What "The Office" can teach us about crafting more powerful messages

In episode ten of season five of The Office, Oscar Hernandez walks into his boss Michael Scott’s office. In his hands are a series of papers stapled together. The papers break down final costs over the past year for the Scranton branch. As Michael goes through the papers, Oscar explains how the branch did very well. Michael pretends to understand what he’s looking at, but after a few glances gives us.

He asks Oscar, “Why don’t you explain this to me like I’m an eight year old?”

Oscar says the papers break down the overall budget for this fiscal year. Assuming Michael understood any of that was a big mistake. Michael is every bit as confused when Oscar first started. Sensing this, Oscar skips to the last page and points out the highlighted number. This number is the budget surplus for the branch. It totals $4,300. Oscar explains that if that amount is not spend by the end of the day, they will lose $4,300 off next year’s fiscal budget. 

At this point, Michael is completely lost. He puts his hand on his head, turns to Oscar, and asks, “Why don’t you explain this to me like I’m five?”

Oscar decides to create an example for Michael. He said his parents have given him $10 to build a lemonade stand. After going to the store and purchasing cups, lemons, and sugar, Michael discovers the items he needed for the stand only cost $9. As a result, he has an extra dollar leftover which he gives back to his parents. This starts to make sense to Michael. 

Oscar explains the consequences for giving this dollar back by sharing what will happen next summer. Instead of giving Michael $10 for the lemonade stand, his parents are only going to give him $9. That’s what they think it costs to run the stand. They won’t give him more than what they think he needs. To avoid losing this dollar, Oscar explains it’s much smarter to spend the dollar now so his parents believe the stand costs $10 to run. Michael understands. 

“So the dollar is a surplus. This is a surplus,” said Michael.

Bingo. Oscar uses this point of common ground to relate it back to the office’s current situation. Michael agrees and understands the importance of eliminating the surplus they currently have. He just isn’t quite sold on Oscar’s pitch for a new copier…. (you’ll have to watch the end of the episode to learn what they decided to do).

Let’s play a game. Below are three different thoughts designed for hitters. Your goal is to match the thought to the situation we just observed between Oscar and Michael. 

Which one represents Michael’s initial reaction when Oscar handed him the spreadsheet, Michael’s second reaction when he asked for an eight year old explanation, and his final reaction when he wanted to be treated like a five year old?

  1. Stay back while you go forward 
  2. Work your back hip into external rotation and counter rotate with your torso as you spread your center of mass into foot strike
  3. Land in a position where you’d want to throw a punch

Let’s see how you did, starting from the top.

All three thoughts are describing the same exact move: The forward move. All three use different verbiage to describe the same exact thing, but resonate completely differently. As a result, not all of them are going to be equally effective. They might all work, but there’s one that stands out from the rest. We’ll explain why below.

Michael’s initial confused reaction can be best replicated using our second thought: “Work your back hip into external rotation and counter rotate with your torso as you spread your center of mass into foot strike.” This thought is a walking word salad. You have several anatomical terms packaged into one big message that is nearly impossible for any kind of player to comprehend. How many players even know what external rotation is in the first place?

Better yet, do they really need to know it happens at all?

In Chip and Dan Heath’s best-selling book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, one of the biggest communication blunders they see is caused by “The Curse of Knowledge.” This includes any kind of situation where the messenger doesn’t think like the receiver. They think like the messenger. When Oscar initially walked into Michael’s office, he knew exactly what the numbers and charts said. The problem was that his boss didn’t. When we think the receiver understands something we do, we run the risk of the Curse of Knowledge. What we know blinds us from what others don’t know.

If we go back to the hitting thought, we see a similar pattern. Coaches with an anatomy & physiology background can easily visualize what external rotation of the hip and counter rotation or the torso look like. The problem is most of our players don’t. Trying to talk to them using gross anatomy is like talking to Michael Scott using spreadsheets. The message might be well intentioned, but it’s not addressing the audience. If you think like the sender, you’ll never connect with the receiver.

Michael’s second reaction can be described by the first thought: “Stay back while you go forward.” While it’s noticeably dumbed down, it still lacks clarity. Stay back and go forward are simpler terms, but they have a number of different interpretations (not to mention, they’re contradicting). Stay back with your hands? Legs? How far back? When do you go back? How do you stay back while also striding at the same time?

It’s simple, but it’s not comprehensive. This is part of the problem Oscar ran into. He tried to make sense of the data and charts by explaining basic office terminology (e.g. fiscal budget, budget surplus). The problem was that Michael did not understand these terms. Your average businessman would have no issues understanding the significance of a budget surplus, but Michael Scott does not fall under this population. As a result, a disconnect still existed between the sender (Oscar) and receiver (Michael).

Oscar couldn’t just rely on simple terms. He had to find a way to paint a picture. This is where schemas come into play.

Schemas, as explained in Made to Stick, are mental markers embedded in our memory that help us recall specific information. The best way to explain them is to use an example. If you were to describe to your friend with no knowledge of hockey how good Wayne Gretzky, you can do it two ways. The first is where you’d list out the accolades, records, championships he won throughout his career. The second way is where you could use a schema: Wayne Gretzky is the Michael Jordan of basketball.

Both strategies work, but the second is often much more powerful. It’s also a lot easier, too. Without spending the time to explain Gretzky’s specific accolades, all you have to do is use the schema of Michael Jordan’s illustrious basketball career. It paints a pretty clear picture to your friend: Gretzky wasn’t just a good player. He was one of the greatest players of all time. Breaking down the records set and championships Gretzky won doesn’t resonate the same way when you put him in the same sentence as Michael Jordan. We’re not looking to say the most. We want to pack the most using the least.

This is exactly what Oscar did for Michael.

When Oscar created Michael’s lemonade stand analogy, he was using a schema: Running a lemonade stand. In order to get onto common ground, he had to start with something Michael was familiar with. In this situation, running a lemonade stand was the perfect way to bridge their gap in misunderstanding. He could communicate a ton of information about businesses without making Michael feel like he was taking a business class. When Michael showed some understanding, Oscar was able to slowly relate it back to their situation in the office. He leveraged his schema to paint the perfect picture. Something that started out as abstract became concrete through the use of a carefully crafted analogy. 

Our best coaching interventions often follow the same pattern.

Our third hitting thought represents Oscar’s art work: “Land in a position where you’d want to throw a punch.” This thought utilizes the a key schema: Throwing a punch. Without mentioning anything about where you should land as a hitter, the thought of throwing a punch creates a strong blueprint for action. Punching isn’t something that we just see in our heads. We can feel it. Without telling a hitter to work into external rotation, counter rotate their torso, or land in a strong, centered position, we can accomplish all of those things because we can feel strong positions vs. weak ones. This is the power of analogy. You’re using less verbiage (e.g. schemas) and simpler terms to create a more powerful message. 

If you’re having issues getting through to your athletes, try thinking like Oscar. How can you break down a complicated concept using carefully crafted analogies and schemas so your athletes can better understand your message?

We’ve already put together ten of our favorites if you need some inspiration: The Power of Analogies: 10 you can start using today.