April 22, 2016

Michael Cole-Fontayn: On lessons from the Bard and simplifying how we communicate

Michael Cole Fontayn

Michael Cole-Fontayn, EMEA Chairman, BNY Mellon


William Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre on London’s South Bank stands a few hundred yards from its original site and a few minutes’ walk from our EMEA headquarters on Queen Victoria Street across the river. Tomorrow marks four hundred years since the death of Shakespeare, one of the world’s most famous playwrights. It is a testament to Shakespeare’s immense talent that his works endure even as his prose continues to confound audiences the world over.

His creative, dense and complex use of language has tested audiences since Elizabethan England. It was not until the Bard’s works were transcribed following his death, debated and analysed, that we were able to understand better the full meaning of the words and phrases he used.

Shakespeare’s anniversary reminded me of how the complexity of his prose mirrors the challenging language used by the financial services industry, how it often inhibits understanding of our businesses and, in turn, trust in our industry by the broader public.

At BNY Mellon, like other financial services firms, our business involves products and services that may not be immediately familiar to, or understood, across society. Offerings like alternative investment services, depository receipts, capital markets, corporate trust and treasury services can confound the general public, even if they are grounded in simple concepts.

Combined with the regular, unchecked use of industry-specific acronyms, for example, QE, MIFID, CMU and so on, financial services have contributed to an unnecessary divide between those in the know and other key stakeholders throughout society. It is time we helped to demystify the language we use in our industry to unlock greater understanding of our work and our impact. A better understanding of what we do will also contribute to improving trust and trustworthiness of our sector.

With Shakespeare, much of the growth in the understanding around his work came over time from artists, scholars and critics who annotated and explained his prose in printed editions of his writing. It is our responsibility as leaders in the financial services industry to help the broad range of stakeholders understand our business by committing to employing more straightforward, common language.

I’ve been encouraged by increasing usage of plain spoken language across the financial services industry, a development which I believe will continue to evolve and improve in the years to come. Good, easy to understand communications improves understanding.  Understanding leads to confidence and trust.

If, “brevity is the soul of wit,” as Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet, then simplicity is at the heart of realising greater understanding. We can all strive, beginning with financial services, to make ourselves, our businesses and our practices better understood by employing plain English everyone recognises. I dare say, even Shakespeare, could have benefited from this approach.