February 28, 2008

Parables from the golf course: 12 tips for the professional communicator

I know nothing about sports, but several years ago I started learning to play golf. It’s a game that so closely parallels the beauty and cruelty of life that I find endless meaning in it. When I can’t play golf, I find myself thinking about the game. I’m starting to realize that the lessons of golf also apply to good communication. Here are a dozen lessons I learned on the golf course:

Lesson 1 — Style is no substitute for substance.
I’ve spent hundreds of dollars on golf lessons. People say that I have a beautiful swing. That’s of small comfort to me because I only hit the ball 150 yards at my very best. The truth of the matter is I haven’t got the real stuff of a solid swing yet. No matter how good it looks, it isn’t true, it isn’t reliable, it isn’t right. Something is missing. It’s the same with communication. A lot of organizations say wonderful things, but they can’t live up to them. As communicators, we have to help our organizations speak the truth as plainly as possible, no matter what’s in the corporate air.

Lesson 2 — Like good communication, golf unites people.
That’s why people combine golf and business. I never understood this until I played. I’ve played with complete strangers, teenagers, couples, and old men, all with varying degrees of talent. When you’re as bad as I am, there is nothing like playing in a best-ball scramble and seeing your team use one of your shots to earn a birdie. On its own, a shot might be worthless. But when the team’s best players put their ball in the sand or brush, my shot down the middle of the fairway, 150 yards from the hole, is useful. I finally understand what all the high-fiving in sports is about. It’s physical shorthand for saying, “We are one and we are good.” That’s what good communication does. It helps people rally around the same cause. It builds upon the synergies of all the players.

Lesson 3 — The relationship between ability and desire is not always direct.
I am not naturally athletic. But I believe that to some degree people can master things for which they have no talent. That’s what keeps me playing golf. My desire far outstrips my ability, so I try to practice a lot. I know people who are incredibly gifted but have no passion for their talent so they don’t practice. Being a true professional means you must practice, whether you are good or average. Whether you feel like it or not. You have to keep showing up and trying or you will never get better.

Lesson 4 — Every good player must learn the fundamentals.
The only way you can be consistent is to know the fundamental aspects of the game. Unless you do, every success will seem like a fluke. The game is hard enough without that burden. Learn the fundamentals, review them and practice them often. They’ll never let you down. Besides that, people will show more respect for you on the course if you know the rules of the game.

Lesson 5 — Few are good in every aspect of the game.
I have been thrilled by my performance on the fairway but disappointed when I got to the green. Sometimes my putts far outnumber my fairway shots. Why? I don’t practice one of the most important aspects of golf — the short strokes that put the ball in the hole. I focus on the long ball but forget that it’s the precision of the putt that can make or break my game. I lose sight of the details. That can happen with communication too. Find the things you do really well and do them as much as you can, but keep improving on your weaknesses.
Lesson 6 — Progress is not always a straight line upward.
One summer my husband and I played golf with my brother and his wife for the first time. The course was so beautiful, I was so relaxed and played so well that I thought I might have turned the corner on golf. Two days later I went to the course with great expectations. That’s when I learned the harshest lesson in golf — that excellence can be elusive. Cherish your successes. Revel in the things you do on behalf of your clients or your organization, but don’t expect to win a Gold Quill or write a Pulitzer every time you work. It can take a lot of the fun out of the game when you do that. Playing for fun is important. Sometimes we do our best work when we don’t place a lot of unnecessary pressure on ourselves.

Lesson 7 — Remember the past and learn to calibrate your swing.
You should always know how far you can hit the ball based on your past performance. Don’t pay attention to the clubs other people use. You have to know how far you can hit the ball with every club in your bag. Everyone must memorize what’s best for them and apply it to the game that’s in front of them. In golf and in communication, brevity is good. Taking too many practice swings can make the other players restless.

Lesson 8 — Disregard Lesson 7.
Put the past behind you. You can be your own worst enemy if you don’t. I’ve ruined a beautiful day of golf because I couldn’t take my mind off mistakes on the previous hole. I’ve seen other people do the same thing. It’s easy to let your mistakes become an inferno. Pretty soon, you’re playing with a scorch-and-burn mentality. Nothing good can come from that.

