Mind your language

Written by Paul Eccleson on Monday July 18, 2022

Man and woman talking at work

How small differences in phrasing can produce large changes in behaviour 

How we phrase things – the words we choose to include and exclude – can dramatically affect the impact that 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 may not understand or believe in those expectations. We are also trying to change attitudes and behaviours 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 ‘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![1]

Having only ever heard the word ‘present’ meaning ‘gift’, the young Laurie had a completely different frame of reference than his teacher. At the same time, his teacher is probably baffled by why Laurie 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 behavioural science experiment, politicians were asked to choose a solution to a deadly disease outbreak.[2] 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% of the politicians chose the option. When phrased in terms of deaths, 80% 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.[3]

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. Furthermore, 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.[4] Similarly, if a crime is described 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 favour societal intervention and root-cause analysis.[5]

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 plagiarised from others available on the internet[6] and many seem to be written to protect the company from legal action rather than genuinely change people’s behaviours.

If the words that 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 are a couple of suggestions.

  • Take a leaf 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 that the most understandable format actually scored highest on standard ‘reading complexity’ scores, winning a prestigious marketing ‘Nudge’ award in the process.[7]
  • Use what we know from behavioural science. There is a large amount of science that can give us hints on how best to communicate and influence behaviour. In addition to the loss aversion bias discussed above, re-framing a presentation so that it is more appealing to your audience, using emotive language when required, communicating using ‘people like me’ rather than centralised ‘command and control’ instructions. These can all be useful tools when writing a policy, designing compliance training or writing a presentation for the board.[8]

Risk and compliance professionals need to adopt the same goals as marketeers. We are asking our consumers to devote their time and effort into doing the right thing. That those consumers are managers, process designers and sales people does not matter. Approaches to changing opinion and behaviour 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.

You may also like:

[1]  Laurie Lee, Cider with Rosie.p44

[2] Lior Sheffer et al, Nonrepresentative Representatives: An Experimental Study of the Decision Making of Elected Politicians, 2018: – accessed May 2022

[3] During the UK Brexit campaign, an effective ‘leave’ slogan was phrased as ‘Take Back Control’. The use of the word ‘back’ is important since it implies that control has been ‘lost’ at some point, thus appealing to our loss aversion bias.

[4] Elizabeth F. Loftus and John C. Palmer, Reconstruction of automobile destruction: An example of the interaction between language and memory, 1974: – accessed May 2021. The speed of the cars was 20–40 mph

[5] Paul Thibodeau and Lera Boroditsky, Metaphors we think with: The role of metaphor in reasoning, PloS One, February 2011: – accessed May 2022

[6] Forster el al, Commonality in Codes of Ethics, Journal of Business Ethics, 30 January 2009: – accessed May 2022. The paper found that of the Codes of Ethics from nearly 600 US companies, there was a correlation of over 50% in the wordings used. Many simply regurgitated the exact wording of the regulations being referred to.

[7] The Nudge Award is described at: Oliver Payne, Gold! The Only Gold Retail Nudge Award Won By Us For Das Legal, The Hunting Dynasty, 27 July 2015: – accessed May 2022. The findings show that sometimes the best way to communicate is counter-intuitive and experimentation really matters.

[8] A useful document for understanding how behavioural science can help: UK Institute for Government, MINDSPACE, 2 March 2010:  – accessed May 2022


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