Bullet Point Stammering – the verb as endangered species

People, Planet, Profit and more simplifications

Ask a manager in the corporate social reponsibility department (CSR) of a large corporation a few questions and you will get something like the following answers. Question: “What is CSR all about?” Answer:  building corporate trust capital,  managing public risk issues, issue-based stakeholder management, value-based communication!”, probably with a few more exclamation signs. Now that we know what CSR means, we then ask: “What actually do you mean by sustainability?”. The manager will probably try to inform you about the most essential building blocks of sustainability and say: “Planet, People, Profit”. Maybe that sounds a bit vague to you and you ask: “Can you explain a bit more? I don’t have a clue what you are talking about!”. He may then try to clarify his PPP formula  by adding: “The company’s sweet spot in the triangle of economic, social and ecological values.” Similar conversations can be held about any interesting subject, for example about biodiversity. “What is important for protecting biodiversity?”. The biodiversity manager or public servant, if he speaks Dutch, may try to impress you by shouting: “It is about the three centrally important Vs: “Veiligheid, Voortplanting en Voedsel” (safety, reproduction and food). Complex realities are easily reduced to a small number of single words.

The absence of verbs

I have been presenting at many congresses, workshops and trainings and every time I am struck by the absence of verbs in answers to my questions. For example, I ask something about the climate problem and I am bombarded by lists of words like: 1.5 degrees, CO2 emissions, IPCC models, tradeable certificates, reduction and adaptation strategies. People talk in bullet-point lists and almost  never I hear a sentence like  “the continued emission of X billion tons of CO2 is most probably leading to an average temperature increase of y degrees Celsius, leading to the following damage to the economy, etc.”

PowerPoint Poverty

Lazy Presentations

We should not blame our audience too much for their poor language, as we, the consultants, experts, gurus and facilitators, are continuously teaching in that sort of terrible language. Instead of using the strength of our language (in terms of richness in words, grammatical constructions, etc.) to evoke lively pictures of what mean, we use boring pictures and poor language in our poor PowerPoint presentations. We often prepare PowerPoints before we have a clue what we want to say and how we want to say it instead of preparing a good speech and then decide how we could possibly use a PowerPoint of a Pretzi to support our argument.

Disastrous Dogmas

Current PowerPoint culture is based on a small number of disastrous dogmas, such as:

  1. Pictures always tell more than text.
  2. Never use more than three of four lines of text on a slide. Never use a slide with text only.
  3. Complete sentences on a PowerPoint sheet can never work. Use bullet-points.

There are many contexts where such rules do make sense, but as a dogma they lead us exactly into the wrong direction. It is certainly true that pictures often tell more than text. They easily appeal to emotions and if that is what you want, use them. But they are also a perfect instrument for evoking emotions that we do not want or for telling lies. Language provides for logical tools that pictures can’t (see also my earlier blog, in German). The advice not to use too much text makes sense, but there are certainly issues for which texts, spoken or written, cannot be missed. Sometimes we do need longer texts.

Stripping the Verbs
misleading simplicity

The third advice is the most dangerous one. It strips verbs from sentences. When we do that, we do not realise that the verb is often the most important word in a sentence. It just cannot be missed.

Compare a triangle with “economic, social and ecological” at the corners and “sustainability” in the middle to the following sentence:

text only – needed for serious discussion

“we call an economic activity sustainable if that activity is not only creating economic and social value the society, but does not harm the ecological system on which the longer term viability of that economic activity eventually depends.”

If you really want to explain “sustainability”, use one slide with only this longer text and, if this helps, some sort of triangle as a background. As the example pictures on this page show, the text version looks, at first sight, more boring, but is much more useful for explaining the issue.

Misleading simplicity

By using the triangle instead of the text version, we can easily allow for conclusions that are logically invalid. Pictures can free us from the discipline of logic. A common, but false, interpretation of sustainability is that it is about finding an equilibrium between social, economic and ecological goals. The triangle suggest that we can trade a bit more economy against a bit less ecology. That is wrong: keeping well-functioning ecosystems is a condition for generating economic and social values. By drawing a triangle, we are visually suggesting that the three elements are equal, but logically they aren’t.

