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In arguing for why good writing is important to help a company seem credible and trustworthy, it’s often useful to look at the opposite of good writing – and SPAM messages are rife with this!
What’s interesting in the case of notices proporting to be from financial institutions is that it’s clear that the writers are using a voice that tries to sound very official and serious … just like they think a bank would sound. But the stand-out errors in them start to chip away at that vaneer pretty efficiently.
Even people who don’t edit people’s writing for a living will pick up on even minor gaffes and start to feel less invested in a message that was unsolicited to start with (and which may not even be from a bank we actually deal with).
To illustrate, here are three of the most odorous SPAM messages that have landed in my Inbox lately (well, of those I actually bothered to open and read …). Included are < my notes in carets > on just what makes them so pungent:
SPAM Message #1
This is an Alert to help manage your online banking access. < the alert is so important that they’ve capitalized it! >
Dear Bank Of Montreal customer < The bank must be important if they spell the word ‘of’ with a capital O >,
Bank Of Montreal Online Security has been receiving complaints from our customers for < complaints for? > unauthorised uses of Online Banking Accounts. As a result we are temporarily shutting down some selected Bank Of Montreal Online Accounts perceived vulnerable to this, pending till the time we carry out proper verification by the account owner < ‘pending till’? >. Bank Of Montreal is committed to ensure the safeguard of each customer personal information, making sure only authorised individuals have access to their accounts. <Whoa, you can tell this one was not written by an English speaker. >
As a first step to have Your < I must be divine, since they’ve used a capital Y >Bank Of Montreal Online Access reactivated please verify your identity by using the link provided below:
http://www.bmo.com/fraud.prevention/account/verification < This link actually takes you to one starting with ‘amourtoujours.net’ >
These instructions are sent to and should be followed by all Bank Of Montreal clients,to avoid service deactivation after the verification is completed < ‘are sent to and should be followed’ – nice use of the passive, and those nice mega-nouns ‘deactivation’ and ‘reactivation’ all in one sentence! >. We apologise for any inconveniences and thank you for your cooperation. . < Oops, they’ve left an extra period here! And don’t we spell it ‘apologize’ in Canada? >
Customers Support Service. <Well, they do support multiple people … >
SPAM Message #2
Dear Bank Of Montreal Customer:
BMO Bank Of Montreal is hereby announcing the New Security Upgrade. < Sound the trumpets! They’ve announced the Upgrade! >
We’ve upgraded our new SSL servers to serve our customers for a better and secure internet banking service < Was it not secure before …? >.
It is very important that you update your account information & other personal information < I’m not sure I’d give any personal info to someone using an ampersand to preface it >, please follow the link below to update your account then ‘Sign In’ to submit your request.
Click Here To Update Your Account < When you hover your mouse, it shows the URL: <http://autozap99.ru/… >
100% Online Banking Guarantee < also links to a bogus URL >
Bank Of Montreal
© 2011 offered by BMO Bank Of Montreal, N.A.
< Well, it must be a professional message if they’ve copyrighted it! >
SPAM Message #3
From: C.I.B.C. – Accounting Services [firstname.lastname@example.org]
Subject: CIBC Business Banking – Statement Summary Report – ’03/01/2012′
< Don’t they know how to spell their own name? >
DEAR CIBC BUSINESS BANKING CUSTOMER < Great, now they’re shouting at me. >
Kindly download the attachment to view your new account summary and confirm recent transactions on your account. < Nothing about why would I do this …?>
CIBC Financial Services < Wait, I thought the message was from Accounting Services. >
As this e-mail is an automated message, do not reply to this email.
No virus found in this message.
Checked by AVG – www.avg.com
Version: 2012.0.1901 / Virus Database: 2109/4742 – Release Date…
< Well, nice to know they’ve gone through the trouble of scanning this message before sending it. They must be trustworthy – look at all that technical info! >
So what’s my point?
We all have laughed about the awful SPAMs we’ve received. But they hold some very good lessons about how we can miss with our own customers if we’re not careful: with inconsistent spellings, bad punctuation, incomplete or uneven information, a tone and flow that doesn’t sound natural . . . the list goes on.
It’s something to think about the next time you’re writing an important message on behalf of your business.
While the above examples use the names of two major Canadian banks, I only leave them in because some of the errors have to do with using those brand names incorrectly or inconsistently.
Had those messages actually come from actual financial institutions (FIs), they would no doubt have been much better-written. And as fraud-prevention folks always say, a legitimate FI won’t contact its customers by broadcast email anyway.
Through SimplyRead, my plain-language writing business, I continue to work with organizations that are required to use plain language in their communications because their industry or customers are insisting on it.
Here are just a few examples:
- The Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, 2005 sets out guidelines for Ontario businesses and organizations to help them identify, remove and prevent barriers to accessibility. The first standard related to Customer Service became law in 2008. Now, the standards for creating, providing and receiving accessible information and communications is being streamlined as it aims toward becoming law later this year.
