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.

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