The Verb – an endangered species

In principle, there is nothing wrong with use bullet point lists or simple triangles, but if the list (or the triangle) is the only element the reader (and the presenter!) is eventually able to memorise, we create people who not only write bullet-point language, but also speak bullet-point, and think in terms of bullet-points.

This is not weird theory. This is reality. Many people I meet perfectly know, for example, the bullet points People/Profit/Planet, but do not have a clue how these connect to each other. They know the building blocks, but they do not have the glue – the verbs – to connect them.

Perhaps we need a new Charity: the Society for the Protection of the Endangered Verb.



In an earlier publication, I wrote about the limitations of visual communication. I wrote (in German):

….  fragte sich: „Was können Bilder, was Wörter nicht können?“. Seine Schlussfolgerungen hätten ein wenig anders ausgesehen, wenn er auch eine zweite Frage gestellt hätte: „Was können Wörter, was Bilder nicht können?“ Dann hätte er vielleicht die Gefahren einer rein auf (emotional ansprechenden) Bildern stützenden Definition der Wirklichkeit entdeckt.


… asked: “What can we express by pictures that cannot be expressed by words?”. His conclusion would have looked a bit different if he had asked a second question as well: “What can be expressed by words that cannot be expressed by pictures?” In that case he might have discovered the dangers of defining reality only on the basis of emotionally attractive pictures.

Après Nous le Déluge

Climate and Gilets Jaunes

A bit too often perhaps, I open news apps on my mobile phone. I check the BBC app for new Brexit stupidities and I open the NYT app to access amazing Trump stories that no longer seriously amaze anybody. Not very useful, actually. But some days ago, two short messages not too far from each other on the same app woke me up.

Message 1: climate change is appearing to develop quicker and more seriously than previously foreseen. Huge CO2 reductions needed.

Message 2: Macron scraps fuel tax rise in face of Gilets Jaunes protests.

The Unacceptable 4 Cents

Macron’s fuel tax was a minor part of a larger agenda in the framework of climate policy. It would have been around 4 Euro cents per litre (from about €1.42 to about € 1.46 per litre). It sparked violent protests in the context of general dissatisfaction with low incomes, high unemployment, rising taxes and alleged financial advantages for the rich.  In terms of climate policy, the originally planned 4 cents are far less than what effective climate policy would require. Doubling gasoline prices would have been a more effective target. But even 4 cents proved to be unacceptable in the present French political climate.

The Official Climate Collapse

The climate change picture is looking bleaker than ever, for two reasons: the height of the emissions and the consequences observed.

“The new data for 2018, published today simultaneously in the journals Nature, Earth System Science Data and Environmental Research Letters, reveals that global emissions from burning fossil fuels are expected to reach 37.1 billion tonnes of CO2 in 2018. CO2 emissions have now risen for a second year, after three years of little-to-no growth from 2014 to 2016. The rise this year is projected at 2.7 per cent (+1.8 to +3.7 per cent). In 2017 it was 1.6 per cent.” [1]

CO2-emissions in 2018 are higher than ever measured. There is no tendency of reduction. To keep the climate in limits of 1.5 °C, a reduction of 50% of CO2 emissions is required according to official models. Recent publications show that we are well on the road to 3°C increase.

The Real Climate Collapse

But this is not all. Reality may be much more serious than what official models predict. In a recent working paper, Bendell  writes:

“Since records began in 1850, seventeen of the eighteen hottest years have occurred since 2000. Important steps on climate mitigation and adaptation have been taken over the past decade. However, these steps could now be regarded as equivalent to walking up a landslide. If the landslide had not already begun, then quicker and bigger steps would get us to the top of where we want to be. Sadly, the latest climate data, emissions data and data on the spread of carbon-intensive lifestyles, show that the landslide has already begun.” [2]

As is summarised in the same paper, climate models as published by official institutions and individual scientists tend to be conservative in their conclusions and avoid messages that suggest the imminence of disasters. Whereas climate change sceptics from industry and right-wing political parties try to make us believe that climate scientists are being paid for exaggerating climate change and its effects , Bendell convincingly argues that instead there is a systemic reluctance to even appear alarmist. We should therefore rather prepare for uncontrollable climate change than believe in the effectiveness of incremental climate adaptation measures.

