Speaking Tips: Bridging the Metaphor Gap

I love sports. I have played a lot of sports, some very competitively, some merely recreationally. And I follow most sports on at least a casual basis. My favorite is baseball, which I consume voraciously. But I also actively follow American football, and I keep an eye on basketball, soccer, hockey, tennis, golf. I become giddy when the Olympics roll around. And I have multiple text thread discussions with different groups of friends, dedicated to anything going on in the sports world.

I am a huge fan, a term which is short for “fanatic” by the way.

This also means that I have sports phrases sprinkled liberally throughout my speech pattern. I use phrases all the time like “let’s make sure we have that club in our bag” which is a golf term referring to having different golf clubs for different kinds of golf shots. In a business context, that term means “let’s make sure we know how to do that.

There are a number of baseball terms I use a lot, such as “singles win ball games” which simply means “we don’t need to hit lots of home runs to win the game,” which in business terms means “we don’t need to take a lot of risk here, just do the little things.” Another version of the same concept is “let’s play small ball.”

Here’s another one, from the game of tennis: “that was an unforced error,” which means a point that was lost not because of something the opponent did, but rather because of a mistake you made. And in a business context it simply means, “we screwed up and did that to ourselves.

If you spend enough time with me, you are likely to hear me use several different terms from American football, such as “three yards and a cloud of dust” (which means we are grinding out our progress a few bits at a time, instead of in big chunks), or “throw a hail mary” (we are running out of time, so let’s take a really big chance on something that has a low probability of success) or “call an audible” (we had a plan in place, but at the last possible moment, the plan got changed based on new information.)

And finally, one of my favorites, from the world of skiing (a sport I used to do, and my family still loves)… “let’s not get out over our skis,” which means “if we get out of balance on the hill, we are much more likely to fall” which in business terms means “let’s not get ahead of ourselves and take too much risk.” (And by the way… the reason I no longer ski is that I once did, actually, get too far out over my skis, hit a patch of ice, and had a pretty scary wipeout that destroyed my confidence, and ended my skiing days.)

The point here is not to provide you with a lexicon of terms so that you can successfully communicate with me (although some of my colleagues might benefit from a deeper understanding of these terms.) Rather, my point here is to, somewhat humorously, discuss the power of language, and what can happen when we rely too much on language from a world that not everyone is familiar with. I remember once when I was working with the leadership team from an Indian technology company, and one day the CEO started using terms I did not understand, that I later learned were from the sport of cricket (one of the few sports I don’t actually understand or follow.) I finally got up the courage to admit that I had no idea what the references he was making meant, and he quickly replied with “ah…. now you know how we feel when you make references from baseball.” Point taken…

We have written here before about the power of language, and the importance of using language that makes your message easier to understand and absorb. When we use language that people don’t understand – esoteric phrases, acronyms, jargon – lots of bad things can happen: communication is less effective, people feel less connected or even excluded, outcomes are not achieved.

My point here today is that the best communicators are highly aware of their environments and themselves, and will do their best to communicate in ways that are likely to be understood by their audience. In my case, this means that I try to be highly aware of using too many sports metaphors… and when I do, be ready to explain them to make sure that everyone in the room feels included in the conversation.

Now… I told you the metaphors that I use a lot. Which ones do you use? Send them along, and if I get enough, I will turn them into another post.

Thanks, and have a great day.

At The Latimer Group, we believe that great communication skills can change the world. We transform people and organizations with simple, repeatable techniques and mindsets. We teach persuasive communication skills through an integrated platform of corporate training, coaching, and eLearning. To learn more about how we can transform your organization, e-mail us at info@TheLatimerGroup.com

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Dean Brenner

A book about change

The Latimer Corporation’s CEO Dean Brenner is a noted keynote speaker and author on the subject of persuasive communication. He has written three books, including Persuaded, in which he details how communication can transform organizations into highly effective, creative, transparent environments that succeed at every level.