- As more and more consumers begin demanding clearer financial information in the face of the current economic climate, the Financial Consumers Agency of Canada has released guidelines for banks and other financial services organizations to follow when they prepare disclosure notices for their customers.
- Responding to feedback from its customers, one of our business clients is implementing plain language communications across its organization: establishing templates and training support to help employees recognize and use clear writing techniques in their customer communications.
Watch this space over the next few weeks for a more personal look at why financial literacy has evolved into a subject that’s on the tongues of more people in the financial and education arenas.
If I ever manage to blog more than a few times a month, I figure I have to see how it’s really done by reading what other quite successful bloggers have put out.
Two blogs have stood out and become regular visits – probably because they also help me improve in two quite important arenas of life: stretching our dollars, and surviving gracefully as a parent.
The first is Squawkfox, a very engaging read about ways to keep the ends meeting, even if we face tougher times (and heck, those with lots of extra – does anyone actually still *know* many people like that?! – will stand a better chance of keeping what they have if they live by this advice.)
Deemed as the place ‘ Where frugal living is sexy, delicious and fun!,’ this blog lives up to its name. And because she’s writing as a consumer living in Canada (Kerry K Taylor lives in Vernon, B.C.), she is writing from a similar consumer experience to mine – making the advice terribly relevant. Plus, she lives up to the phrugal philosophy by giving away several resources for free. In other words – financial literacy in action.
I have a penchant for re-using things, finding really good deals on stuff I need – and a serious hate-on for feeling like corporations are getting the better of me. So I just love reading what the Squawkfox has to say. And of course, she makes no bones about saying what’s on her mind. A woman after my own heart, but who wants to help me put more money in my wallet.
The Happiest Mom
One thing you can very often say of blogs about parenting is that they are very honest, often to the point of being in-your-face. This to me has several merits to me. Chief among them is that many other parents who struggle with the job – but who don’t naturally express ourselves this way in writing – will find solace that others face much of the same angst about it that they do. Entire new communities and friendships are being built among moms who blog about their experiences.
So from a clarity perspective, there’s no issue. And there is a Mom Blog out there to suit every personality. But so far, I’m digging this one the most.
The Happiest Mom is actually Meagan Francis, mom herself to five kids, blogger and columnist in parenting magazines and several websites. What I like so much about her blog is not what you might expect, given its title: she doesn’t try to sugarcoat the parenting experience and portray herself as the accomplished Uber-Mom (many of us know a few of those already). In fact, quite the opposite. From the About page:
I haven’t always been a happy mom. In fact, there was a time that I was downright miserable. But through the years, I came to learn some secrets, tips and tricks that have helped me tip the scales back toward the happy side.
The other cool thing? She cuts through the shrouds of guilt and self-deprivation that tend to characterize motherhood, instead encouraging the key message that it’s taking care of ourselves that helps us to feel more balanced as parents. But not in a self-centred way. Again, she says it best:
By taking care of our health and well-being, defining our values so we can focus on the things that matter to us (and forget the rest,) nurturing our homes and relationships, and setting reasonable standards for ourselves and everyone around us, moms really can learn to enjoy life…even when it’s chaotic, loud and messy.
Amen to that, sister.
This is a topic I’ve learned about the hard way – you see, I’m one of those people about whom all the media are now talking, who have racked up way too much credit-card debt and hold too many cards.
But fortunately (sort of), I hit 40 last year and finally got the good sense to engage a financial adviser. Her first order of business? Weaning my husband and I off our VISA habit. Having finally drilled down to figure out which ones have the lowest interest rate, we are now cancelling cards left-and-right.
And it’s not just to avoid temptation: it’s also to improve our credit rating. Did you know that just having room on multiple cards raises your debt ratio? I didn’t.
“Debt ratio,” you say? If you don’t even know what that is (and again, I didn’t, either), you can at least be comforted in knowing you’re not alone. A report released today on CBC.ca warns that more and more of us are starting to default on our credit card payments.
There is some good coming of this, though. Last week it was announced that a new task force is being struck to improve financial literacy among Canadians. I’ve also been hearing more and more about revisions to the school curriculum to include this important topic.
You may think it sad and not surprising that these issues are making it into the headlines both here and in the U.S., now that so many are now suffering the consequences of our ignorance. All I can say is, thank goodness it’s happening, no matter the timing! If only those programs had been around in my elementary and secondary school days (in case you’re even more phobic of numbers than I am, they were in the 70’s and 80’s).
Now, let’s just hope that the Financial Literacy Task Force will consult heavily with educators and literacy professionals as they figure out their action plan.
Want to further educate yourself?
Here’s a link from the ‘horse’s mouth,’ as it were: The Financial Consumer Agency of Canada (FCAC) offers a host of resources to help you become more financially literate.