Short Term Disruptions Ahead

Bendell argues that, in the face of the disruptions in human societies that can be expected as a result of climate change within less than 10 (!) years time, we need a new approach. The usual conservative approaches will no longer work. Therefore “a new approach which explores how to reduce harm and not make matters worse is important to develop. In support of that challenging, and ultimately personal process, understanding a deep adaptation agenda may be useful.”

A New Agenda, but Old Politics

It is easy to agree that we need an approach that takes the real challenge – a challenge that is much more threatening than officially recognised – seriously. But to me words like “deep adaptation agenda” are more irritating than elucidating. What could it mean? Let us go back to our French example where a minor (almost negligible) policy correction is now leading to a near-collapse of the government, not because the French people are basically against climate policy, but because serious social conflicts, caused by inequality and (feelings of) in justice are blocking any systematic policy change.  France is only one example. We can add many other European countries that are blocked by social conflict or by tendencies towards autocratic leadership (Hungary, Poland) and countries that tend to become less stable every day (UK, Germany, …). Let’s not discuss the US or Russia here.

Après Nous le Déluge

One need not be a pessimist to conclude that the conditions for some form of democratic and rationally based governance on climate issues are not there and won’t be there in time, even if Bendell is right that major destabilisation is to be expected within ten or twenty years from now.

The well-known French expression “Après nous, le déluge” (“after us, the flood”, originally attributed to Louis XV of France who did not care what would come after the chaos of the French revolution) is probably factually correct today. The flood (sea level rise, storms, poverty, war, etc. etc. as a result of climate change) will  come. Just wait.


[1] https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2018-12/uoea-sgi120318.php

[2] https://www.lifeworth.com/deepadaptation.pdf






Finding Happiness – Losing Control

Finding your passion …

For many people today, it’s not enough to say that they like or love something. About things that are really important, you should be passionate. They should be your passion. Apart from the fact that I am not familiar with that sort of language, I ask myself: what could it possibly mean to be passionate or to have found your passion. A short google exercise reveals that many people think that knowing and practicing your passions is key to a rewarding life. Many confessions suggest how life after discovering the power of passions has made a qualitative turn for the better. “Too many people live lives of quiet desperation not understanding what their passion is.”  “Almost three decades of my life had passed before I discovered the power of passions.”   It is often assumed that “passion” is something hiding deep in your inner self, waiting to be discovered. There are entire websites devoted to ‘discovering your passion’  or even to discover that you are pursuing ‘passions’ that appear to be no passions at all.

Passions of the authentic self …

I could fill more than twenty pages with quotes like this: “Your passions can only be uncovered from your own unique story. There are things inside of you that you may have not tapped into yet because of fear. It’s scary because when you find your passion, it pushes your limits and calls you out to levels you thought you were never capable of reaching.”

The popular idea is that passions are the expression of deep desires of the authentic self, often still  blocked by fears or conventions, ready to be freed by a mixture of honesty and courage. The message is: deep inside you have tons of unrealised potential to become the person you deserve to be and develop amazing insights and skills  you have long only dreamed about. The remarkable thing is that following or developing your passions is mainly a question of letting go: removing the blockades that have been making your life mediocre or even miserable. This should not be a surprise, as passion literally  means: being passive.

Spinoza:  ‘agere’ and ‘pati’

Many people today use the word ‘passion’ to show how they follow their deepest desires and try to be their most authentic self. However, ‘passion’ still is the opposite of ‘action’. Our great Dutch philosopher Spinoza formulated this nicely in his Ethica. In the Latin language, the difference is between agere (to act) and pati (to suffer).

“I say that we take action [agere] when something comes to pass, in us or outside us, of which we are the adequate cause, that is, when something in us or outside us follows from our nature, which can be clearly and distinctly understood through it alone. On the other hand, I say that we suffer [pati] when something comes to pass in us, or something follows from our nature, of which we are only a partial cause.”
from http://digitalcommons.lsu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=3599&context=gradschool_dissertations

Passionate people, passive people

In personnel recruitment advertising, the word “passion” is a fixed ingredient: “Is Inspiring Transformation for Businesses one of Your Passions? If so, learn how you can earn substantial income as a certified Passion Test for Business Consultant.”  It’s part of the empty business language on corporate websites:  “We are … …. To us, growth is more than a target. It’s a passion.”