Lesson 9 — Even gifted players will make serious mistakes.
Their desire for progress or victory causes them to take risky shots and make bad decisions. When they’re a little arrogant about their game, it’s difficult for others to resist gloating over their mistakes or telling them what they should have done. When their mistakes hurt others, it’s especially hard not to shame them. I once played a round of golf just ahead of a group of serious golfers who were determined to speed up play. When their impatience reached a crescendo, one player got out of his cart and started yelling at the sluggish group two holes ahead of him. He hadn’t realized what we could plainly see. The group beyond ours included a physically handicapped player whose difficulties slowed the pace of play.

People should be accountable for their mistakes, but as communicators, we can play a unique role in these situations. We can help people learn from mistakes and move forward without bludgeoning people who already know they are wrong. We shouldn’t be afraid or embarrassed to associate with people or organizations just because they’ve made a mistake. Sometimes that’s when they need us most. Both golf and communication are about being your best and helping others be their best. The best communication has many winners and few, if any, losers. And good players learn quickly that they must not strut.

Lesson 10 — Be careful who you listen to and don’t let anyone convince you there are shortcuts to becoming a pro.
When I started hitting the ball consistently to the left, a friend told me to compensate by aiming my body a little to the right. That way, she reasoned, the ball would end up near the target. Though my friend is wise in many ways and she can drive the ball further than any woman I know, she has never really studied golf. She is my friend so I don’t contradict her. I just silently refer myself back to Lesson 4 — learn the fundamentals. Aiming your body at the target is one of the fundamental rules of golf. That’s true in communication, too.

Lesson 11 — Wisdom comes from surprising sources.
If a six-year old can accurately guess the club that Tiger Woods will use on a certain hole, maybe I should reconsider Lesson 10. A few years ago, a friend’s six-year old son was watching Tiger play the Masters on television. Somehow he accurately guessed Tiger’s club choice on a difficult shot. He had only been living a year longer than I had been playing golf and he had the wisdom to assess Tiger’s dilemma. Imagine that. Our prejudices can cause us to misjudge a situation or a person and harm our decisions. As communicators, sometimes we have to dig a little deeper to get the right answers. We can find solutions in unexpected places and among surprising people.

Lesson 12 — Unlikely things can happen.
Easy shots can be missed. Impossible shots can be made. Both of these things happen to all players. Knowing this keeps us on our toes. I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my work that I could have prevented if I’d been more careful on the easy shots. But I still believe that one day I might be good enough to step up to the tee, take a slow, deliberate swing and get a hole-in-one. It’s not likely, but it is possible.

February 21, 2008

Katherine Applegate's newest novel

It's easy to cherish a friend who allows you to have a good, long cry without being affected by the ugliness of sadness unleashed in its liquid form. Every now and then, a book comes along that offers a similar kindness, immersing and indulging us in its great sadness for our own good.

Home of the Brave, Katherine Applegate's first stand-alone novel for children, has that distinction. In the sparest writing possible, Applegate, who also wrote the enormously popular Animorph series for children, brings forth Kek, a Sudanese boy who comes to America after his country is overrun with violence and chaos. Through Kek's eyes, readers see the incredible abundance of America. Revealing Kek's mind, Home of the Brave turns the American world-perspective upside down, yet remains patriotic and heroic. As an example of a cultural identity that's far from our own, Kek sees advancing age and wrinkles as a badge of honor. Here, he describes a new friend:

"She has many wrinkles
to show her great knowledge
of the world."

I am usually tempted to say that children shouldn't read sad books. In this case, I make an exception. Maybe our kids will be better adults than we are, learning suffering and horror from a gentle child who manages to avoid becoming hateful and angry. Perhaps as adults they'll feel a greater call to action than we have when they read the headlines of some future disaster in a poor and distant country. Kids and adults will walk away from this book more aware of their blessings, more convicted about sharing the world's resources with our brothers and sisters both here and abroad. Add Kek to your list of friends with whom you can have a good cry.

