What we call things - and why it's important

Isabella Eckert

Our mission at Equals Money is to make money movement simple. This means the language we use has to be simple too.

The finance industry was born well before the internet, with the first records of banks dating back to the Middle Ages. The industry has changed more in the last decade than ever before, with FinTechs and Neobanks springing up by the day. But the language we use to talk about finance remains overwhelmingly out-dated and opaque. 

In this New Yorker article, John Lanchester describes language in finance as “potent and efficient, but also exclusive and excluding”, adding, “explanations are hard to hold on to, because an entire series of them may be compressed into a phrase, or even a single word”.

For Equals Money to offer the best services to our customers, we have to take on this exclusive and excluding language.

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Why do I care so much about ‘What we call things’?

I joined Equals Money from a journalism start-up background at The Tab, a student and youth media site. It was our job to create accessible content and connect with our audience (and also to make or find good memes). It was fast-paced, challenging and I learned a lot from the experience. When I entered the world of FinTech (and the Finance-with-a-capital-F undercurrent that came with it), I was left dizzy by jargon and acronyms that were the opposite of accessible - they made me feel like I didn’t belong. 

I was venting my frustration about some of the acronyms I’d come across in my first week to my Dad, who turned to me and said “you obviously haven’t grasped the skill of TLAs”. I looked puzzled, and he laughed and told me that TLAs are Three Letter Acronyms - basically, the useless shortening of otherwise simple or redundant phrases, used by people in business to impress a sense of wisdom and exclude newcomers and outsiders.

Payments are obviously a more complicated offering than youth media, but it still felt to me as though the finance industry was set up to exclude people, especially because over the past three years, transparency has become a pillar of the FinTech community. The culture of the Fintech space has opened up, and the language must evolve to reflect this. 

The Equals Money team sees this need and is constantly striving to be more inclusive in communications and naming, both for our customers and our team. 

What did we do about it?

This year, the Product team at Equals Money launched a project to review the words we use, both in our products and in the business more widely. We called the project "What we call things" - clear and to the point, reflecting what we set out to achieve. Since June this year, we have had over 40 hours of debate and meetings on "What we call things".

Challenging ourselves to question the language we use has created some interesting debates and outcomes. We’ve done away with words like “consumer” in favour of “personal customers”, “user” in favour of “person”, and “payments executors” in favour of “payments managers”. All these changes improve clarity both for us and our customers.

Some things we’ve learned

Here are some of the things we’ve learned whilst re-evaluating the language we use. 

Less is more

One of the lessons that stuck with me from my time in journalism was never to use a long or complicated word where a short or simple one would suffice.

I also love ​​this quote from Blaise Pascal : “I am sorry I wrote a long letter. I did not have time to write a short one.”

It takes more effort to write something concise than to over-hash it, but the extra effort is worth it.

Only use acronyms where absolutely necessary

ABU, ACH, ACS, ADV, APW, CNS, DCM - this is just a small selection of the acronyms that haunt our project plans. While there are set acronyms that exist in financial infrastructure, it’s important to spell these out at least once. Nothing makes people switch off in a call, or even worse, feel totally demoralised, like an unnecessary acronym.

Exception: When the project began, I attempted to ban acronyms. Our CPO James Simcox and I once literally almost came to blows over the acronym IBAN (International Bank Account Number). Some acronyms take on a noun form of their own, becoming the actual name for something. This is the only exception where an acronym can rightfully be used.

Write like you talk, say what you mean

When stuck on a word or term, we often ask people on the call to describe what it is or does out loud. By using words that you would use when describing something to someone in real life, you often end up simplifying your language.

Exception: Project names. Nothing will align a team around a project like a good project name. I was once working on a seemingly dry and paperwork-laden project. I called it Project Gucci, and everyone wanted in.

What does this project mean for the customer?

As one of our core values, we are always striving to “be the customer”. We can’t do this if we’re using language that excludes them. We hope that by putting simple communication at the forefront of our strategy, customers will be empowered to better manage their money. 

What does this mean for the financial sector, and society more widely?

Striving to connect with as many people as possible means that no one is excluded. It all represents the key components of Equals Money: a motivated and informed team and an empowered and engaged customer base. 

Financial illiteracy is one of the key drivers of inequality, and the opaque nature of financial systems has acted to protect large banking institutions - see the 2007 crisis. The shift we are seeing across FinTech to speak in human, no-nonsense language is a breath of fresh air and marks a turning point in an archaic industry and knock-on effect on society more widely.

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