You could be missing big opportunities in your small print

There are lots of opportunities to reinforce a brand in your terms and conditions, explains Georgina Bromwich, writer and trainer at language consultancy, The Writer.

Ts&Cs. They’re the orphan of brand language.

That abandoned corner of a website or a leaflet that businesses don’t pay much attention to because they think no one ever reads them.

But they’re wrong. Our research shows that most people do read them (for 4 minutes and 42 seconds on average, to be precise).

Why so serious?

Isn’t it a shame, then, that businesses make them so complicated, long-winded and – quite frankly – dull?

If they’ve got their readers’ attention, shouldn’t businesses take that opportunity to use language to support, not undermine, their brand?

Ts&Cs are guilty of many a sin. Font size is one of them. Length is another. And as for complexity? Well, the Ts&Cs we ran through a readability test were heavy going. Unless you’ve got a degree (or two) you’re in for a difficult read.

We waded through the small print of 30 brands from all sorts of industries and, on average, it took us 28 minutes to get from top to bottom.

Capture customers while they're engaged

We spoke to 2,000-odd people about Ts&Cs as well and, unsurprisingly, they don’t spend half an hour reading them.

But they are scrolling through small print for longer than we expected: just under five minutes, on average.

Once people start asking, they’ll find that whatever phrase got the legal team’s seal of approval many years ago isn’t as rigid as they first thought.

That’s a long time to plough through some of the most unloved business writing out there. So, if brands have got their customers’ attention, why aren’t they making better use of that time?

Reinforce your brand

At The Writer, we think that if a business looks after its brand’s small print, then it’ll help back up what the brand’s doing elsewhere, because small print, like any piece of writing, is a chance to persuade, to reassure, or even surprise. But very few businesses have the same personality, wherever they’re using words. Not even Innocent sounds like Innocent in its Ts&Cs.

Banks, airlines, supermarkets, or any company selling us stuff online don’t want customers to think that they’re trying to deceive anyone. But if these firms push us into lengthy contracts, or have ridiculous returns policies, or sell our personal details and don’t make that clear, then they’re simply being sneaky. I certainly don’t want an insurance policy littered with get-out clauses.

If businesses want our trust, then they should earn it; bamboozling customers with Ts&Cs they need a PhD to understand isn’t the best way of going about that.

In brand-language workshops, I usually get a stern look when I challenge people about their small print, before they tell me: ‘We can’t touch that. It’s legal.’ Apparently, if we dare to unravel a bit of legally binding Ts&Cs, then the lawsuits will come flying at the business from all directions.

Call in the lawyers

It’s a totally different story when you get the legal team in the room.

Most of the time, they’re happy to tweak the way something’s phrased (as long as the meaning stays the same and the wording’s watertight in the face of the law).

Once people from elsewhere in the business start asking, they’ll find that whatever phrase got the legal team’s seal of approval many years ago isn’t as rigid as they first thought. Just because a business has always said something a certain way doesn’t mean it’s the only way to say it.

So isn’t it about time business did their customers, and their brand, a favour? If their brand is honest, trustworthy and straight-up, can’t the Ts&Cs sound that way too?

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