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Evidence of Elegance

Powerful concepts in simple packages

June 2007

Picture a night out on the town: you and your date in your best outfits, enjoying the performance of a seasoned singer or orchestra, topped off by a discreet glass (or two) of a favorite potable. It’s a memorable evening, uncluttered by fuss or distraction.

Most people would call this combination of dress, diversion, and drink elegant – illustrating how the worlds of fashion, art, and advertising have effectively defined elegance for us.

But can the word be applied to other, less artistic forms of expression? The general public doesn’t consider a memorable sales pitch, an effective presentation, or an easy-to-navigate website “elegant.” If anything, in a business context, the word that comes up far more frequently is inelegant. We know inelegance when we see it: a meandering speech, a cumbersome presentation, a cluttered website.

Elegance is hard to achieve in day-to-day business communications – but it should be the goal. And to achieve elegance, one needs to aim for simplicity, which is the real challenge.

Thinking like a scientist

Our favorite quotation at Gargiulo + Partners comes from Albert Einstein: “Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler.” Mathematicians like Einstein aim to solve an equation with as few steps as possible, and their peers admire the result as an “elegant proof.”

Not all business challenges are as intricate as a math proof. But in virtually all cases, the discipline is the same – expressing yourself as directly as possible, with few encumbrances. This, to us, is the very definition of elegance.

Elegant simplification is difficult under the best of circumstances. In the world of business, where analysts, advisors, and corporate chiefs are paid for their understanding of complex problems, it’s almost counterintuitive. Many businesspeople believe that to deliver their message, they need to display the process employed to create it. The result is corporate communications burdened with unneeded complexity, jargon, or misdirection, impeding the delivery of a recommendation that is inherently meaningful and rich.

Take one of the most common business tools, the PowerPoint presentation. Many communications specialists decry PowerPoint for its tendency to oversimplify complex analysis. While this is a valid criticism, in our experience, these slideshows often have the opposite problem – pages of process explanation, context-poor data points, and irrelevant self-promotion. Such filler obscures the point of the presentation and leaves the recommendations buried, almost invisible. It’s inelegance in action: first, too much detail, and then not enough when it counts. Yet it’s possible to create an elegant presentation, even in PowerPoint – leading off with key recommendations and then building a persuasive case in a series of data-rich, but uncluttered, slides.

Often, choosing the elegant path means making a series of small decisions. What to include, what to leave out? Is every adjective necessary, every piece of data vital?

One institution with a refined communications approach is the Dutch cooperative Rabobank, the world’s only non-publicly-traded bank with a Triple-A credit rating. The bank’s very structure – a federation of local credit unions – might seem hopelessly bureaucratic. Instead, from its policies to its marketing approach, Rabobank is a model of communications elegance, with materials that are notably uncluttered and clear. Its website is marked by short, jargon-free pages with achievable corporate principles, and its annual report is set up in sections with key information visible at a glance – including an annual Sustainability Report, which enhances transparency.

Simplicity is not so simple

If there’s a common thread running through the most elegant communications solutions we’ve seen, it’s that the end result was achieved through hard work – much of which is invisible to the audience.

A tight, well-developed business presentation is almost always the product of deep data analysis and several drafts – many pages longer than the finished product. An unconventional approach to a problem might require fighting entrenched corporate interests: managers who want to cram extra sentences into a document, buttons onto a web page, or messages into a pitch.

The good news is, once this becomes your mindset, reducing clutter and being direct becomes an ingrained, almost unconscious activity. It’s a way to experience elegance on a regular basis – regardless of what you’re wearing or where you’re dining.

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PowerPoint can support clear thinking but can't replace it
The Virtual Voice
The importance of message in an age of e-media
Beyond Numbers and Bullet Points: Tell Your Story
Using narrative to communicate complex information
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