Economy of Expression

Economy of Expression ①

Economy of Expression is a four-part series about the role of communication in business. In Part I, we discuss with Eleanor Scott, Artist, educator and Silicon Valley communication consultant, about the ‘economy of expression’, what it means and why it is so important in business today.

CHRIS: What do you mean by 'economy of expression?

ELEANOR: It means to communicate concisely and with direction, using as few words as possible to say as much as possible.

I think about this in two ways. Firstly, we live in an age where we are all so busy, but are we all productive? By being sparing with our words and language, we can save time and in doing so, increase our productivity. Secondly, we are in this moment where our ability to create and distribute content with such ease is a blessing and a curse. On the one hand we can instantly create and share moments of real inspiration, but on the other hand, we can instantly upload terabytes of unedited verbiage, the majority of which is totally devoid of substance.

CHRIS: Is economy of expression then a discussion of quality vs quantity?

ELEANOR: It is. Turning our attention to saying more with less is what I mean when I talk about economy of expression. I often think about when the printing press was invented and every letter for every word had to be set by hand. Journalists had to be economical with words because it simply cost too much money to be verbose.

CHRIS: I'm sure you'd agree there are plenty of benefits from having so many ways to communicate today?

ELEANOR: Of course, the level of equality in how we can communicate and who can express themselves is unprecedented. That freedom of expression hasn’t existed before and that is wonderful. However, with great opportunity comes great responsibility and this is increasingly true in the business world. With so many tools now available for communication in the business world, many created specifically for and by business, we need to model attentive and measured communication.

CHRIS: Let's talk about business. You are an artist and educator by trade, but you also consult to some of the world's largest businesses. What is it you do for these organizations?

ELEANOR: Well, it’s fascinating. I always feel like a visitor to a foreign land when I go into these companies, even though I’ve been doing it for years now. In some ways, I actually feel like I’m watching theater because I see things that are hiding in plain sight. I see the habits in their everyday routine. What I love doing is bringing my bag of tricks from the art world, from theatre, from improv and saying ‘hey look – this is going to help you’. ‘This will help you communicate better with each other, with your clients, with the market.’

I really try to help them understand the complexities of good communication and support a practice of conscious communication. This is all about truly listening and being present in the moment, something so critical in performance; in strong art in general.

Today, thanks to the wonders of technology, we can be in conversation, doing work, all day and all night if we want, and some people are. To communicate well, it takes energy and focus. So in this moment when we are able to, and often expected to, communicate all the time, it’s vital we have the tools to do it effectively.

CHRIS: Technology is bringing about a lot of change - disrupting industries and changing the way people work. How do you see communication impacting this change?

ELEANOR: In my world as a performing and narrative artist, if you don’t use language and expression expertly, then you lose your audience. Really, it can happen in moments. And once you have lost them, it’s much harder to win them back.

With sweeping shifts in business practices, I like to say there are always ‘X factors’. ‘X factors’ are things that are sudden and complicating and have to be dealt with immediately. With this kind of change it is not if, it’s when and how many ‘X factors’ will appear. And that’s OK, that’s life, let’s not be frightened, and let’s make sure we are able to express ourselves superlatively during times of upheaval.

In some ways, my job is to help organizations navigate the stormy waters that are associated with major change by equipping them with the skills to communicate ideas clearly and productively. I love being involved in workshops where the executives are in the room with end users, designers, technology folks and product managers; they’re fascinating meetings because it is the whole world. The goal is to come up with a solution to a complex business problem, but change stirs up emotion and so, more often than not, any good communication practices go out the window thereby impeding progress. The number of times I’ve seen executives openly contradict end users is astonishing. With potent rather than unconscious communication, so much more progress can be made.

CHRIS: So what skills can business learn from the arts that would bring about more effective communication?

ELEANOR: What makes theater, stand up and superlative storytelling compelling and captivating is that they are expressions of authentic listening. If you think of a favourite conversation scene from a movie or a TV show, you are seeing two people working diligently to actually listen to each other. For a business to implement meaningful change, they need to be listening to all those involved in making the change.

I also think that effective or potent communication has a lot to do with being present in the moment. With visual art, when you are moved by a painting or an installation or a drawing, what is recorded is the artist being completely present, being mindful, to what they are painting or depicting. And I’m convinced that infusing the workplace, that is so fast-paced, so animated, so ever-shifting, with some calm circumspection will lead to increased productivity, not to mention less stressed teams. One thing I like to get people to do is put away their devices when they work and record the changes in how they communicate. They are forced to check in with their bodies, their brains, their breathing, the other people in the room rather than being distracted by email.

CHRIS: Have your ideas about economy of expression evolved over the years?

ELEANOR: When I first started thinking about economy of expression it was in the context of being a concise and clear communicator. As I have worked on this more, I think it also refers to the economy more broadly. There are net gains and losses in enterprise when we are sloppy and ill-prepared correspondents.

On the one hand, I get frustrated when I hear stories of conference calls where one person is eating, another person is jogging and someone else is picking up some picture frames at IKEA. Two or three of those types of meetings and your project is off the rails, you’re done. It’s such a waste of time and money. But on the other hand, I think wow, maybe the only time that person could find time to eat whilst they were on a conference call.

Strong expression of new ideas drives the economy, yet that expression needs to be prudent and considered. And guess what, it’s really hard. I see organizations with amazing ideas fail because they lack the skills to effectively communicate those ideas at every level.

CHRIS: We've put our hand up to produce a series of these discussions. What shall we tackle next?

ELEANOR: One thing I love about all the arts is that there is this weaving together of threads from the past, the present and the future into a beautiful experience. Maybe a play, or a musical, like Hamilton. Hamilton takes the American Revolution, Hip Hop, musical theater, poetry and swirls them all together. It grounds the past, the present and the future, together, in a single moment, with a clear message. The elegant communication of ideas is what makes art so awe-inspiring and, yes, transformative.

In art, as indeed in business, articulate communication is made up of the visual, the written, the verbal and non-verbal. I’m excited to look at each of these and their role in economy of expression.

Interview with Eleanor Scott, Artist, educator and Silicon Valley communication consultant by Chris Watt, SVP of Corporate Strategy for Tigerspike