Avoiding Bankerspeak

One things credit union professionals should be ever-vigilant for is speaking “bankerspeak.” Language is an important part of culture, and is used to distinguish members of different groups. We ought to speak with our own authentic credit union voice, and never use bankerspeak. One word that bankers like to use is the word “incent”. However, “incent” is not a word. “Incentive” is a noun. But there exists no verb “to incent”, as in “we can incent our members to use the ATM instead of visiting a teller”. The correct word to use in that instance is “reward” “encourage.” When we use bankerspeak, we are distancing ourselves from our members. Which is never a good idea.


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15 Responses to “Avoiding Bankerspeak”

  1. CU Skeptic Says:

    Not a big deal, but “incent” does make an appearance at dictionary.com and urbandictionary.com. (http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/incent and http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=incent)

    I’m also a little unclear on what you mean by developing an “authentic credit union voice.”

    * Are you suggesting that credit unions create their own jargon as opposed using those adopted by banks OR that jargon in general needs to be minimized?

    * Is this “voice” an internal or external communication mechanism?

    I’m all about cutting down on jargon when communicating with customers, however doing part of my work in a jargon heavy industry, I definitely see the internal benefits when it’s used appropriately.

  2. Morriss Partee Says:

    Hi CU Skeptic,

    What I am talking about is credit unions (and all organizations) need to talk to their audience with an authentic, real, human voice, not use corporate-speak.

    Jargon is used to separate one person or group from another. So when credit union executives use jargon, they are distancing themselves from their members. The other danger of using jargon extensively is that you’ll forget it’s jargon, and use it with your members. It may be in conversation with members, or it may appear in newsletters, web sites, direct mail, and any other written form. It’s a form of condescension, which is something we expect from bankers, but do not expect from credit union professionals. I wrote more about the dangers of jargon here. The public today wants to talk with real people. They sense corporate-speak from a mile away and don’t trust it. The Cluetrain Manifesto did a great job elucidating this idea.

    But at the same time, jargon is useful as a tool to differentiate the CU industry from the banking industry. Therefore, we ought to continue, and even enhance our unique credit union terminology such as “share drafts”, “members”, and “share certificates”.

    The problem is that we have two competing principles at work here. On the one hand, we should use “real” language with our members, the language and terminology that they use. On the other hand, we should use differentiating language to separate ourselves from the banking industry. The only conclusion one can draw is that we ought to do a better job of educating our members on using our unique credit union lexicon.

  3. Mary Arnold Says:

    Morriss, I agree that it’s important to show members and consumers at large what makes credit unions different. There are more important topics to expend these efforts on than teaching them a new financial vocabulary, though.

    If consumers want checking accounts, I see credit unions marketing share draft accounts as being a barrier, not a point of differentiation. On the other hand, playing up the “member” angle as you suggest has definite possibilities–as long as CUs can demonstrate that membership really does have its privileges.

  4. Morriss Partee Says:

    Hi Mary,

    Share draft does seem irrelevant in today’s world. It made sense 20 years ago to those in the CU industry, but members never embraced it. Good words that we can own are ones that are readily clear as to their meaning. Think of words like webinars and blogs which did not exist 7 years ago, yet their meaning is now readily understood.

    A couple months ago I spoke with a representative for northeast Canadian credit unions (Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, PEI, etc.). As a group, they have decided to adopt the word “owner” instead of member to make the member-ownership concept much more clear than the word “member” which they found denoted either an exclusive club into which regular people could not get in, or to a paid organization like the YMCA. Why they would want to distance themselves from orgs like the YMCA, I don’t know, but nevertheless, whether or not you agree with using that term, it’s a good use of language to communicate the difference at every opportunity.

    Language, thought, and philosophy are intertwined. Never underestimate the power of language to influence thought, and therefore action. For more indepth reading of how this works, pick up a copy of The Culting of Brands by Douglas Atkin.

  5. Mary Arnold Says:

    Owner, now there’s an engaging word. If I heard I could be an owner of something, it would really get myattention and make me ask how to go about it.

  6. Mary Arnold Says:

    And here is a way for membership to have a way-cool privilege, thanks to Lisa Renner via Doug True: http://www.dougtrue.net/articles/2007/10/11/another-symposium-tidbit

  7. rshevlin Says:

    1) While incent doesn’t show up in a lot dictionaries, “reward” has the wrong connotation. It implies “something given after the fact” where incent is meant to imply “get somebody to act or change behavior”

    2) As for the bankerspeak, I don’t get it — it’s OK for Starbucks to develop their own cute little language for ordering, but it’s NOT OK for financial services firms?

  8. CU Skeptic Says:


    1) Nice call on the difference between “reward” and “incent”

    2) When was the last time you spent a few hours in a financial institution and enjoyed it? 🙂 Is there room for bankerspeak? In my option FIs have enough legit terms outside of what is part of everyday language that I don’t know if I’d start making up new ones. And I sure don’t think if I was a cu that I would want to be making up terms that differ from what other FIs use.

    Why would you create that barrier? (I’m truly asking here, Starbucks turned what used to be a simple “Cup of coffee” into a mouthful and somehow got people to love it. How’d that happen?)

  9. Morriss Partee Says:

    Thanks for the comments Mary, Ron, and Mr. X! I love it!

