Thursday, September 15, 2011

Fumbling your message

Clever metaphors employed carefully can create heightened interest in your message. But if tossed in carelessly or tacked on tactlessly, they can garner negative reactions.

This is especially true when using sports metaphors, for at least two reasons:
  1. Sports metaphors are already over-used in all manner of communications. This is especially true at the start of a major sport season, such as football. Football imagery proliferates through all media to the point of saturation. Anyone not using football imagery stands a far better chance of being heard by their audience.

  2. Sports metaphors require knowledge of the sport being referenced. You will automatically alienate anyone in your audience who is not a fan of the specific sport. And if you’re making reference to some obscure element of the sport, you risk losing some fans.
Analyzing a play

    But let’s consider using a simple metaphor with terminology most people can probably follow: fumbling a football pass.

    A pass that’s fumbled means the intended recipient of the ball failed to catch it, or the one who threw it didn’t calculate correctly.

    The bottomline is that the term “fumble” usually refers to a mistake being made.

    I recently received an email intended to remind me of an approaching conference and prod me to sign up early.

    The opening sentence read: “Pardon the intrusion.  But I have a question to ask. Can you afford to fumble an opportunity to invest in your career? I certainly hope not.” 

    I read this and immediately took offense.

    Striking out

    I was weighing attending this conference, taking into consideration the cost of registration, travel expenses, and the hotel costs. I was looking at the cost versus my available resources, other expenses, and the potential value of the conference.

    For me, deciding whether or not to attend the conference would not be a “fumble.” It would be the outcome of a carefully assessed decision.

    Going would not mean that I had successfully caught a ball, just as not going didn’t mean dropping a ball.

    I believe the writer, who was male, thought that this was a clever use of sports imagery given that we’re at the start of the NFL season and there’s an NFL game during one night of the conference.

    But I’m not a sports fan.

    Sometimes we need to step out of those things we are caught up in to gain a better perspective of our message and our audience. The one who fumbled in this case was the one who wrote the email.

    Piling on

    In fact, there were multiple failures as the metaphors really mixed it up!
    • Ironically, the theme of the conference employs an automotive metaphor, which was referenced in the second paragraph.

    • The third paragraph began with, “The sounds of summer are fading fast, there’s a chill in the air…” referencing fall.

    • The fourth paragraph started with, “Detroit will be all a-buzz…” which is more of a spring or summer kind of reference.

    • Then came the financial allusions mentioning investment and the economy.

    • But the writer did bring it back around to the sports image with the final sentence reading, “Don’t fumble the pass! Register today.”
    Throwing a curve

    Sadly, the greater offense of the email is that it didn’t get to its central point until the fifth paragraph.

    Why was it urgent that people registered before 9/14? Sure, they would save $100 off the registration fee, but there was something else more significant.

    Because of the NFL game in town the first night of the conference, rooms could not be guaranteed for those registering after 9/14. They could still register, but they might have to sleep in their cars!

    Registering for the conference but not being able to get a room would, indeed, be a fumble!  

    This point should have been made at the beginning of the email. Tying “fumble” to “potentially not getting a room” would not have caused offense, but would have spurred action!

    Getting to the end zone

    So what did this one email teach us?
    • Whether or not you employ any metaphor, make sure the key point of your message is mentioned in the first sentence. Then bring it up again in the middle and conclusion of your message. Make the main point the main point!
    • If you’re going to employ sports metaphors in your message, be sure that they evoke a positive tone and that your audience will understand and appreciate your references.
    • Use a single metaphor/image consistently throughout your message. Avoid jumping from sports to seasons to something else, etc.
    Oh, by the way, this conference is for communications professionals!I’m not going because I finally remembered my wife and I already had plans for that weekend.

    I guess I’m fumbling the ball when it comes to my career! I’m not worried; this conference isn’t the only game in town. There will be other opportunities to get off the sidelines and onto the field, complete the pass, and get a touchdown. Metaphorically speaking.

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    Thoughts?

    It's all Paul's fault!

    I love Paul’s writings. You know, the Apostle Paul. He’s the one that the Holy Spirit tapped to write most of the New Testament.

    But I do have one bone to pick with him.

    In the entire Bible, there’s only one blatant reference to a sport, and Paul’s the guy who did it.

    What was the sport?

    Running, as in a race at a track meet. Go take a look at 1 Corinthians 9:24-27, Galatians 5:7, and Hebrews 12:1. There are others.

    Frankly, I don’t know what Paul was thinking. I’m sure he never ran in any organized foot race. Sure, he was on the run, in a manner of speaking, after his conversion, but that wasn’t sport.

    Maybe he was attempting to make the Gospel culturally relevant by using a popular image of the day. The Greeks and the Romans held various games and running was among them. So was death by lions.

    Even if cultural relevance was what he was after, I think he bogeyed here. Because of Paul’s one sports metaphor, too many now see this as a license to “sportify” the whole Gospel message and beyond. One guy even claims that references to horseback riding, javelin throwing, swimming, fishing, fighting, archery, hiking, and other similar activities count as sports references in both Old and New Testaments.

