What I Learned from Ross Perot

July 15, 2019

Ross Perot died this week at the age of eighty-nine. Perot, a Texas businessman, ran for the office of President in 1992 against two strong candidates, George Herbert Walker Bush and Bill Clinton. Perot was no nonsense and a straight talker, and his style went a long way with voters in 1992, garnering him an incredible 19% of the popular vote. Along with his robust personality, he also had a unique way of telling a story. His use of small handheld charts to help explain complex economic policy was ground-breaking at the time. It was effective messaging and watching him during that election season made a lifelong impact on how I think about communicating information.

Ross Perot’s use of visual aids may have had an impact on other political leaders of the time as well. The US Congressional Record, with its millions of words, referenced the phrase “this chart shows” 30 times in its 1988 publishing. By 1993, following Perot’s use of charts during the campaign, the phrase had grown to 100.

If you have been in a meeting with me, you know I can’t carry on a conversation without the use of some form of visual aid to tell a story or explain a concept. The ability to communicate the complex (or boring) and make it understandable (or tolerable) stands at the root of any practical messaging technique. Since that time in 1992, I have incorporated the use of diagrams, drawings, charts, cartoons, or whatever necessary in my attempt to connect with listeners and turn the difficult into something understandable.

At its core, what Perot’s simple charts showed me was the impact visual illustration can have on a person’s ability to “see” a complex idea.  Too often in the world of finance we communicate with buzzwords, relying on them to transmit our intended meaning, and less often discussing concepts in detail. Perot was famous for challenging the theory of Trickle Down Economics because, in his opinion, it didn’t trickle. Communication should follow a similar logic – if the ideas aren’t trickling down to a common level of understanding, what good are they? I ALWAYS have a supply of blank paper at my desk, ready to illustrate and hopefully make a concept clearer during a meeting. Thanks, Ross.

Carl Gambrell