    I am trying to analyze my immense distate for the word “incent” in this manner. There are actually three components to my loathing. 1.) It’s bad english to verb a noun. 2.) Even if you get past verbing a noun, it’s the wrong word. “Encourage” is the word you are really looking for. 3.) I am not “down with” changing people’s behaviour by bribing them. I know people in the banking world are used to viewing everything as money-driven since their own world is so money driven. Of course all of us are money-driven to a greater or lesser extent. But using monetary bribes is actually a dis-incentive as beautifully explained in a great little book called Punished by Rewards by Alfie Kohn.

    @Ron- sorry, sometimes I forget that not all brilliant people have made the decision to work exclusively for banks and not credit unions. 🙂 So I use the word bankerspeak as a derogatory term because all of my comments are always aimed at those in the CU industry. What I am really arguing is that CUs need to develop their own terminology as distinct from for-profit-banking terminology.

    @CU Skeptic: Starbucks language is actually Italian espresso culture language. The reason why Starbucks uses jargon is the same reason that those in any industry use jargon (medical, legal, financial, etc)…. to distinguish between those “in the know” and therefore part of the tribe, and those that are not. Starbucks, by creating an air of superiority, has created an exclusive club which requires learning the lingo to participate. There are LOTS of people who want nothing whatsoever to have anything to do with the lingo, unusual coffee, trendy ambiance, etc. But those who DO want to be a part of that, LOVE being a part of that exclusive club, and pay more for their coffee to belong. Having a special lingo, or jargon, perpetuates and delineates the “tribe.” This whole concept is really well explained in Douglas Atkin’s The Culting of Brands. Pick up the book! It’s a great read!

  10. Maybe we should just call them “customers” « The CU Skeptic Says:

    […] Posted October 16, 2007 There’s a conversation going on over at the Everything CU blog about cu vocabulary and jargon that brings up an issue I think we should talk […]

  11. Morriss Partee Says:

    Oh Ron, and one more thing about “incent” vs “reward”: I get what you are saying. You want to “incent” someone to change their behavor, meaning you are trying to get them to do something in advance. But how exactly do you go about doing that? Are you giving them a reward in advance? You pay the member $1 BEFORE they use the ATM instead of visiting a teller? No, of course not. FIs are not in the business of handing anything out in advance of the behavior. It’s always after. Which means it was a reward , after the fact, for having performed the behavior.

    Example of bankerspeak: “Let’s incent our members to sign up for online Bill Pay.” How exactly is that “incenting” going to happen? Are we going to hand out $5 before they actually sign up for the service? We’ll give you $5 if you intend to sign up for bill pay? No, it’s going to be, “we will pay you $5 if you sign up for Bill Pay.” In which case, the $5 is a reward for having signed up for Bill Pay. And the proper English for the bankerspeak is “Let’s encourage our members to sign up for online Bill Pay.” (In this case, the better way of thinking is “Let’s educate our members as to how Online Bill Paying will make their lives better.”)

    I guess the verb “to incent” is really shorthand for “to encourage by giving money”. In that case, using the shorter “incent” makes sense, but I still don’t like the implicit condescension of the word, nor the attitude of the person using the word.

  12. CU Skeptic Says:

    @Morriss: The Culting of Brands is now on my list.

  13. rshevlin Says:

    Morriss: What I don’t get about your argument is that “let’s incent our member to sign up for OL bill pay” is an internal conversation. What’s wrong with that? Who cares what language is used internally?

    I think the bigger issue w/ language creeps in in subtle ways. For example, this is from one bank’s website, on its online bill pay page:

    “Get the payment there quickly – in many cases, your money can get there in as little as two days at no extra cost”

    For the average consumer (or member or “owner”), this is potentially confusing. If I’m paying online, then why is taking my money so long “to get there”. And why is it “at no extra cost”? I never pay extra to pay my bills by check, and that money seems to be taken out of my account in a HELLUVA lot less than two days!

    Morriss, the above example is the kind of bankerspeak I think the industry needs to avoid — not incent vs. reward.

  14. Morriss Partee Says:

    Hey, Ron, we’re kind of in agreement here. To me, these are two sides of the same coin. The reason why internal language is important is because of this chain: internal thinking leads to internal language which leads into internal action which leads to external action which is what the customer/member experiences. (In this case internal can refer to both an individual, or the organization). So here is the concrete reason why its important: it leaks into the external world.

    In your example, the organization is seeing things from their own perspective, and not the customer/member’s. So they are saying things which make sense to themselves, but is confusing to the customer. The danger of using funny words like “incent” is that they have a tendency to creep into language used with the customer. We have a tendency to forget that not everyone has the same understanding as we do. (I am guilty of this all the time.) Having incent in the vocabulary could lead to advertising which says, “we’d like to incent you to try our online billpay.” That might be an extreme example, but I betcha things like that have been said to customer/members.

    As a side note, I love that you haven’t disagreed with me (yet) that “to incent” actually has the same meaning as “to bribe”. We don’t want to be in the business of bribing do we?

  15. rshevlin Says:

    Be careful, my friend. I can get really nasty when I argue :). If you want to take my word “incent” and equate it with one that has a negative connotation, e.g., bribe, then I can play that game too. Next time around, that is.

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