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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