Financial services copywriting - Why are terms and conditions longer than some novels?

 

We specialise in financial services copywriting. That means we often do research into what the UK’s financial services providers are saying on their websites, apps and in other documents. We’ve been doing a lot of research into terms and conditions recently and thought it would be useful to share some of the findings.

 

As part of a project helping a digital investment platform make its language easier to understand, we analysed the terms and conditions of the ten largest UK banks offering current accounts. 

 

We failed to analyse the terms and conditions of one bank because the terms and conditions were presented in a document which is apparently not downloadable or copyable. We weren’t able to extract the text from the document to measure the word counts, so we’ve left them out of our analysis.

 

“It would take 90 minutes to read the full terms and conditions of the average UK current account”

 

Of the remaining nine accounts, all had terms and conditions exceeding ten thousand words. 

 

Six had terms and conditions exceeding fifteen thousand words.

 

Three had terms and conditions exceeding twenty thousand words

 

One bank had terms and conditions exceeding THIRTY THOUSAND words.

 

Our view as experts in personal finance copywriting is that the vast majority of UK high street banks have terms and conditions that are inaccessible purely due to their length. There are likely other factors that make these terms and conditions inaccessible too, like complex language and jargon, but the length of these documents necessarily makes them inaccessible.

 

“You could read all of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice And Men faster than you could read this bank’s current account terms and conditions”

 

Bank Personal account terms and conditions word count Reading time estimator (minutes)
Nat West 10998 48
RBS 11014 49
Metro Bank 14002 69
Halifax (moneysmart) 16415 81
Barclays 16577 74
HSBC 17829 75
Nationwide (Flex Plus) 20525 90
Lloyds 21057 92
Santander 34519 152
First Direct unavailable unavailable

 

Let’s put these documents into context.

 

When the German High Command surrendered at the end of World War II, the document they signed to make it official was 234 words long. 

 

When the United States declared independence from the British on July 4th 1776, the document they signed was 1,320 words long. That’s about 3% the size of Santander’s current account terms and conditions. 

 

The average reading time required to read the terms and conditions of a UK high street current account is 90 minutes. That’s as long as a professional football match.

 

Assuming an average reading speed of 200 words per minute, you could finish reading John Steinbeck’s Of Mice And Men before you finished reading Santander’s current account terms and conditions.

 

Don’t terms and conditions need to be long though, by definition?

 

No.

 

It might be intuitive to assume that bank accounts, being complex things (they’re not that complex), that we need long and hard-to-digest terms and conditions.

 

This simply isn’t the case. And we have an example to prove it.

 

Not included in our round up above, due to their size, was Monzo, the app-based bank. Their current account terms and conditions are 3994 words long. It would take 19 minutes for someone with average reading comprehension to finish reading them

 

So why are terms and conditions so long?

 

A quote commonly attributed to Mark Twain goes something like this: “I didn’t have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long one.”

Brevity takes effort. It’s hard to communicate in simple terms and keep it to the point. The other challenge, which we’ve addressed in a separate post, is what the bank regulator calls over disclosure. Over disclosure is when service providers, in this case banks, declare and disclose every feasible version of a scenario in order to protect themselves from litigation.

 

The Financial Conduct Authority has been warning against this practice since 2016, when it identified a persistent problem with banks including far too much information in their terms and conditions.

 

“One fundamental barrier to improving T&Cs is the over-disclosure approach adopted by firms as a mechanism to mitigate perceived risk of litigation. In our view, we consider this concern should not prevent firms doing more to improve the quality and effectiveness of T&Cs.” – FCA guidance note.

 

Banks appear to be scared of simplifying their terms and conditions for fear of inviting litigation. They needn’t be. Mozno, and also the client we worked with who inspired this research, have proven that it’s possible to publish compliant, useful terms and conditions without forcing customers to sift through tens of thousands of words.

 


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