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Home > Opinion > Dennis Hall

The elegance of simple advice

Are you familiar with the optical illusion where you are asked, which straight line is longest? They are all the same length of course, but appear longer or shorter than each other by adding arrowheads and inverse arrowheads.

By Dennis Hall | Published Jun 13, 2012 | comments

It is such an oft used optical illusion that I doubt there is anyone reading this who has not seen it. So when my guest speaker sent me the slides he was using for a presentation on behavioural investing, my heart sank – he was starting his presentation with the optical illusion just described.

It was even more disappointing because I had rejected this example for the introductory session I was running earlier in the day. I had found new, less obvious examples to demonstrate how easily our brain is fooled. My speaker was aiming too low I thought.

The presentation was for one of the monthly London meetings of the Institute of Financial Planners, and the speaker was Greg B Davies, co-author of the book Behavioural Investment Management, and head of behavioural investment of Barclays. I made the introductions and sat down already cringing at what I thought was coming – he was going to ask the audience which line was longest.

Only he did not. Which surprised me. What was unfolding in front of my eyes was a masterclass in presenting key information simply. I knew it was a masterclass because I had delivered the same information a couple of hours earlier. By comparison my presentation was clunky and over complicated. And because I had spent several hours on my presentation I saw how he had cut away everything that did not matter, leaving only what was important and relevant. Awesome, and that is not a word I use lightly or often.

A couple of days later I was in a meeting with a client and of one my team. My team member was walking her through the investment portfolio we were recommending, but from her questions it was clear that somewhere along the way she had missed something. I had been out of the room for a few minutes so I sat back and listened to the exchange. She was not getting it, and the more it was explained (with ever increasing granularity) the more exasperated she was sounding.

So I cut in. I kept it simple and drew three circles on a piece of paper and talked about the overarching plan. I avoided the kind of detail that seems to find its way into suitability reports, and gave her a picture she could understand. “Good” she said, “I’ve got it” and shortly after she stuffed the drawing into her bag and left.

It was easy to simplify things for my client because I knew my subject (I could probably write a book on it). It was less easy to simplify behavioural psychology despite my interest and the number of books I have read. These days, when knowledge is freely available, it is less about what we know; it is how we communicate it. Like Greg B Davies, you are an expert, so what aspect of your advice can you simplify for your non-expert clients?

These days, when knowledge is freely available, it is less about what we know; it is how we communicate it.

Dennis Hall is managing director of Yellowtail Financial Planning

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