    I say, “Foul!”

    Other than Paul’s running blunder, these and other references were all made in the context of warfare, earning a living, wandering in the desert, and the like. They weren’t about sports! (An exception might be Ecclesiastes 9:11.)

    Why do I complain so? Because I’m not a sports fan and cringe whenever sports metaphors pop up in sermons, pep talks at events for men, or in articles and devotionals.

    It’s bad enough that business books and motivational seminars are awash in sports metaphors, we don’t need them cluttering up Scriptural exposition. Leave them in the sports pages of the newspaper where they belong!

    Just because something is targeted to Christian men doesn’t mean all men relate to sports.

    In my defense, I turn to Christ. The teachings of Jesus are rife with rich metaphors and variegated imagery, none sports prone. Not even a single parable.

    If Jesus didn’t need the crutch of sports to make his message relevant, then neither do we. And Paul only used one sport to make a point, and it wasn’t a sport involving a ball, small or large, round or oblong. Frankly I’m not sure Paul would even be comfortable laying hands on a pigskin, so football analogies are completely out of the question.

    So please, knock off all the biblical sports jabber.

    Telling me it’s the bottom of the ninth, the bases are loaded, there’ve been two strikes, and now is the time to hit a homerun for Jesus is just a swing and miss.

    I don’t want to hear about making a touchdown in the end zone of heaven or how a decision for Christ is like a hole in one. These and other sports metaphors don’t bowl me over and strike out with others as well.

    Stay out of foul territory by using what’s actually in scripture.

    If you feel compelled to employ a biblical sports illustration, stick with running. Don’t go out of bounds beyond Paul’s own metaphor. If you do, you’ll most likely throw an incomplete pass and are at risk of getting sacked by the Holy Spirit.

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    Thoughts?

    Thursday, September 8, 2011

    Remember...

    Taken in 1999. Click on the image to see it full size.

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    Thoughts?

    Wanted: Jacks and Jills of many skills, but not necessarily masterful in writing

    It's really sad to read job ads that feature "writing" as a key skill required for the position.

    Too often, writing is only one item in a nearly endless list of "skills" that includes multiple software packages, database experience, public relations, event planning and management, HTML and XML experience, and more.

    I understand that employers need to do more with less. This includes hiring fewer people to do much more work.

    But what employers who need writers fail to understand is that writing is a unique skill and talent, very different from everything else included in their wishlist.

    Just Google it

    When it comes to using  Adobe® InDesign® or Dreamweaver®, one can simply take a class or two to get a handle on the basics. From then on, there is plenty of useful help online for using specific features. This is true for any software or technology skill.

    It's relatively true for public relations and many other basic communications activities. There are a ton of books, professional journals, and websites offering relevant and timely helps and tips.

    Just about anyone, with no prior experience, can take on these tasks and achieve pretty good results by taking advantage of the resources available.

    But the same cannot be said for writing.

    It takes more than knowing the alphabet

    While there are similar resources offering a lot of advice on how to write well, these are useless to someone who is not already a pretty good writer.

    Writing is not just an acquired skill, but is also a talent. To write well takes both basic technical awareness (grammar, spelling, punctuation, etc.) combined with an intuitive sense of what makes writing good.

    You can't get good writing (or good at writing well) "off the shelf" or downloaded as an app.

    The same could be said of graphic design, by the way.

    The illusion is that hiring a Jack or Jill of many skills will increase productivity while keeping costs down. But very seldom is this the case.

    A full tool belt doesn't make you a carpenter

    When you hire a person who is specifically skilled in technology and software, they are going to be able to produce better results in less time when dealing with technology or software issues. Why? Because their knowledge is focused in the areas of their main interests. Their technical knowledge and skill has depth and breadth.

    On the other hand, someone who appears to have technical skills as well as moderate writing experience will take far longer to produce lower quality results. Why? Because they won't be confident in any of their skills. They will spend an inordinate amount of time researching how to use software features or overcome technical challenges. In fact, they'll probably be annoying the techies with endless questions. And since they can only allot a small percentage of their time to writing, it will most likely be mediocre or worse.

    The worst combination is hiring a technical geek to be the editor of a website. While a website editor needs basic understanding of the technology, their focus should be on words, not code.

    The only specialty you want is "writer" 

    The reality is that the more you cram into a job, the less you will get in terms of quality and productivity.

    Oh, and don't get hung up on finding a writer who "specializes" in health care, manufacturing, education, or some other industry or field. Any good writer can easily acquire the specialized knowledge of a particular field just as one can learn software from a book. In fact, the broader the writer's experience, the better the writer he or she will probably be. You want a writer who can see past the confines of your narrow field to connect with a lay audience, essentially translating insider knowledge for those on the outside.

    If you absolutely must hire a specialist, hire a person who specializes in writing well across multiple platforms, fields, industries, and more.

    If you need good writing -- and all companies and organizations do --  then focus on hiring a good, talented writer. If they happen to have some skills in other areas, great! But hire them to focus on writing first, and doing other stuff if they have time.

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    Thoughts?