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More than a feeling?

Pensions & benefits

I like to scan the news headlines on my smartphone with my breakfast coffee.

In the last few weeks, I’ve read about how the pound has plummeted in value against the dollar, how interest rates have soared, how the mini budget nearly bankrupted pension funds and about the collapse of the Truss Government.

We read emotive words like “plummeted”, “soared” and “bankrupt” in news headlines everyday but what impact do they have on us? Do they make us want to read more news? Do they scare us? Do they make us change our behaviours?

Writers use emotive words to stimulate an emotional reaction in a reader. As a pension communication specialist, it’s not something I do frequently. My clients often prefer to use simple, plain language in member communications. Lately I’ve been thinking about the benefits and drawbacks of emotive language. Could it have a role in member communications? Would we have more success in getting members to engage and make decisions or would this kind of language have the opposite effect?

What do the behavioural scientists say?

My understanding is that, when we create an emotional reaction in a reader, we can tap into emotional biases. These biases are usually based on personal feelings rather than deep thinking or careful reasoning.

In many situations, emotional biases are helpful. They can help to focus our attention and guide our decisions about how to respond to a problem. But emotion can also lead us to make the wrong decision or sometimes, no decision at all.

Some of the most influential emotions for decision-making are fear, sadness, regret and anger. Scary headlines about bankrupt pension schemes may make some members wake up and check on their pension savings, but are they helpful or do they erode trust in pensions?

Could the wrong language frighten members into inaction?

Regret-aversion bias is an emotional bias in which people tend to avoid making decisions that they fear will turn out badly. They try to avoid the pain of regret associated with bad decisions.

Sometimes taking no action is the right decision but all too often in pensions, we see evidence that members are fearful of what they see as complex topics. They tend to put off important decisions around savings and investment. In addition, regret-aversion bias can lead to members engaging in herding behaviour. They feel safer to be with the crowd, rather than making a decision that suits their individual plans and financial goals for the future.

Are there other ways to harness language to encourage more positive emotions?

We need to be careful even when we want to use more positive language to create an emotional reaction. I’m sure most of us can sense when we are being manipulated by positive emotive language in, for example, sales and marketing material.

Story telling

Emotive language is often used naturally when we tell personal stories. It helps us to connect to our audience. Perhaps emotive language could be used most effectively in communications that tell member stories about their experiences around saving, investment and retirement. Could we make better use of member stories and experiences, perhaps in blogs, podcasts or short videos?

The use of emotive language in stories is a key reason why they are so engaging. Look at the three versions here — which one appeals most to you?

“Go to our website where you will find helpful tools and information.”

“The scheme website is really useful, all the information you need is right there at your fingertips whenever you need it.”

“I recently used the Scheme website and it was brilliant, it saved me so much time and I now feel much more confident about my pension and how it works.”

Horses for courses

In these uncertain times, we all need to be very careful about how we use language to communicate in the right way with members. Sometimes simple, clear explanations are what’s needed, but I think that there is also room to make some of our communications more engaging and interesting by including member stories using more persuasive and emotive language.

More in the series:

Three core principles to good financial health

Investing in DC pension schemes in turbulent times

What good governance means for members

Dashboards are coming