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THE MOST IMPORTANT THING IS THE MESSAGE

ROLF HICHERT: EVERYTHING ELSE IS A MEANS TO AN END

The decisive factor in communication between people is that the person I am talking to also understands what I am talking about. Rolf Hichert does not see himself as a communications expert. He is a suffering consumer of poor presentations and reports.

The matter is complex. It is not enough to simply take out the colours and slim down a bit. We meet Rolf Hichert at Zurich Airport. As soon as he sits down he starts immediately. Right at the beginning it becomes clear that this is a person who does his work with enthusiasm and out of conviction and anger. Anger about bad presentation, stolen time and dishonesty.

You once spoke of a horrible culture of decoration. Why do they even exist anymore?

I know many charts where you see primarily corporate design elements. And little content. It doesn't matter if it's an insurance company or a steel mill. Everything looks the same. This is a culture characterised by PowerPoint, decoration and a misunderstood corporate design. This is different for medium-sized companies than for corporate groups. People still talk to each other there. The bigger the companies, the more important the whole thing is.

Why is that? Why has it become so commonplace?

I don't know. But I think it has to do with corporate culture. With the willingness to make clear statements and take a certain amount of risk. Many people just hide behind their PowerPoint presentations.

STANDARDIZATION BENEFITS EVERYONE WHO IS REALLY INTERESTED IN TRANSPARENCY

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If the plug fits into the socket, this is not over-standardisation but simply practical.

Perhaps because it is more difficult to speak freely about something? And easier to rely on images?

The whole presentation is just to prove a point. It's to prove what was said at the beginning. Ask a speaker to switch off the beamer and ask for his message. I want to inform you and you will get an answer. Well, I say, I thought so. But what do you want to tell me? What is your message?

Can you gain something from the development of presenting information in an entertaining way?

We're talking about business communication. It's about informing the other party correctly and comprehensively in a short time. I find it absurd to believe that decorative elements can be used to make the content more interesting. Something boring doesn't get more exciting by throwing a 3D cake in bright colours on the wall. In retrospect, people can only remember the pretty representations. But not of what it's really about, the content.

Charts are there to make complex relationships understandable and not to decorate banalities'', you once said.

Just to show that a company has a 33% share of women, nobody needs a pie chart. You can think of it that way. The question is, how can I make it more interesting? By using comparisons. What was the situation 20 years ago, what about other companies? What will the future bring? Today, PowerPoint seminars teach you to put as little information as possible on a slide. This inevitably makes it banal. When I show sales, cost and profit development in one picture, I understand the connections better than if each stands alone. I am interested in a high information density. Tufte already said twenty years ago that you shouldn't use one-dimensional presentations.

So it is about making connections visible?

Right. That's the point of pictures. They say a picture's worth a thousand words. But find a picture that does. Most of the time, the presenters need many words to explain their incomprehensible pictures.

You mentioned Edward Tufte. He coined the term lie chart. Why is it that even legitimate companies have them?

A mixture of impudence and carelessness. You can hardly see a two percent change when scaled correctly. Then axes are cut off to show changes that aren't there. But you can't see anything else, so they say apologetically. So you have to be creative and come up with an intelligent analysis. How does my growth compare to the market as a whole? Or with the main competitors? Provided, of course, that I report honestly at all. Often this is not the case. There are interesting eye-tracking experiments that show that viewers of charts are now looking more at the numbers. Because they rightly distrust the presentation.

Are we already saturated by the many graphic representations?

Also. And underchallenged and duped. We see two stock market prices with completely identical curves. One fluctuates between 90 and 91 and the other between 50 and 90. What can you do with that? First you need a correct and uniform scaling. This is actually so banal that it is astonishing that it needs to be mentioned at all. Many representations that we are confronted with day after day are simply bad. You find annual reports where every single diagram is scaled differently. Comparisons become impossible. On the other hand, diagrams in annual reports are designed completely the same. Regardless of whether it's market share in percent, sales in millions of euros or number of employees. We need clear conventions in the presentation of business data. Musicians already managed to do this many hundreds of years ago. A few years ago, I started making design proposals of this kind. There are now several hundred companies that present actual values in black, previous year's values in grey and plan values in hollow form. But now it's up to the software manufacturers, without their support we won't get far.

What will you do when everyone has completed this standardization process?

Then I'll stop. (Laughs) I may not live to see it, but I'll see it happen sometime. I am getting more and more approval - from companies, from consultants, but also from professors. That is interesting. You finally have comparable representations. And then sometimes they say that we didn't want to make it that transparent. Something like that always has to do with politics, with power and with money. People are not stupid.

