6 communication takeaways from football

The gridiron offers plenty of fodder regarding messaging guidance and goofs. Follow these tips to keep your team inspired, motivated and winning.

Football lessons for communicators

Are you ready for some football?

Even if you’re not, perhaps you are ready for some communication insights derived from the most popular, and controversial, league in the land?

Let’s huddle up, heave it to the end zone and hope you score—with these six points:

1. Take a bold stand—or not. Even if you’ve never watched a snap, you now know the name Colin Kaepernick.

Kaepernick was the first player to kneel during the national anthem in 2016 to protest police brutality and mistreatment of minorities, and many players have since followed his lead (much to the frustration of owners and league officials).

Whether you view the players kneeling as a powerful, peaceful protest, an unacceptable, unpatriotic outrage, inconsequential theatrics or somewhere in between, it’s impossible to deny the impact this movement has had on the league—and the nation. For better or worse, the players have chosen to tackle some of the thorniest, intractable, most complex issues that plague our country.

Is your organization prepared to take a stand of this nature? Consumers are increasingly expecting companies to pipe up regarding serious issues. As Inc. writes:

“People want brands to take stands on important issues,” a recent poll of 1,000 American consumers from Sprout Social found. “Two-thirds of consumers (66 percent) say it’s important for brands to take public stands on social and political issues.” A 2017 survey from Edelman concurs, finding that the young in particular want to hear from brands. “The majority of Millennials (60 percent) are belief-driven buyers.”

Of course, it’s all a matter of your target audience. Your decision to speak out should dovetail with issues that resonate with the core people who keep you solvent.

Perhaps you won’t “sacrifice everything” for your principled stand, but you could face serious blowback. However, you might also win respect, followers and business in the process.

2. If you mount the high horse, prepare for attacks. If your company does take a stand regarding polarizing issues, be prepared to face intense scrutiny.

The NFL—and the NCAA, for that matter—know quite a lot about this topic.

The NFL has struggled to maintain credibility regarding its “zero tolerance” domestic violence policies, alternately bringing the hammer down on some while letting others accused of serious crimes play on.

The league, led by Commissioner Roger Goodell, has talked a big game about cracking down on abusers and prioritizing player safety, yet actions speak louder than words.

You’d be hard-pressed to amass more haters than the NFL, but you probably have competitors who’d be delighted to see you fall or point out the plank in your own eye. Trolls love nothing more than highlighting corporate hypocrisy, so make sure your actions line up with whatever high-minded ideals you espouse. Your “mission” or “values” are worthless unless there is consistency behind the scenes.

3. Don’t dither or let issues fester. Instead of addressing the anthem issue directly in 2016, the NFL tried to wait out the player protests. Now, two years later, the league is still scrambling to resolve the issue—which continues to infuriate and alienate a not insignificant portion of the fanbase.

If you sense a burbling current of criticism at your company, or if you notice a swell of anger building over something, don’t ignore it. Don’t dither and wait for anger or resentment to burn itself out. Ignored grievances are perhaps the longest-burning fuel known to man.

Don’t allow problems to fester and become much bigger, more damaging problems. Instead of responding reactively and scrambling to get one arm around a situation, tackle potential crises head on.

4. Don’t respond in anger. Sourpuss coaches such as Nick Saban and Bill Belichick can get away with being arrogant jerks in interacting with journalists and still keep their jobs, but the rest of us aren’t so lucky.

Let the heat of the moment cool down before clicking “send.” Wait until you’ve calmed down before picking up the phone. Don’t act like an entitled, petulant coach and let reporters, execs, cranky clients or colleagues get your goat.

Also, don’t set execs up to fail by placing them in front of a hostile audience. Help them master the art of “coach-speak,” if you must. Blathering on about “battling through adversity” or “playing within yourself” is better than responding with anger, threats, barbs or insensitive remarks.

5. Hold out for a better deal. Communicators are often affable people-pleasers. Whatever it takes to make clients or colleagues happy, right?

There’s no need to go full-on Terrell Owens and proclaim how much “I love me some me” around the office, but have faith in yourself. Don’t be afraid to hold out for a better workplace deal. Steelers superstar Le’Veon Bell is doing just that this preseason (much to the chagrin of fantasy football owners across the land).

If there’s a reasonable accommodation you’ve earned, ask for it. Tell the boss why you deserve a raise. Muster the courage to challenge the CEO regarding perks, benefits or changes you and your colleagues would like to see. Be direct with clients, and explain why certain situations require particular countermeasures. After all, you wouldn’t assign a hulking defensive end to cover a fleet-footed wide receiver.

6. Don’t get too fancy with the play calling. In communication, as in football, complexity and cleverness can backfire.

Create a plan that’s straightforward, easy to grasp and simple to enact. Make sure everyone knows who’s responsible for what, and identify tangible goalposts for success.

Coaches and communicators who rely on gimmicks, trick plays, flair, flash and big talk tend to get exposed sooner than later. You can have the fanciest playbook in the world, but it’s useless unless you have the personnel to handle it.

Beyond that, too much hocus-pocus, and you increase the risk of a fumble—which stops your momentum and forces you to play defense.

The extra point

Don’t be afraid to call an audible—adapting your plan in the heat of the moment. Train yourself to see potential hazards, and make adjustments for a winning drive toward success.


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