Is It Okay To Cuss in Your Client Communications?

This week’s whimsy is inspired by a recent thread in the Evidence-Based Advisors LinkedIn group about John Oliver’s outrageously entertaining attack on many retirement plans’ high fees and opaque arrangements. It’s watchable, worthwhile, and free to share as a link or an embed … You’d think we’d be taking this piece viral faster than you can say “teacup pig.” (If you’re not catching the reference, watch the video.)

But there’s a catch. The language is so salty, the video could serve double duty as a cow lick. It makes McDonald’s fries seem like health food. You get my drift. While most agreed that the piece is “stunningly good” (said one commentator), “the language is just a bit too much” to share (said another). See for yourself, if you’ve not yet.

Should you or shouldn’t you use cuss words in your communications?

Some of the advisers with whom I work regularly pepper their pieces with their own special blend of the famed words from George Carlin’s, “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television.” Oliver’s popularity puts all of ours to shame, and those seven-plus words aren’t slowing him down. Like us, our clients are adults; if we like the video, why wouldn’t they? And what’s Oliver got that we haven’t?

In my opinion, it’s not that you should never, ever use a cuss word or share content from somebody who has. But when you do, you need to know what you’re about, because they’re heavy words indeed. Even Carlin agrees with that. “There’s a lot going on there,” he muses, “Besides the literal translation and the emotional feeling.” He even refers to his list as the “heavy seven.”

Like the difference between a cayenne and a bell pepper, a cuss word is going to call attention to itself in ways that no everyday word can. Put another way, they’re more like an “!!!” or ALL-CAPS then a period or lowercase.

So before you use them, ask yourself this simple question:

Will the choice word(s) strengthen my message or overpower it?

Oliver is a master at knowing the difference. That’s why he can spice it up as he does, and it not only still works (for me, anyway) but works far better than had he been more mild-mannered. It’s also why you may be able to share posts like Oliver’s in a less formal venue such as your blog. Basically, he’s better at it than we are. (If you do decide to use this sort of content, just introduce the link with a short, “strong language” alert, so readers can decide for themselves if they want to go there with you.)

Speaking of blog shares, venue matters too. You can be looser in your conversations, and in conversational blogs or videos than you can – or probably should be – in more formal presentations such as a white paper, company website or brochure. In the latter, cuss words may not only overpower your message, they’re likely to derail any train of thought and leave it smoldering beside the tracks.

Then there’s that audience. I’ve noticed a trend among some of our younger advisers who want to come across as more connected with their people by throwing in more “vernacular.” I think the belief is that younger audiences who have grown jaded by mealy-mouthed marketing-speak are more comfortable with, and may even respond better to the more blunt approach. Less bullshit.

To me, it’s not the age of the reader that matters. After all, we older folk are just as impatient about slimy smooth-talk as anyone else, and we were comfortably cussing up storms back when those whippersnapper millennials were still crying in their cradles.

But I digress. Age doesn’t matter. What matters is whether your words pass my one-question test above. If they do not – if you’ve not got your timing down – they’ll come off as contrived for adult readers of any age.

Unfortunately, I find that most advisers who frequently turn to salty language in their communications have not yet mastered the Oliver-level skills they need to succeed at it. As a result, the language still falls flat, for millennial and mature audiences alike.

That’s okay. You’re an adviser, not an entertainer. If you happen to have what it takes to pull off a cuss word now and then, by all means, be my flipping guest. If you’re not sure that you do, you may be better off pulling the punch, and focusing instead on offering flat-out great advice. Investors of any age will appreciate that.