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Financial Planning > Tax Planning

Communicating So Clients Really Listen

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According to the British bank Lloyds, the average person’s attention span these days is down to five minutes. So if you have a 20-minute presentation to make, there’s a good chance your clients will miss 75% of it unless you communicate in a way that keeps them listening.

Does that startle you? It should. Getting clients to really listen to you is critical to your success as an advisor. By communicating well you can give current clients the confidence to take the next step and build trust with prospects.

A key part of engaging listeners is making your ideas easy to understand, which was brought home to me recently when I heard Josh Braun’s terrific presentation at a Women for a Secure Retirement conference. The author of “The Art of Communication: How to Explain Complex Ideas in Simply Delightful Ways,” Braun is vice president of business development for Jellyvision, a digital agency dedicated to making learning and decision-making more enjoyable—or, in Braun’s words, “delightful.” I caught up with him after his speech and asked him for some tips that would help financial advisors grab their clients’ attention while educating and informing them and, possibly, even delighting them.

Olivia Mellan: Many advisors think they are excellent communicators, but often their clients feel lost, confused or overwhelmed. Why is this?

Josh Braun: Like many experts, financial advisors often suffer from the “curse of knowledge.” When you are so close to the subject matter, you have a very hard time being empathetic with people who don’t have your level of expertise. That’s problem No. 1.

Problem No. 2: You were probably never taught how to explain things. There’s a real art and a science to get someone from no understanding to understanding. So what you see is people giving PowerPoint presentations riddled with bullets. We like to say that “bullets kill.”

Problem No. 3: Technology today makes it very easy for people to regurgitate everything they know on the screen. TMI—“too much information”—leads to MEGO—“my eyes glaze over.”

OM: So when advisors have important information to communicate, how can they get their clients’ attention and help them understand?

JB: Instead of explaining everything you know, you need to ask yourself, “Why should the client care?”

In other words, instead of talking about the features or the data, you need to explain what’s in it for them. For example, if you’re talking about a 401(k), you could describe all the features: pre-tax contributions, choice of investments, and on and on. Instead, think of the real benefit: Clients want to have a certain lifestyle when they’re older. So show them “before” and “after” scenarios. Without a 401(k), there’s a lot of money stress and worry, a constrained lifestyle. With a 401(k), there’s peace of mind.

OM: In my work, I’ve found that telling stories is a good way to get a point across.

JB: Yes, storytelling is very important. We’re wired for stories from a young age. “Here’s Bob and here’s Sally. Sally doesn’t participate in a 401(k) plan and here’s what happened to her. Bob does have a 401(k). Here’s what happened to him.”

But words alone are not enough. If you see something that’s very information-dense, the brain switches off. Combine words with visuals.

For example, instead of just saying that a 401(k) can help you pay less tax now, show the hand of the government coming in and snatching away some of your money. Or if you’re explaining the power of an employer match, you might show one piggy bank being filled with the client’s contributions and another piggy bank being filled by the employer. Get creative. Don’t just explain, entertain.

OM: You’ve said that good communication “is memorable, easy to understand and has people chanting, ‘We want more! We want more!’”

JB: Absolutely. Have fun with it! People like to be entertained. Try to surprise and delight them with mental or visual images that make them smile. Suppose you’re talking about lifestyle changes and you ask, “Are you expecting a baby?” You show a stork coming down. If there’s no baby, the stork flies away.

You can use metaphor to latch onto what your audience already knows. When Ridley Scott pitched “Alien” to the movie studios, he didn’t go into a million plot details. He just said, “It’s ‘Jaws’ in space.” Everybody said, “Aha.” In just a few words, he got the point across.

Simplicity is good. Many people tend to ramble instead of focusing on one core idea. If you have more ideas than that, break it up into smaller chunks so the client can digest it.

OM: Any specific tips for advisors who are writing letters, emails, proposals or anything else for their clients?

JB: It’s okay to use the word “you” when you write. Make sure your “you”s outweigh your “I”s.

Be conversational. Recast financial jargon into human terms. A lot of people say, “My lawyers won’t let me do that” or “I’m only supposed to use approved language.” But you can add a plain-English layer on top of the legal requirements. The idea is to avoid boring, impersonal emails and long, complicated descriptions stuffed full of legalese and written for maximum cover-your-buttness (including but not limited to all regions adjacent, tangent or perpendicular to the gluteus maximus).

OM: So you and Jellyvision are really on a mission.

JB: Poor communication causes confusion, frustration and inaction, and that costs money. When you have to explain things over and over again, it’s expensive and frustrating for both you and the client. That’s why this topic is so important.

The two biggest areas of confusion these days are financial products and open enrollment. We’ve all gotten these confusing communications. Think of all the customer service phone lines, all the other expense and aggravation because companies have confused their clients.

OM: You’ve also made the point that “delightful” communication can help differentiate an advisor.

JB: Your personality matters. People will buy from people they like. People will buy from you if you are clear in your presentations, if you create memorable moments. In a world full of confusion, clarity becomes a differentiator.

If advisors adopt the secrets of delightful communication that we’ve discussed, I believe they’ll get more leads and make their current clients loyal for life.

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