The modern use of ‘passion’ appears to deny Spinoza’s clear distinction between ‘take action’ (agere)  and ‘suffer’ (pati) or ‘be passive’. People who blindly follow the (irrational) impulses of their passions are not active at all. They surrender to forces they hardly understand. If Spinoza were still alive, he would be very surprised (and worried) about the ubiquitous enthusiasm for suffering instead of taking action. He would be very surprised when hearing someone say: “violin playing is my passion”. Maybe he would say: “Do I understand well that you are not playing the violin, but that the violin is playing you?”. The same with: “Being a PWC Cyber Security consultant, is my passion”.  “Have you been converted into a PWC slave now that your work has become your passion?”.

Take reponsibility. Be active …

I don’t have the illusion that the fashionable use of the word “passion” can be eradicated. Nevertheless, it could be useful for many people to realise that, not only in the original meaning as elucidated by Spinoza, but also in its vulgarised disguise as used by amateur psychologists and management gurus, ‘passion’ means ‘being passive’ or even ‘avoiding responsibility’. Perhaps some people will change their language from “my passion is playing the violin”, into “I am working like hell to master this extremely difficult instrument.”




Een nieuwe richtingenstrijd


Ik neem af en toe deel aan fotocursussen. Daar ben ik vaak de enige deelnemer met een spiegelreflex. De anderen lopen allemaal met een kleine Olympus rond. Ik kan me het enthousiasme voor (spiegelloze) systeemcamera’s wel voorstellen. Ze zijn kleiner en lichter en de bijbehorende lenzen zijn natuurlijk ook kleiner, omdat de sensor kleiner is. Bovendien hebben die camera’s vaak een nog geavanceerdere software aan boord, die nabewerking met Lightroom vrijwel overbodig maakt. Alles kan op de camera worden gedaan en je krijgt wat je op je scherm ziet. Ook zijn ze stiller.

Systeemcamera versus spiegelreflex

Er is tussen fotografen weer een nieuwe richtingenstrijd ontbrand. Er was al een richtingenstrijd tussen full-frame en crop-camera’s. Full-frame-fanaten zweren bij de superieure kleurkwaliteiten van hun dure Nikons of Canons en zeulen met plezier hun kilo’s zware teleobjectieven door de natuur. Nu is er de richtingenstrijd tussen de moderne bezitters van four-thirds systeemcamera’s, de handzame Olympus- en Sonymodellen, en de conservatieve fotografen die aan hun spiegelreflexen vasthouden. De bezitters van systeemcamera’s brengen een bont mengsel van argumenten naar voren voor hun keuze: het gewicht van de camera, de kwaliteit van de software, het gemak van live-view-fotografie, etc. Dat zijn allemaal geldige argumenten, maar daarmee is de systeemcamera niet altijd de beste keuze.

Vier opties

Er zijn meer mogelijkheden:

  1. De beste kleinbeeldcamera van het moment is een spiegelloze full-frame (beste kleurkwaliteit en gevoeligheid, superieure auto-focus) camera, de Nikon Z7. Een nadeel: er zit een prijskaartje van €3849 aan (alleen body). Het gewicht is niet hoger dan van een DX-camera. De lenzen zijn wel zwaar.
  2. Gaat het om superieure beeldkwaliteit, maar is de Z7 toch te duur, neem dan een full-frame spiegelreflex, bijvoorbeeld een Nikon D810 voor € 2900 (body) of een goedkoper model. Hij is dan wel weer zwaarder dan de Z7. Ook de lenzen zijn zwaar.
  3. Wil je een lichte camera van hoge kwaliteit, koop dan een four-thirds systeemcamera zoals de Olympus EM-1 Mark 2, voor € 2259 inclusief objectief. Je neemt door de kleinere sensor (cropfactor 2) enig kwaliteitsverlies (vooral bij slecht licht) voor lief en je mist de artistieke mogelijkheid van lage scherptediepte van camera’s met grotere sensor. Het stroomverbruik is hoger dan van een spiegelreflex.
  4. Is het gewicht geen probleem en wil je iets minder geld uitgeven aan body en objectieven, dan is een DX-camera (cropfactor 1,5) een uitstekend compromis. Voor iets meer dan € 1000 heb je al een D7200 mét objectief.

