That’s a picture of the second-story writing studio that adjoins the Key West house in which Ernest Hemingway lived in the 1930s. He wrote many of his best and most famous stories and books there. His house is now a museum, and the cat in the foreground is one of the approximately 59 others who are the sole residents.

A recent visit triggered some fond memories of reading some of those classics in my American Lit course:

  • For Whom the Bell Tolls
  • The Green Hills of Africa
  • The Snows of Kilimanjaro
  • The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber

But Hemingway’s sparse and compelling style that appealed to me went for naught. Instead of writing the Great American Novel, I entered the world of ERISA trying to explain difficult and technical concepts, many of which prefaced by numerical references to Internal Revenue Code sections and Department of Labor regulations. Not a feeling of a job well done to see otherwise bright people getting that glazed-over look.

Kevin Morris on the Principal Blog reminds us of that danger when he writes, Is Jargon Getting in Your Way? Financial terms can be confusing and have negative connotations, he says, and provides some suggestions to improve our communication.

Avoiding the jargon trap was a lesson taught to me years ago by a business associate who counseled me, “Jerry, when I asked you time it was, you told me how to make a watch”.

But it’s not just the jargon to avoid. Words themselves can have underlying emotional meanings. Invesco points out in its white paper, New Word Order that there are “words to use” and “words to lose” when communicating with employees. They describe the four core communication principles from their research.

  • Positive: Don’t sell fear or risk
  • Plausible: Sell credible benefits
  • Plain English: Avoid jargon
  • Personalize: Personalize the benefits

So can we learn to write like Hemingway in communicating the value of 401(k) plans to employees?

No problem. There’s an app for that. Mobile and desktop versions available.

Now whether legal counsel and compliance officers will let us use it, well, that’s another story.

Picture credit: The Hemingway Home and Museum.