Richard Sherman and the Danger of Misinterpretation in Communications

Posted on January 26, 2014 
Filed Under Media Relations, Media Training

You know how athletes celebrate by jumping in the air and banging into each other? Or develop ritual dances and other showboat-y gestures? This is especially true in football. I noticed in the Seahawks-49ers game a week ago how when the Seahawks scored, they eschewed the dances. They just shook hands. I thought that was a refreshing contrast that to my eye indicated professionalism and focus on an unfinished task.

So when Richard Sherman had his outburst on national TV in a post-game interview, it seemed out of character from the team’s overall approach.

In the days since that interview, Sherman has been the topic of a nonstop national conversation about sportsmanship, classiness, class and more.

And at the core of that national conversation is a cluster of valuable lessons for communicators around things like cognitive dissonance, preconceived notions, stereotypes and most important, understanding that the message you want to communicate might not be the same as what you’re really communicating.

I don’t know what Sherman’s objective might have been when he screamed that he was the best cornerback in the league to Erin Andrews. Maybe he was just caught up in the moment. I read that Andrews said that he hugged her and smiled at her before his rant. The 3.9 GPA graduate of Stanford University and high school salutatorian probably didn’t expect to be labeled a thug. And worse. He probably didn’t expect to become the major sports story in the country for a week and counting.

And conversely, if Sherman had been, say, Wes Welker, he might not have been. Sometimes people see what they want to see, based on their own set of experiences rather than what really happened. Sometimes things are not what they first appear to be. And sometimes those preconceived ideas are very resilient.

Come to think of it, my notion of gentlemanly handshakes, not elaborate dances, is itself a preconceived notion that maybe many others don’t share. Who knows?

What I do know, though, is that image, and message, have to be clear enough, and broad enough, and widely accepted enough to not be susceptible to misinterpretation, whether you’re communicating for a manufacturing brand, a buttoned-down CEO, a Web startup, a non-profit—or your football team.

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