When Sports Analogies Miss the Target

Playing the field. Home run. Hit the bullseye.

Sports analogies are as inevitable as sports fans. But as discussed in a recent New York Times story, it’s not a good idea to wade too far into sports terminology because your message can get lost in the weeds when what you really want is a mulligrubber.

A what, you say?

Precisely the point. If you’re not familiar with rugby, you won’t know that a mulligrubber is a  play that essentially buys a moment of time.

Even if you are communicating with an audience intimately conversant with your topic, don’t use inside baseball to make your main point. State it clearly, in plain English, even if you’ve teed it up with a metaphor.  Because simply stating your point is always a home run.


Backhand compliment.



FedSpeak: A Metaphor is Like Money in the Bank


If your policies are too complicated even for your colleagues to understand, make your point with a metaphor.

It works for the Federal Reserve Banks. It’ll work for you.

“I think you can use [metaphors] in two ways,” said Richard Fisher, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, as quoted in the Wall St. Journal in an entire article on the Fed’s colorful language. Mr. Fisher says. “One is to get people to listen, and the other is to explain policy.”

Crystal-clear, Mr. Fisher!

Metaphors are ideal for grabbing people’s attention. A memorable metaphor will be repeated, quoted and might even take on a life of its own.

That’s why you should do as the Fed officials do and choose your metaphors carefully, testing them with an experienced communication consultant who can examine the figure of speech from all angles to see how it will be perceived and misperceived.  As spontaneous as your delivery might be, your actual language must be chosen with care.

Fisher’s other point is that a metaphor must be true as well as snappy. The comparison you are making must either simplify a concept or simplify the introduction to a complex concept. The test for this is easy: try out the metaphor on a colleague from a different department or outside your field. If you have to explain the metaphor, it’s self-defeating and distracting. Toss it away and try another one. The good news about metaphors is the better you are at using them, the better you will be at finding them.

Heartstrings, Quantified

Compelling narrative motivates generous response — maybe even more generous than you’d expect.  Organizations – especially nonprofits — typically describe their programs instead of the difference they make. But the messaging that really makes a difference shows how real people benefit from those programs.

In this New York Times magazine profile, Wharton professor Adam Grant comes across as a compulsively generous guy who has fueled his professional advancement with a mixture of altruism and wisdom.

The brilliance of his ongoing psychological research goes beyond calibrating generosity to help others while stoking your own sense of satisfaction and self-worth. Grant’s research also exposes what truly motivates people at work: a mission that actually makes a measurable difference.

When people see that their work genuinely improves someone else’s life or situation, they are deeply moved to strive for similar results.  They are both more productive and more satisfied with their work. Because their work means something.

We got at this dynamic in the 2012 Accounting MOVE Project, which showed how community service advances women’s careers in accounting. Women who merged volunteering aligned with strongly held personal values, with professional development, not only created their own fast tracks for advancement. They also reinforced the core meaning of their work, making for a fulfilling balance.

When you want to deeply motivate your audience — from potential donors to partners, even to clients — let narratives and case studies do the persuading.

Free Advice Sold Here

file0001240818910Why buy the cow when you get the milk for free?

Not the prettiest metaphor, but there’s a reason why it endures: business owners make their living selling goods and services. Why give away valuable professional insights through media interviews, especially if you are a consultant?

Because people want to taste the milk before they buy it, that’s why.

I recently gave away the ‘secret sauce’ to navigating the transition from staff to entrepreneurship that I present in a fee-based workshop on a regular basis at Chicago’s Women’s Business Development Center. And, of course, this advice is in my book, The Career Lattice. So why dish it to Minda Zetlin, a blogger for Inc. magazine’s website?

Because a little sip makes people thirsty for more. Just a couple of hours after the post went live, it was trending on the Inc.com home page as a ‘most shared.’  That’s how things go viral. In the short term, this sharing draws people back to my website,

The Power of Positive

If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that.”  — Barack Obama

I’m not worried about poor people.”  — Mitt Romney

This is not a blog post about negative campaigning. It’s not about the frightening power of digital viral communications, which can rip a quote from its context like a sapling in a tornado.  And it’s not about…gee, why don’t I quit telling you what it’s not about and start telling you what it is about?

The power of positive messaging is about more than being upbeat and hopeful. It’s also a smart strategy for avoiding misquotes.

Say what is.

Not what it isn’t.

It’s that simple.  It’s too easy for a negative statement to be pulled out of context. And for negative statements, context is all. For example, here’s the greater context of Obama’s now-infamous quote:

Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business—you didn’t build that.”’

Recast this as: ““Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business, you built it as part of a community. We are all invested in your business, and your business is invested in your community. “

Totally different. And any single sentence could be pulled out as an accurate representative quote.

Always spot on, Peggy Noonan makes a related point in her Wall St. Journal column: “Mr. Obama was trying to conflate a nice thought  — we must help each other — with a partisan and ideological one, that government has and needs more of a role in creating personal success. He did not do it well because his approach was, as it often is, accusatory and vaguely manipulative. Which makes people lean away from him, not toward him.” 

In other words, backing into a comment is confusing. And offputting. So go positive.



How to Avoid Mitt-in-Mouth Disease

You’d think that Mitt Romney would have a virtual Ph.D. in strategic communication and messaging. Just look at all the messages he has had to deliver over the years: wins and losses in business, sports and politics.

But he has a chronic case of foot-in-mouth disease — which makes me wonder if he really has gotten top-quality media training after all.

