HR & Management

Communication techniques from the world of sport

6 min read

10 September 2015

From cocktail parties to the campaign trail, Beth Levine, author of "Jock Talk: 5 Communication Principles for Leaders as Exemplified by Legends of the Sports World", examined the public comments of athletes and coaches, to illustrate four foundational communication principles.

I view communication as the everyday currency of business; it’s how we get things done. Our success is ultimately determined by interactions with employees, customers, communities, suppliers, shareholders, regulators, and other stakeholders. And while most organisations and executives have a mission statement, and many articulate a set of core values – for how they conduct business or treat each other and customers –most overlook standards, goals, or guidelines for communicating. 

Communication is actually the channel for executing a company’s mission, its values, and its expectations for excellence, accountability, productivity and efficiency. How else could these be realised?

A recent study in the Journal of Marketing Communications finds a causal link between communication effectiveness and economic performance. “Companies that align communication with the corporate mission and strategy score significantly better not only on ‘soft’ measures such as image and awareness but also on ‘hard’ economic measures, especially on relative market success in the industry.” 

In summary, the more effective a company is at communicating – internally and externally – the greater the company’s general performance. Perhaps most telling, the Journal found that companies whose executives support improving communication, and recognise its economic value, performed better than companies without supportive leadership.

Similarly, Cheryl Snapp Conner recently wrote in Forbes about a new study that finds a connection between a CEO’s presentation skills and the pricing of an IPO. Executives that have a confident and commanding presence actually increase the value of their companies’ IPOs.

A lot of people, including Connor, found this pretty amazing – myself included. But it confirmed for me what I have been saying for a long time: that a focus on communication adds value to a company. And I do not mean just some amorphous value of customer and employee goodwill, but actual performance value. Like these two studies show, companies and executives that value and are skilled at communication perform better financially.

Athletes are often unfairly underestimated intellectually but in many cases are smart, quick-thinking decision-makers.

After all, a team will play more than eighty games during a typical US basketball season, offering numerous opportunities for top players to face the press. That’s far more frequently than most CEOs address any type of audience.

US fighter Muhammad Ali, who vowed to “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,” is as renowned for his dazzling utterances as he is for his boxing prowess.

Ali knew exactly what he was doing and was always very prepared. It’s risky trying to go out and be clever, but the audience eats it up and it marks your personality. The key was that his lines were always brief and punchy.

Another saying of his goes like this: “It’s hard to be humble, when you’re as great as I am.”

By contrast we have Jurgen Klinsmann, who’s the coach of the US football team, that knows that transparency comes hand in hand with a great speech. He was asked in 2014 what the American chances were of winning.

He said: “Right now it’s pretty much impossible. For an American team going into a semi final, it’s possible. Getting the American team one day in to the top four at a World Cup will give this country such a boost.”

He was a realist. It’s ok to be that transparent.

Then there’s Susie Wolff, who is trying to become the first female formula one racer in 40 years. She’s actually also very transparent, but she’s mainly incredibly humble.

“My frame of mind is to optimise every time I’m in the car,” she said. “To learn as much as I can, to make sure I’m always improving, doing what the team expects, and then seeing where that brings me, because it’s very difficult in this environment.”

She is a great role model for the 21st century corporate leader. The norm now for exceeding in a leadership position is to be gracious.

Then there’s Tiger Woods, who in his apology press conference said sorry for his personal behaviour. 

“I am deeply sorry for my irresponsible and selfish behaviour,” Woods said when he admitted to being unfaithful. “I owe it to my family to become a better person.”

But it was only when he spoke about his business interests being effected that his voice and his energy became much more animated.

He said: “My behaviour has caused considerable worry to my business partners, to everyone involved in my Foundation, including my staff, board of directors and sponsors.”

We need to give Woods credit for holding a press conference, and for any individual organisation that has a huge issue or dark cloud. It’s really important to get out in front of it. The key here is to prepare ahead, and to ensure that your words an emotions are completely aligned.