SALT LAKE CITY -- If financial advisors really want to increase the likelihood that their clients will commit to and execute on the retirement savings plans they've devised, they should ask less questions, use lots of simple visual aids and talk to them like eight-year-old children.
That about sums up the advice noted psychologist, public speaker and researcher Ted Klontz gave to advisors during his keynote address here at the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors' national conference.
Rather than bludgeoning them with facts and jargon and talking about retirement in a vague, abstract manner, Klontz said all the empirical data and studies suggest the vast majority of people simply tune out or ignore anything that even remotely resembles logic when it comes to money.
"There are a lot of motivations that drive illogical behaviors," Klontz said. "Expecting people to be convinced by the facts flies in the face of the facts. Emotions arise much more quickly than conscious thoughts and they dilute the facts."
To any veteran financial advisor, this comes as little surprise.
What probably would surprise them, according to Klontz, is that only about 13% of investors who terminate their relationship did so because they were unhappy with their return on investment. The rest -- 87% -- walked away mainly because they didn't like their advisor. Advisors, he said, think the percentages are exactly reversed.
"There are really three brains," he said. "The Einsteinian part of the brain is at the top and it loves information and loves abstract ideas. But the bottom two parts -- the reptilian and mammalian parts -- don't understand retirement. And the top part doesn't want to believe it."
Klontz said the bottom two parts of the brain control and are responsible for 95% of human behavior. Complex they're not. They're only interested in the basics: survival and pleasure; flee, fight or freeze.
Meanwhile, a new report, survey or stat from some think tank, bank or government agency comes out every couple weeks warning that far too many Americans are woefully unprepared for retirement, know this is the case and admit to being terrified by ramifications.
This would seem to explain why, Klontz said, that the majority of post-grad Harvard business students surveyed said they'd prefer to take a job paying $50,000 a year if their colleagues were paid only $25,000 a year rather than take a gig paying $100,000 a year if it meant everyone else got $200,000 a year.
It's also why people who pay cash for products spend 30% less than those who use credit cards and why one in five older people claim they're contributing to a 401(k) even though they're not.
"For ages, the greatest threat to human existence has been the fear of being thrown out of the tribe," Klontz said. "We all have this great fear of not belonging, of losing our place in the tribe."
Klontz suggests this might explain why Bernie Madoff, an educated and supposed financial wizard, started down his destructive path. After years of being considered an elite investor, he felt compelled to orchestrate his elaborate, criminal scam to maintain his identity and station -- deserved or not -- even though the rational, Einsteinian portion of his brain knew it would all eventually fall apart.
For advisors, the challenge is to appeal to and inform the lower two-thirds of clients' brains by using simple charts and graphics, avoiding financial terms and concepts that are over their heads and eschewing questions that force them to involuntarily answer the way they think they should rather than the way they really feel.
Instead, have your client explain whatever they think retirement or financial security would look and feel like. What would they be doing? What would they say about themselves at this point in life and what would they expect other people to say about them.
Studies also show people are much more likely to save for their retirement if a precise retirement age, say 68, is established rather than just some nebulous retirement timeframe.
"Research tells us that if people don't understand a word, it takes the brain 20 seconds to frantically perform a Google-like search to figure it out," he said. "So they're not present for the experience. If you space these words out about every 15 seconds, most people will have no idea what you've been talking about the whole time."
"You have to speak the language of the unconscious," he said, adding that the military and retailers figured this out long ago.