Good Communications Guide


Chapter 5

Language, Tone of Voice and Behavioural Economics

I speak to everyone in the same way, whether he is the garbage man or the president of the university.
Albert Einstein
Nobel Prize Winner and Theoretical Physicist




Pensions in the UK have seen real innovation in recent years. It’s time the way we talk about pensions caught up.

Strong messaging is vital, but we all need to make pensions more accessible to everyone and the first step has to be changing the language we use. We know it’s complicated and full of jargon so when we start using new tools and technologies we must make sure we don’t carry forward lazy language from the past. We have to actively remove complicated and technical words which cloud understanding and halt active decision making.

We need to listen to people, as well as talk to them, and in particular the young. Using data analytics will also be critical in helping us to harness new technologies and look to the future to create engagement in pensions, as well as shape messaging for different generations of people in work.

Ruston Smith
Non Executive Chair of the Tesco Pension Fund, JP Morgan Asset Management and Smart Pension Ltd, Chair of GroceryAid




Money Advice Service

Language, Tone of Voice and Behavioural Economics

Tone of voice is about the character of your pension (or your company) and how it comes through in your words, both written and spoken. It’s not about what you say, but the way you say it and the impression it leaves behind.

For example, some people are forward and up front, others are pleasant and polite. Some say so much with just a few words. It’s the same for companies, and it can be the same for your pension scheme. It’s probably worth taking a step back and thinking about your business’ tone of voice, what it is and whether it is something that should, or shouldn’t flow through to your pension communications? Most companies will have a tone of voice guide which sets out what they are aiming for.

The problem is that even if you set out with the best intentions, it’s incredibly easy to lapse into clichéd communication styles, using jargon and terms and phrases that make no sense to the customer. This approach runs the risk of making your message sound inauthentic or even like you might be trying to hide something. Even everyday colloquialisms can cause people to hear the wrong message.

To identify your tone of voice, think about the three to six traits you want to embody. For example:



Then it’s time to start writing some examples:

Your voice is Friendly.

Write like this:

Joining is easy. It's all done for you when you start your fourth month with us.

Not like this:

You will be automatically enrolled in your fourth month.


Both sentences mean the same, but the way they are written affects the impression you get, and how you may or may not react to them. This is because when you read something you understand it on two levels. The facts tell the analytical side of your brain one thing, while the tone tells the creative side what it would be like. Tone of voice isn’t just about how you speak. It includes all the words you use, including on your website, in direct emails, brochures, call centre scripts, and presentations, etc. Tone of voice isn’t the same as good writing or persuasive messaging. It’s about using language to give your pension scheme or product its own distinct and recognisable voice.

Next steps

Do this for each of the attributes you want to define. Aim to have just a single page of examples which you can then share with colleagues responsible for writing communications for your scheme. This will help ensure that your communications are consistent in tone regardless of who is tasked with writing them.


Top tip
Working out your organisation’s tone of voice with a group of colleagues in a short workshop can help. At the same time ask them to find examples of other communications they like and bring them along for inspiration. Find out what works and what doesn’t work for your customer. You might also have insights from stakeholder interviews and take a look at competitors and what they are doing.


Tone of Voice Tips

Understand your audience

Take some time to think about the people you will be communicating to – and listen to the words they use in the conversations they have and understand why they don’t use other words. Find out what they do and don’t understand and consider how they frame their knowledge and express themselves.

Be clear on the key messages you want to land

Think about the purpose of the communication, why it’s relevant and the key messages you want to land. This will help the communication to be clear and simple.

Be thoughtful about the right tone of voice

To make sure that the messages land effectively, consider the tone of voice that will work best for your audience. Write using an active positive voice – ‘you’re in’ where appropriate.

Get feedback from each draft of your communication

At each review stage, get feedback from people within the groups who will receive the communication. Ask for honest feedback. Feedback is a gift - acknowledge all the feedback you receive and consider what can be changed and be sensitive to what can’t. Make sure you explain your decision when feeding back your thoughts.

Keep it short and simple but use full sentences

All too often we don't explain ourselves properly. So make sure you use enough words to build a good understanding – but use short sentences. Carefully consider what information your audience needs and what they don’t need.

Explain ‘what it means to them’ right at the start

Make it personal to them and make sure the reader can easily and quickly understand why it’s relevant, what it means to them and what they need to do. Include clear signposting where appropriate.

Use pictures and diagrams to bring key points to life

Don’t be afraid to be creative if it will help deliver the right outcome. Involve your brand champions early on and get their help to find the right approach for your audience.

Avoid using jargon

Jargon are words, usually technical, that people don’t understand. Jargon also comes over as being pretentious and vague. So work hard to remove it from everything. There are many technical terms in pensions but try to avoid them. As a last resort, if you do use it, include a jargon buster.

Avoid using Acronyms

Acronyms tend to be shortened versions of jargon – or another form of jargon. So ask yourself if you need to use them. Make a list of the terms like Lifetime Allowance and the Pension Regulator and decide whether the reader will really understand an acronym. Remember that a communication full of AA, LTA, TPR, DC, IFA, might seem easy to understand to you – but is unlikely to work for your audience.





Behavioural Economics

If we're communicating pensions, we cannot ignore behavioural economics. Behavioural economics explores why people sometimes make irrational decisions, and why and how their behaviour does not follow the predictions of economic models.
There are many research pieces out there in the pension industry to help us get a very deep understanding of how people work when it comes to making financial decisions. So much so, we’ve lost sight of the theory behind it.


MINDSPACE is a very useful way to remember nine of the key behavioural aspects that affect decision making.


We are heavily influenced by who communicates to us


Our responses to incentives are shaped by predictable mental shortcuts such as avoiding losses


We are strongly influenced by what others do


We go with the flow of pre-set options


We are drawn to the novel and what seems relevant to us


Our acts are often influenced by sub-conscious cues


Our emotional associations can powerfully shape our actions


We seek to be consistent with our public promises and reciprocal acts


We act in ways that make us feel better about ourselves.


Putting it into practice

To put all of this into practice it is useful to understand how our brains work and how that causes people to act irrationally and inconsistently. Unfortunately we presume that if we give people information about pensions they will read it and digest and take rationale actions. This is not happening because our minds actually have two systems:

1. The reflective part, which has limited capacity but offers more systematic and ‘deeper’ analysis. This is the ‘slower’ thinking part of the brain.

2. The automatic part. This processes many things separately, simultaneously, and often unconsciously. It takes shortcuts and has ingrained biases. This is the fast part of the brain.

The automatic part of the brain is the part we need to focus on when thinking about language, tone of voice and behaviours. This natural behaviour is the one we need to connect with. It is the part of the brain that makes us buy a coffee and a muffin every morning, rather than thinking about saving £5 a day and putting it into a pension.



Insights from our research

Many respondents have spent time defining a tone of voice for pension communications which is good news. Relatively few use a defined language library.


Useful tools




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