Thursday, October 03, 2013

Out of the park: Is that where your metaphors land? @maxatkinson explains

Max Atkinson speaking at the European Speechwriters
Network. I'm in the chair's chair at left.
"That was wonderful. You really hit it out of the park."

I'd just finished a talk to a small group, and one of the attendees leaned over and said that to me as we were getting ready to part ways. Normally, I'd be delighted. For the baseball fan that I am, "out of the park" signifies a crowd-pleasing hit, an automatic and dramatic type of home run because the ball can't be caught. But we were in London and the attendee was British, so I was mainly confused. I love a baseball metaphor, as you know if you've seen Ivan Oransky's TED talk on over-medicalization, one in which we worked out a comparison to the baseball movie Moneyball. London was simply the last place I expected to hear "out of the park."

Turns out I shouldn't have been so surprised. A couple of days later, I chaired the European Speechwriters Network conference, where British communications researcher Max Atkinson cited the growing use of metaphors involving baseball in his country. Speaking on "How well does English really work as a common language of communication?", he confirmed the trend and pointed out that sports metaphors can get us in trouble even in a supposedly shared language:
....metaphors do sometimes need handling with care, especially in the case of sporting metaphors.
As a native speaker of British English, I often find myself bemoaning the fact that we have imported so many baseball metaphors from American English, even though it’s not a game that's played or understood by most British adults.
But that doesn’t stop us having to listen to fellow British presenters telling us about “Going up to the plate” or “getting past first base”.
Cricketing metaphors may be fine for speakers of English in Australasia, the Caribbean or the Indian sub-continent, but they're not much use in the USA, or indeed in the rest of Europe.
I'm glad to know my instinct was correct. I may not speak what my British friends call proper English, but I know that baseball metaphors don't belong in a British sentence.

Sports metaphors can be incredibly useful tools, particularly when you want to describe movement (advance down the field, kick it over the goal posts), progress (hit it out of the park, score, touchdown), victory or defeat. Baseball as a metaphor can help you describe in shorthand matters of time (extra innings), it being a game famous for having no time limits. But when you don't consider the audience, as with any metaphor, the meaning and significance of phrasing your message may well be lost. If the metaphor's dated, out of sync with the age group or language of your audience, or just incomprehensible, your efforts are for naught. (I could have said "you'll strike out" there, but you see the problem with that, don't you?) With multilingual audiences on the rise and a global communications network available, attention to our shared values and pastimes is even more essential when deciding whether to use a metaphor.

I sent Max this Jason Sudeikis video, in which the actor plays an American football coach who has taken over coaching a British football (soccer to Americans) team; the video was done in honor of NBC bringing non-American football to prime-time sports viewing in the U.S. It  underscores how effortlessly and thoughtlessly we toss sports metaphors around. Max's next open course on speechwriting and presenting with impact will be in London on October 10 and 11, and you can learn much more from his book Lend Me Your Ears: All You Need to Know about Making Speeches and Presentations.


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