleasurable reading experience:

“This Merchant Agreement is for merchant card payment processing services among the merchant that signed the Merchant Application (hereinafter referred to as ‘Merchant’) and The Columbia Bank (hereinafter collectively referred to as ‘Bank’).”

Apart from the five appearances of the word “merchant” and use of the word “among,” which signifies three or more parties, in connection to a single entity, the biggest head scratcher may be that the agreement’s author thought to refer to a single banking institution as a collective.

Financial advice—albeit in insurance benefits rather than investment securities—did not escape notice in this year’s honors.  The judges presented a ClearMark award in the “before and after” category to the Department of Veterans Affairs for a beneficiary financial counseling questionnaire.

The original questionnaire totaled a whopping 51 pages—imagine giving one of those to your clients!—but the Veterans Affairs team managed to edit the document down to its essentials in a less foreboding eight pages.

The Center for Plain Language praised the new brochure’s design, saying it “walks the user through the information. The brochure structure was greatly improved, eliminating excess information that did not directly pertain to the task at hand. The judges said the information was logical in its sequencing and well done with a great use of type weight, size, and line spacing as well as strong visual signaling.”

Aside from WonderMark winner The Columbia Bank, which serves merchants, apparently, in the Mid-Atlantic region, the Washington area dominated the list of poor communicators, with the effect of empowering bureaucrats, confusing subway riders and boosting employment for divorce lawyers. From the Center for Plain Language press release:

  • General Services Administration (DC), Federal Acquisition Regulations. The text is extremely dense and unnecessarily circular. The unnecessary circularity conceals, or almost conceals the fact that the regulations appear to give super power to the regulator. The circularity in the regulation allows that oddity to exist.
  • Washington Metro Authority (DC), Metro Bus Sign. This Metro bus sign is confusing because it uses the words “alight only.” These words are very uncommon in English and are more likely to describe starting a fire than to provide information to Metro customers.
  • The Commonwealth of Virginia, Fairfax County Court Circuit, Divorce Forms and Instructions brochure. A word to the wise, try to avoid getting divorced in the Commonwealth of Virginia especially if you intend to read their “helpful” divorce brochure—partially produced with help from the Fairfax County Bar. The 69-page brochure and use of Latin words ensures that you will need a lawyer if you want to get divorced in VA—or even if you just want to read the divorce brochure.


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