Betsy Ross, Quarterback Incompletions, and the Real Secret Behind How to Communicate Successfully

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It’s July and that means training camp and double sessions aren’t far behind. This makes it a great time to offer a metaphor that may just help you be a better communicator.

How many times have you been watching a football game and see a quarterback throw a perfect spiral to… no one but an empty piece of turf? He had all day to throw, was under no pressure, and seemed incredibly self-assured as he released the ball. Despite all these things going in his favor, he completely missed the nearest receiver by more than a mile.

“Stupid quarterback,” you mumble if he’s on your team.

“Ha! Ha!” you laugh if he’s not.

No matter which colors you’re wearing that day, you might be wrong. It’s very possible (and in fact likely given the circumstances) the quarterback executed the play to perfection. It might not be the quarterback at fault for that incompletion, but the receiver. The receiver could have simply run the wrong route.

Remember, professional football differs from that pick-up game you used to play on some sandlot (or, as in my case, in the street). Back then, those throwing the ball had to establish eye contact with the receivers they’d been randomly paired with.

It doesn’t work that way in the big leagues. Quarterbacks generally throw the ball before the receiver makes his cut. Offensive coordinators draw plays like this on purpose. They want to give the defensive back covering the receiver as little time as possible to react while the ball is in the air. The defensive back, often with his back to the quarterback, remains guessing since only the quarterback and the receiver know for sure where the ball will be thrown.

Unless, of course, the receiver forgets and runs the wrong route.

If you’re a quarterback, there’s only one thing worse than a receiver running a wrong route: a receiver running a bad route. The wrong route takes the receiver and his defender completely away from where the ball is headed. When you see a perfect pass land harmlessly on some vacant field, it’s likely because the receiver ran the wrong route.

This isn’t a bad outcome given the alternative.

When a receiver attempts to run the correct route but runs it poorly, he allows the defensive back to see far more than intended. In the worst case, the defensive back is no longer forced to turn his face away from the quarterback. Often, a poorly run route will not only give the defensive back greater vision, but will place the defensive back in a better position to catch the ball. This is how interceptions are born. Interceptions are far worse than incompletions.

Alas, although the cause of many interceptions lay at the hands (actually the feet) of the receiver, it is the quarterback who is forced to wear the “Scarlet I” with shame.

How fair is that?

When the quarterback and receiver are on the same page, more passes are completed. This puts the team in a good way. It’s more likely to accomplish its goal of winning the game.

Another way of saying “on the same page” is to say they’re “communicating successfully.”

We all want to communicate successfully. It helps us meet our objectives. Those objectives can include convincing someone to buy something you’re selling, getting your boss to agree to give you a raise, or having people laugh at your jokes.

Successful communication, therefore, is a tool of leadership, essential for effective teams, and, all in all, necessary to make life a pleasant experience.

A failure to communicate, on the other hand, often leads to bad things. (Don’t believe me? Just ask – or watch – Cool Hand Luke.)

Just what qualifies as communication. Many people think of “communication” only in terms of words. It’s more than that. It’s how the words are used. Think of the difference in communication between reading the lyrics of any Beatles song and listening to The Beatles sing those lyrics to music. For that matter, what does it tell you when you hear The Beatles sing “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” versus when you listen to William Shatner sing the same song?

There’s more to words than music. Much more. It comes in the way the words may be laid out on a piece of paper, the font used in a logo, or even how they’re ordered in a sentence.

And it’s not just the physical form of the word, it’s the tone in which the words are used

But don’t stop at words. Communication comes in the form of symbols like the clothes we wear, the art we display, and even the colors we choose to emphasize.

Historically, flags have been an important form of communication. Military units through the ages have developed coded messaging systems using flags (and smoke and, later, light and sounds like Morse Code). Perhaps most importantly, flags became the mobile crests that communicated a unifying commonality among groups of people.

All forms of communication – whether words, flags, or hairstyles – break down when people lack – or lose – the commonality necessary for successful communication.

This “failure to communicate” can derive from language barriers, such as when Chevy tried to market its Chevy Nova model to Spanish speaking countries. In Latin, nova means “new,” and “new” is a marketing word that triggers sales. Therefore, a car named “Nova” would be expected to sell more.

As along as the market knows Latin.

Unfortunately, most Romance Languages (which are derived from Latin), fail to remember their roots. When Chevy went to sell its Nova to Spanish-speaking markets, they weren’t thinking the Latin nova, they were reading the Spanish no va, which means “doesn’t go.” Who’s going to buy a car that doesn’t go?

This is a great example of a “failure to communicate,” but not for the reasons you think. In fact, according to, countless marketing textbooks are wrong to use this example. The site says sales of the Chevy Nova didn’t suffer in Spanish-speaking markets. That’s because, in Spanish, the two words “nova” and “no va,” while spelled similarly, are annunciated differently (“nova” emphasized the first syllable while “no va” emphasizes the second).

The sender (Chevy) and the receiver (the Spanish-speaking market) were on the same page. The communication was successful.

Who wasn’t on the same page? The writers of those marketing books. They failed to receive the correct message. They took the wrong route and heard a non-existent message that didn’t exist.

Whose fault is that?

Remember that the next time a quarterback attempts to throw you a message that implies Betsy Ross was sewing a message in stars and stripes that she wasn’t.

Sometimes a bad pass is really the quarterback’s fault.

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