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.”
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.
Current PowerPoint culture is based on a small number of disastrous dogmas, such as:
- Pictures always tell more than text.
- Never use more than three of four lines of text on a slide. Never use a slide with text only.
- 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
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:
“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.
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.