De vaardigheid van de fotograaf

Met al deze camera’s (en zelfs met nog veel goedkopere compactcamera’s) kan je uitstekende foto’s maken. De vaardigheid van de fotograaf, niet de camera geeft de doorslag. Geen enkele soort camera is per definitie beter dan een andere. Het hangt er maar van af wat je wilt en hoeveel geld je hebt. Als ik veel geld had, kocht ik morgen nog een Z7. Gewoon de beste kwaliteit die er bestaat. Maar of ik dan ook betere foto’s maak? Ik weet het niet.

Is er leven vóór de dood?

Een onzinnige vraag

De vraag “is er leven na de dood?” schijnt nogal wat mensen bezig te houden. Mij niet. Wat een onzin. Natuurlijk is er geen leven na de dood. Logisch, want dood is gedefinieerd als de afwezigheid van leven. Een veel interessantere vraag is naar het leven vóór de dood. Biologisch gezien is iedereen die nog niet dood is in leven. Als ik dan toch de vraag stel “is er leven vóór de dood”, dan bedoel ik of dat leven zodanig de moeite waard is dat we niet onmiddellijk uitroepen “dit is geen leven!”

Het Zwitserleven

Op pad met de vogelwerkgroep

Veel mensen, die minder verwend zijn dan ik, zijn niet erg enthousiast over het leven tijdens hun werkzame bestaan. Ploeteren voor een vervelende baas zonder de waardering die je verdient, alleen maar omdat er brood op de plank moet komen en je een overstap naar een andere baas of een avontuurlijk ZZP-er-bestaan niet aandurft. Maar dan komt het grote moment van de pensionering niet lang na je 65e verjaardag. Het werkende bestaan was dan misschien geen leven, maar nu gaat het echte leven weer beginnen, misschien wel het Zwitserleven. Je wordt lid van vijf verenigingen, doet wat vrijwilligerswerk, koopt eventueel een kampeerbus, geeft je weer op voor teken- en muzieklessen, maar met de sport doe je het wat rustiger aan, want de gewrichten en spieren zijn al wat versleten en gekrompen. Het leven dat een jaar of 35 op stand-by heeft gestaan, kan aangezet worden!

Het leven vóór de dood

Tijd voor natuurfotografie …

Ik kan me bij al dat enthousiasme over het leven na de pensionering, of laten we het bij een treffendere naam noemen, het leven vóór de dood, niets positiefs voorstellen. Ik vind het verschrikkelijk. Jaren lang ontwikkel je je ervaring, je reputatie, je overtuigingskracht en al het plezier dat daarbij hoort en dan de kampeerbus in om te genieten van het Zwitserleven. Wat een totaal mensonwaardige onzin!

Ik heb vooral vanaf het moment dat ik met een eigen adviesbureau ben begonnen met heel veel plezier ideeën ontwikkeld, projecten op de rails gezet en zelfs belangrijke organisaties helpen opzetten.

Tijdens de grote katoenconferentie in Brazilië (2006)

Dat was niet altijd ‘leuk’ en ontspannend, maar het gaf wel heel veel voldoening en waardering van anderen. Ik heb dat tot rond mijn 68e verjaardag volgehouden en daarna ging het toch stap voor stap in de richting van een minder intensief arbeidsbestaan en meer tijd voor hobby’s als muziek maken, vogels kijken en fotograferen. Daar is niets mis mee. Maar op het moment dat mijn leven uitsluitend nog uit vrije tijd bestaat, excursies met de vogelclub, vioollessen, fotocursussen en dergelijke, voel ik een enorme leegte. Deze hobby’s geven mij lang niet de voldoening van het werk waar ik goed in was en nog steeds ben.

Mijn antwoord

presentatie in Hamar (Noorwegen, 2008)

Mijn persoonlijke antwoord op de vraag “is er leven voor de dood” is positief zolang het mij lukt ook de komende jaren een deel van mijn tijd door te gaan met waar ik echt goed in ben. Dat is niet muziek, fotografie of veldbiologie. Dat is het werken aan duurzame ketens in internationale industriële netwerken. Dat is ook schrijven van verhalen  en rapporten (in het Engels, Duits en Nederlands), het houden van lezingen, het organiseren en leiden van moeilijke bijeenkomsten (ook in het Duits of het Engels). Kortom, ik ben de komende tijd nog wel eens achter de computer, aan de telefoon, in de trein  of het vliegtuig, aan de vergadertafel of achter het spreekgestoelte aan te treffen.