Remember the guys in high school who wore letter jackets – the “jocks?” They typically played one of two sports: football or basketball. In that world, to be viewed as an athlete you had to be 1) male 2) 6 feet tall or more 3) heavy 4) strong and 5) fast – pretty much in that order.

This concept of what constitutes an athlete lingers beyond high school. Our sports calendars are filled with occasions to watch more tall, thickly muscled men play football and basketball: NCAA football and basketball games, the NBA, and the biggest draw by far, the NFL and the Super Bowl.

Then every four years, we get the Summer Olympics to remind us just how narrow our thinking is about who’s an athlete. And by analogy, it’s a reminder that our thinking may be limited in other areas, such as our organizational communications.

We saw from the Games in London that to win a gold medal, an athlete can be:

  • a 5-2, 115-lb. female with thighs strong enough to lift her into sub orbit during a floor exercise routine (Aly Raisman)
  • a 6-1, 165-lb. female with long arms and flexible, size-13 feet  to zip through water like a dolphin (Missy Franklin)
  • a 5-5 male able to run 10,000 meters faster than the rest of the world, in part because he weighs 128 lbs. (Britain’s Mo Farah, who finished just ahead of his training partner, the 5-11, 132-lb. American Galen Rupp)
  • and, of course, a guy who actually WAS tall (6-7), heavy (225 lbs.), strong and fast in high school and has since added an inch of height, 25 pounds of weight and an NBA championship (LeBron James).

Returning to your high school days, think about the only written communications structure you were taught: the essay. You wrote it for your English class or maybe history, trying to stretch your paper to a 5- or 10-page minimum. You followed the formula the teacher gave you: “Tell us what you’re going to say, say it and tell us what you said.”

You had to be factual and logical. You had to use complete sentences. You could not use slang or contractions. And you could not start a sentence with a conjunction, such as “and.” (Sorry, English teachers!)

Like our limited conceptions about the athletic ideal, we preserved this dogmatic, rigid, rule-bound view of good writing. In college, some of us even added fuel to the fire by poring through the Oxford English Dictionary, cluttering up theme papers with as many polysyllabic, obscure words as possible.

If you played this game successfully and earned an A from that stern, impossible-to-please professor, you may have decided you knew all there is to know about good writing. Period. End of story.

It’s a precarious position to take – like deciding that because Michael Phelps has won more gold medals than anyone else in history, he’d do great on the balance beam. We see the communications equivalent of a head plant every day when someone who’s still glowing from that professor’s praise has to do his first PowerPoint presentation. It ends up looking something like this:

So here are a few hints about how to keep your writing upright and moving nicely toward its goal:

Respect the vehicle’s rules of operation: You used to see the PowerPoint disaster much more frequently when it first became a staple of business presentations. People didn’t distinguish PowerPoint from other programs they were used to, like Word, so they treated them the same. Only after some experience did it become clear that a PowerPoint presentation should be light on copy, using phrases not sentences. (Your professor might not like it, but he’s not sitting in an audience after lunch, trying to figure out what you’re talking about.)

Pick the vehicle that your audience wants to see: Did you catch that exciting Women’s 10m Air Pistol competition on NBC? No? How about badminton? Table tennis? If NBC showed these events at all, it certainly wasn’t in prime time. Not because they’ve got anything against air pistols, but because their viewers aren’t interested. So if your audience really wants a communications piece composed of quick summaries and lots of visuals, don’t give them lots of copy and nothing to look at, even if that’s your preferred style.

Learn what it takes to win, even if you’re just a participant: Making a logical, factual argument was fine for your English paper, but if you’re writing an ad, you need to think first about emotion, not logic. Writing for the web is very different than writing for print – you don’t know where readers will go from one minute to the next, so you can’t organize material in a linear fashion.

If your job requires you to review and approve communications, you have to at least understand why a winning strategy for one messaging system won’t necessarily work in another. Don’t second guess a writer with rules you learned in high school that aren’t valid for the format. The more you understand, the more you’ll both appreciate the work done by others and the better you’ll be able to assess if your messages are hitting the target.

Just like Wenjun Guo, 5-6, 143 lb., who topped 5-1, 117-lb. Celine Goberville and 5-4, 119-lb. Olena Kostevych for the gold medal.

In the 10m Air Pistol competition, of course.

Leave a Reply