Nobody likes to follow rules. Why is it different with you?

Imagine that the road signs would look different at every intersection. Or the brake would be different in every car. Think of DIN and ISO, there are standardization efforts everywhere. Only in our field, not many experts have yet realised that we have a lot of catching up to do. If there were uniform rules worldwide, as there are in music, everyone would be able to see immediately what it is all about. That is a structural analysis, that is a time analysis, that is turnover, costs or personnel figures. North is up, rivers are blue. Perhaps we could succeed in reaching international agreement.

Rolf Hichert shows us an example of how this could be done. "One billion Swiss francs equals twenty millimetres" is written on the first page of Swiss Post's 2011 Annual Report. There is even a removable bookmark "True and Fair View" with the most important notation rules. For example, the color green is only used for positive results and the color red only for negative results.

Dr. Rolf Hichert

Your colleague Dr. Nicolas Bissantz takes up Wolf Schneider's ideas in his blog. In this sense he pleads for a more conscious use of our language. What importance do you attach to the written word?

Language is the central theme. But we do not judge the beauty of language. Here, too, it must be a matter of standardization. We don't write novels, but use a technical language. And this requires a standardized terminology and clear definitions. After all, turnover is not equal to turnover, and staff numbers are not equal to staff numbers. The task here is to make correct and important statements with the help of defined words. Statements that can also be checked for their truthfulness. When I talk about a significant improvement in results, that says next to nothing. Significant, relevant, clear, significant, decisive, these are forbidden words.

Specialist for Reporting and Information Design

The specialist for information design, advocate of clear optics, fighter against the poor design of annual reports. Rolf Hichert can't do anything with the many attributions to his person. He wants to contribute to a uniform language. There are enough PowerPoint critics.

What does a good annual report need?

All business reports, not just annual reports, need a clear language and visual notation that is both transparent and meaningful. Unfortunately, many statistical data evaluations today are referred to as reports. A report should have a summary right at the beginning. I want to know what it is actually about. Not just a table of contents, but a meaningful, comprehensible summary.

What is your response to the argument that increasing standardization increases the risk of losing sight of the addressees?

That's what they always say, but I just don't believe it. Everyone wants to be taken seriously. Everyone wants to understand what the speaker is trying to say. And they want to be able to check if what they say is true.

If general design rules are introduced, is there not a danger that this will lead to a kind of ''over-unification'' and thus to a loss of creativity and diversity?

No, quite the opposite. Mozart's personal touch is not expressed in his musical notation. It's in his music. It is absurd if reports are to convince through creativity and diversity rather than through business knowledge. Standardization benefits everyone who is really interested in transparency. There can be no overregulation in this area. If the plug fits into the socket, it is not over-standardization, but simply practical.

And what about the corporate design, won't that be lost?

Corporate design is a very important component in business communication. Good CD can fascinate, bad CD is a nuisance. It is not only bad, but also misunderstood when all diagrams in a company are painted blue. Is there anything more boring than PowerPoint diagrams with the same dark background with light writing, oversized logo in the upper right corner and pie charts painted in the company colours? This is a misunderstood standardization. Good corporate design is a bit more subtle, it supports communication and does not prevent it.

What are you currently working on?

You can make visual representations, for example for reporting dashboards, quite small, as long as you don't have to consider the font size. But the font size cannot be arbitrarily small. My idea was to base all dimensions, the thickness of the column as well as the distance between the lettering, on the font size. For monthly values, for example, the column is twice as thick as the font size, the line thickness is one tenth of the font size. If the font size increases, everything grows evenly. I am concerned here with a uniform syntax for all business report sizes.

How do you measure your own success?

I have been involved in the design of reports and presentations for some time now. I feel successful when I can help other people to do their job even better.

BIOGRAPHY

Dr. Rolf Hichert, born in 1947, studied mechanical engineering in Stuttgart, did research at the Fraunhofer Institute and worked as a management consultant. He was professor at the Universities of Applied Sciences in Constance and Eberswalde. In 1985 he founded a software company in the field of Business Intelligence. In 2004 he gave a lecture on the topic of why bosses do not understand reports. He met with great interest and founded Hichert+Partner. The focus of his consulting and software organization is on the content and visual design of annual reports and presentations. More than 5000 participants have since attended his courses and lectures. Rolf Hichert has lived in Switzerland for 30 years.

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