Here’s Mitt as quoted in a recent Peggy Noonan column in the Wall St. Journal:

“All great political families have myths, stories they tell themselves about how history happened. The great story about Mr. Romney’s father, George, is that one word—”brainwashed”—did in his presidential candidacy in 1968. People have hypothesized that Mitt is careful with words and statements, that he edits his thoughts too severely, because of the power of that myth.

“I don’t think my father’s comment figures into my thinking at all,” he says. It’s his own mistakes “that make me want to kick myself in the seat of my pants,” that “cause me to try and be a little more careful in what I say. . . . I’ve had a couple of those during the campaign, which have haunted me a little bit, but I’m sure before this is over will haunt me a lot.”

Asked for an example, he mentions “I like to be able to fire people.” He meant, he says, those, such as health-insurance companies, that provide inadequate services. “I have to think not only about what I say in a full sentence but what I say in a phrase.” In the current media environment, “you will be taken out of context, you’ll be clipped, and you’ll be battered with things you said.” He says it is interesting that “the media always says, ‘Gosh, we just want you to be spontaneous,’ but at the same time if you say anything in the wrong order, you’re gonna be sorry!”

Mitt’s comment about ‘being spontaneous’ makes me think that he’s trying to memorize messages and simply unload his script at the right moment. That’s not how to navigate a media interview. Reporters know a prepackaged quote when they hear one. What they want are comments that are both substantive and quotable.

Memorization doesn’t work because an interview or conversation inevitably drifts off-point. That, Mitt, is why you need to learn how to stay on-message even when you’re off script.

Let Your Fingers Do The Talking

Metaphors are powerful, as Media Skills clients know. But when accompanied by reinforcing gestures, metaphors are unstoppable.

Researchers at Colgate University found that presenters who used gestures that mimicked their main points — such as a chopping motion when talking about chopping or cutting — listeners better understood the message. 

Seeing and hearing a metaphor makes the message stick.

Of course, too many flying hands and flinging arms only distract viewers — especially in videos. As you construct your message, weigh the ‘gesture-ability’ of various metaphors. Choose the one that is reinforced most naturally by a simple, powerful gesture that can be delivered within your frame in the camera. Don’t use gestures that point off-camera or that invade the space of your host or other on-camera guests.

Dramatic, contained, on point: those are the gestures that will capture viewers’ attention and drive home your point.


We Take Our Own Advice!

Show, don’t tell.

That’s one of the cardinal rules of storytelling. Don’t tell me you’re great at messaging. Show me. If you really are snappy, I’ll draw my own conclusion that you’re snappy. I’ll believe it even more because I own my own opinion, based on my observation of your undeniable snappiness.

As a strategic communication consultant and media trainer, I work with organizations to help them crystallize their messages.  Media interviews need talking points. To be quoted, you must be…quotable. Communication campaigns need slogans. To be remembered, your message must be…memorable.

That’s my tell. Here’s my show. My career strategy book, “The Career Lattice,” is due out in April from McGraw Professional. The message of the book is that strategic lateral moves are the only sustainable career path in  an era of slow growth and flattened, team-centric organizations.

How to say that in just a few words, especially when Fortune magazine freelancer Jena McGregor called for an interview?

“Over is the new up.”

“You’re so quotable!” said Ms. McGregor.

Thank you. And thanks for foreshadowing “The Career Lattice”  in a feature about lateral career moves.


What Are Your Words Worth?

Measuring the ROI of a media mention has always been more art than science. One of the top five factors, according to a recent PR Newswire article:  did your key message get included?
It’s one thing to be quoted on a random topic (stray wildlife terrorizing Wal-Mart shoppers) . Such stories can humanize your organization. But they don’t go far in achieving your core strategic communication goals —  especially if words essential for search aren’t woven into your message.

“For example, getting coverage of an important new product announcement is great. But without specific and prominent mention of any new technology you’re unveiling by name, and why it’s noteworthy, a lot of the luster is lost. Without these key strategic messages, readers view your announcement as “just another new product.” The messaging is so important because how your product works, and the benefits it delivers, are far more important than what it does.

Many products do the same thing in a given category, but the “how” is the essence of differentiation and perceived value.”

Before crafting your message for an interview, identify the best search term or phrase to use.  Play with several combinations to see how consumers intuitively search for the product, service, or idea that is the core of your message.  Research indicates that the typical search includes no more than four words.  Embedding your brand, product or concept in a phrase that reflects its organic context will increase your chance of wringing the most from a media mention.

The Biggest Scam in History in Two Words

As beautifully reported in the New York Times, the judge who oversaw the trial of Bernard L. Madoff thought long and hard about the sentence for the confessed swindler. Judge Denny Chin knew that the sentence itself would speak for itself – and that his sentencing statement would be widely quoted.

His decision to hand down a 150-year sentence would send a “loud, decisive message” about the legal violations on their own merits. But it was only after hearing several victims’ stories of personal financial devastation did the judge crystallize the statement he would give along with the sentence.  His law clerks told him that news crews had gathered early to broadcast every syllable uttered in the courtroom.

Judge Chin was well aware that his statement needed to contain terse, quotable elements. As reported by the Times, “One of the traditional notions of punishment,” [Judge Chin] wrote, “is that an offender should be punished in proportion to his blameworthiness.” Mr. Madoff’s crimes were “extraordinarily evil,” he added.

“Extraordinarily evil” summed up everything about the Madoff deception. Journalists seized on the phrase and it ricocheted around the world in headlines, leads and photo cutlines. “Extraordinarily evil:”  moral judgment,  empathy and perspective in two words.