The language of finance tells us something about how to inspire creativity

If you’re frustrated that the people you work with do not have more far-reaching or radical ideas for your organisation or industry, you can inspire them to be more creative by using more exciting language to discuss the issues you’re addressing.

Specifically, I mean figurative language such as analogy and metaphor, and descriptive language that evokes striking imagery and strong emotion. You might be surprised, but we can look to the world of finance for an example.

You may not associate the financial services industry with creativity, but it has developed an absorbing lexicon to describe job and character archetypes, and functional activities.

This language serves two purposes, both practical and cultural:

  1. Practical. Many of the products and services that financial services firms provide are complex and abstract. Reimagining these products and services as other things helps newcomers to get to grips with them, and allows salespeople to explain them to customers.
  2. Cultural. Working life in financial services can be gruelling. Relating the psychological and physical tests that the industry can impose to different but similarly challenging scenarios helps motivate certain types of people to persevere.


Recent history has caused many of us to look with scepticism at the world of finance. The imaginative language to which I refer – and about which I go into more detail below – is neutral in and of itself, but it can be used to present both positive and negative pictures about the industry. This flexibility is part of its power.

Language is the foundation of creativity

Technical language has a very particular purpose – it allows people with a common understanding of a subject to discuss detail in very precise terms. Unfortunately, it can also institutionalise users of that language, stifling their ability to develop new perspectives about their areas of expertise. Jargon and acronyms, though useful, act as a kind of pesticide to the imagination.

Analogy and metaphor are common literary tools for demystifying complex concepts, particularly those related to niche areas of knowledge. Relating a complex concept to something that is widely understood speeds mental assimilation, but it also serves another very useful purpose. While demystifying what the concept means, it also helps to create a new mystique around it. The important difference is that the new mystique is shared and understood by all parties involved in the discussion. A common and shared excitement is generated, which in turn creates momentum.

Here are some practical first steps that you and your team can take to help everyone involved think and communicate more creatively about their work.

Tip 1: Establish a glossary

Before getting creative with language, first of all make sure that everyone has a common understanding of the jargon. In my experience of redesigning organisation structures and integrating business acquisitions into a larger corporate structure, one of the first things we must do is establish a glossary of terms. I learned this the hard way – a ‘product owner’ in a software-as-a-service company is a lot different from a ‘product owner’ in a publishing firm, and the only thing that the decision-makers in this example could all agree on was that, somewhere in the new structure, we had to have jobs titled Product Owner. The various minds responsible for determining how the new business unit should look and operate were miles apart because I had failed to facilitate agreement about a single definition of key terminology.

Tip 2: Agree on a theme

The goal here is to agree on a theme that everyone in the team can buy into when analogously discussing work. Once you have a theme, convert your glossary of jargon and acronyms into imaginative alternatives built around this theme.

Militaristic terms and war references are often associated with banking and finance. However, what stands out for me is the oceanic language that is also used, which perhaps tells us more about the awe-inspiring, merciless and uncontrollable power of the financial industry.

Beyond the obvious allusion to bankers as deadly predators (‘sharks’) and cash flow as a steady stream of water (‘liquidity’), there are ‘whales’ (slow-moving institutions such as pension funds that buy and sell large quantities of financial products), ‘icebergs’ (used to describe how large buy or sell requests are broken up into smaller chunks to limit the effect on price by disguising the size of the overall trade), and ‘dark pools’ (private forums for trading financial products that are inaccessible to the public and notable for their lack of transparency). Defending his legacy, Dick Fuld, former CEO of Lehman Brothers, described the financial crisis of 2008 that felled his bank as a ‘perfect storm’ that no one could foresee or control. A journalist famously described Goldman Sachs as a ‘vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity’. And let’s not forget about market ‘bubbles’.

Tip 3: Create an example narrative

To test whether your theme works, you’ll need an example narrative to share with your team. This can then be used to spark creative discussion.

Here’s a very short story to illustrate what I mean. Recently, a friend was explaining to me why the ‘decentralised’ nature of a crypto-currency like bitcoin makes it an attractive alternative to a highly centralised fiat currency. What do you mean by centralised versus decentralised, I asked. We were in the Prospect of Whitby pub on the banks of the Thames in the City of London, an ‘olde Englishe’ pub that was historically frequented by pirates and smugglers. Looking around at the shipping motifs on the wall, he found an analogy. ‘Think of a merchant ship coming into a port to trade its cargo. At the port, there is a big market hall where the merchants are legally allowed to sell their cargo to buyers. The market charges a ‘retailing fee’ to merchants, and the port’s governing authority, in return for allowing the market to exist, taxes the owner of the marketplace. In this way, the port’s governing authority effectively controls trade by containing it in one location and taxing it.

‘The merchants and the buyers to whom they sell often fraternise in the many taverns and bars that line the harbour. In conversation, they complain about the high prices they’re being charged and trade surreptitiously with one another in the taverns. Sensing an opportunity, local smugglers start to coordinate this black market trade in goods, and before long the official trade that takes place in the regulated market hall dwindles. The port’s governing authority crack down on smugglers, but each time a smuggler is arrested, a new one swoops in to take his place. Why? Because the financial reward for facilitating illegal trade is worth the risk, and the smugglers have a steady stream of sellers and buyers because the fees they charge are far lower than those charged by the market hall. In this way, no single entity controls trade’.

This colourful description helped me to understand the difference between two technical terms. It allowed us to continue the conversation and debate in a meaningful way, which confirmed the usefulness of his analogy.

Tip 4: Explore the new terrain

The overall aim of this process is to stimulate imaginative conversation about issues or problems faced by your team, with the hope that the alternative theme helps people to arrive at new perspectives about these issues. In addition to sharing your example narrative with the team, it’s also worth identifying relevant topics to help steer the discussion. For example, you may be trying to find new ways of explaining your services to customers, or trying to better understand their experience when they interact with your team. Or it could be about simplifying an internal process, to make it more efficient. Pitch these topics in the language of the analogy, and let the conversation take its natural course! 

If you have any thoughts or questions, I’d love to hear from you so please do get in touch:

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