For more information on Katherine Applegate's latest releases, visit her web site, http://www.katherineapplegate.com/nonflash.html

Learning to wait

It’s the middle of January, the middle of winter in Indianapolis. I’m on my twelfth and last errand of the day. Standing in line at the post office, I watch it spit snow while I wait my turn. I wonder how it is possible that I’ve come to devote at least one full day each week to running errands. There are no children in my household. No soccer games. No band practice. No karate lessons. Maybe there’s something I’m not doing right that leads to this many errands and this much wasted time. What could I accomplish with fifty-two days a year?

I am not alone in my restlessness. A long line forms and we’re all standing around with a glazed-over look, trying to be patient, resigned to the poor-to-mediocre service we get from the United Postal Service. Deep down everyone wants the same thing--to move through this blasted line as quickly as possible. While I wait, I begin to ponder how I could change my life to leave more time for important things. No clear answer s emerge. I eavesdrop on the conversations around me, hearing half of some and all of others.

A young bald man is solving a problem with his client over a cell phone while he waits his turn. I hear only his side of the conversation, but I can tell he’s a good man, polite, soft-spoken, willing to bend. An elderly Indian couple are deciphering the mysteries of a postal form at the center island—purgatory for postal patrons who’ve been sent there because they selected the wrong form on their first trip through the line.

A young Hispanic couple stands at the counter a long time. I imagine the family to be tending to passports, sending money or some other complicated transaction that ties them up longer than the regular crowd. Their three little girls play noisily until the couple decides to rein them in. The youngest starts a game of peek-a-boo with me before she is snatched away.

At the far end of the counter, a middle-aged woman chats up one of the nicer postal clerks. “How did you get your hair like that?”she says with admiration. The clerk's wiry curls resemble a flocked Christmas tree, brown at the roots, blond at the tips. The clerk admits it’s an unintentional effect. “Actually, it was all blond. I’m just letting it grow out.” They spend several minutes sorting through her packages until their perky banter becomes like white noise. Finally, the woman exclaims brightly, “Well, that sounds so easy. Why didn’t I think of that? What a relief! Thank you!”

We observe this exchange in shock. The woman is joining the throng sent to purgatory because they haven't completed the necessary forms! Her cheerfulness is such a contradiction to her present predicament (and ours) that we can hardly avoid the collision inside our brains. Is she insane?

A woman behind me breaks into a broad smile. The man just ahead turns to me and says, “My, but I’ll bet she was easy to surprise as a child.” Our perky subject is oblivious to this swipe at her demented good-humor. She simply heads dutifully toward purgatory to complete the correct form. Talking to herself (ever cheerfully), she wonders about the correct zip code for her package. She notices the Indian couple next to her, fumbling through their forms. “Here, do you need a pen?” They don’t understand. She fusses through her purse until she finds an extra pen to offer them. She repeats her offer slowly. “Need a pen?”

By now, there is just one person between me and the last item on today’s to-do list. I think of the times I’ve gotten this close only to have one of the clerks go on break. I am so close and yet so far away. The potshot ahead is still shaking his head at this insufferable fool when she looks up and greets him enthusiastically.

“Oh, hi!” she says. “How are you? How is your wife?”

“She’s fine,” he says uncertainly.

“Oh, good. I’m so glad! Listen, I want to talk to you when I’m done here. I’m really sick NOW! It’s in my liver AND my pancreas,” she calls back to him over her shoulder, hustling toward the clerk who has beckoned her back to the counter.

A stillness comes over the potshot and I. At that moment, both of us have two peculiar realizations: 1) The woman he mocked knows him. 2) She is mortally ill, but happy to be out doing her errands.

We’re exasperated about waiting. She’s exasperated about cancer. As if to explain himself, he turns to me. “I’ve known her for years, but I just didn’t recognize her.”

“Sometimes, that happens,” I nod, not knowing what to say.

Meanwhile, the perky cancer patient has been invited back to the counter. When she’s finished, Potshot is invited to take her place. Leaning on the counter, half facing the clerk, he cranes his neck backwards toward the perky cancer patient. “I wanted to ask a favor,” she said. “I stopped by the church to see Pastor Paul the other day, but he was out. He’s always so busy! Would you tell him you saw me and ask him to come visit me? You can find my name and number in the church directory. My name is Deborah W--------.” He nods. Yes, he knows her and he will ask.

Perhaps it isn’t such a chore to wait in line. Why is it so hard to remember that even the mundane moments are precious?