How we phrase things—the words we choose to include and exclude—can dramatically affect the impact we have on people. As risk and compliance professionals, we are trying to communicate the expectations of laws, rules, and regulations to a community who might not understand or believe in those expectations.


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We are also trying to change attitudes and behaviors to achieve our own goals. This article is about the language we use in the attempt to do that—and how subtle changes of emphasis and wording can make an impact.

In the book “Cider with Rosie,” the author recounts a disappointing first day at school:

‘You’re Laurie Lee ain’t you? Well you just sit there for the present.’ I sat there all day but I never got it. I ain’t going back there again!

Having only ever heard the word “present” meaning “gift,” Lee had a completely different frame of reference than his teacher. At the same time, his teacher is probably baffled by why Lee appears disappointed and cross. Small words but large chasms in understanding.

Let’s look at an example closer to home. In a variant of a classic behavioral science experiment, politicians were asked to choose a solution to a deadly disease outbreak. The disease, if unchecked, is expected to kill 600 people.

The option chosen depended solely upon how those numbers were presented. The same information was given in two different ways: either “200 people would be saved” or “400 people would die.”

When phrased in terms of lives saved, only 42 percent of the politicians chose the option. When phrased in terms of deaths, 80 percent chose the option. The death/survival statistics are the same, but people are more likely to choose an option when the outcome is phrased as a loss rather than a gain.

The words we use establish a frame of reference for making judgements. When watching a video of two cars bumping into one another, people were asked, “About how fast were the cars going when they ___ each other?” Inserted into the blank space was one of a range of verbs such as “smashed” or “contacted.”

“Smashed” resulted in guesses around 40 mph; “collided” around 32 mph. Further, those presented with the “smashed” question were more likely to report broken glass and twisted metal in the video when, in fact, there was no such damage.

Similarly, if a crime is analogized as a “beast that needs to be tamed,” people reach for enforcement and punishment solutions. If it is described as a “virus that needs to be controlled,” they favor societal intervention and root cause analysis.

Traditionally, our risk and compliance profession has paid little attention to the words we use to communicate. Insurance policy documents and “terms and conditions” statements are often written in impenetrable legalese and, if we are honest, we never really expect many people to read them. It is common for codes of conduct to be plagiarized from others available on the internet, and many seem to be written to protect the company from legal action rather than to genuinely change people’s behaviors.

If the words we use can so powerfully affect the way in which we think and react, how can the risk and compliance community use this to achieve its own goals?

Here’s a suggestion: take a page out of marketing’s book. A major job of a marketing department is to establish a brand and its values in the minds of consumers and influence their subsequent purchasing choices. One way in which to do this is to establish a core value to consumers and experiment with ways to communicate that most effectively.

Using multiple creative approaches, narrowing those through focus groups, and experimenting with various communication media, the marketing team uses rigorous statistical analysis to judge which campaigns work best and refine the communication on that understanding. As risk and compliance professionals, we need to undertake the same rigorous approach when communication really matters.

As risk and compliance director at DAS Legal Expenses Insurance, I undertook work like this to understand the most effective way to communicate a complex legal insurance product to customers. We found something unexpected. We demonstrated the most understandable format actually scored highest on standard “reading complexity” scores, winning a prestigious marketing “Nudge” award in the process.

Another tip: use what we know from behavioral science. There is a large amount of science that can give us hints on how best to communicate and influence behavior.

Consider reframing a presentation so it is more appealing to your audience, using emotive language when required, and communicating using “people like me” rather than centralized “command and control” instructions. These can all be useful tools when writing a policy, designing compliance training, or writing a presentation for the board.

Risk and compliance professionals need to adopt the same goals as marketers. We are asking our consumers to devote their time and effort to doing the right thing. That those consumers are managers, process designers, and salespeople does not matter. Approaches to changing opinion and behavior have as much relevance to that audience as they do to the general market. We would do well to adopt and apply those techniques to our world.

The International Compliance Association is a sister company to Compliance Week. Both organizations are under the umbrella of Wilmington plc.