Running a business, evaluating talent, leading others, communicating from the front of the room or in front of the business all share several things in common with doing play-by-play in an NFL broadcast booth:
- They require your complete, undivided attention to do them well
- You have to be both in the moment and aware of what’s coming next
- You have no room for error and not a shot at perfection
And when things are going well, there is no place you would rather be. I know I feel that way.
Having broadcast a dozen seasons as the voice of the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens, I’ve gleaned some valuable insights from the broadcast booth that apply to my businesses of helping leaders evaluate their teams and helping professionals and organizations engage, amaze, and influence audiences.
I hope you find the insights helpful in your business and communication journeys too.
Show up Prepared But Be Willing to Move Off Script
The NFL broadcast booth requires more than ten fold the amount of time in preparation than in execution. A game takes about three hours. Getting ready for the game takes considerably longer.
Preparation is a Time Investment
Here’s a look at my game flipcharts. These take hours to prepare each week. They have information on both teams, every player, each team’s offense, defense, special teams, coaches, anecdotes, and milestones. It’s essentially a weekly business plan.
This is just one team’s offensive chart. You get the idea. They’re filled with information.
Here’s the catch: the preparation never perfectly matches everything that happens in a game. Sometimes something you don’t expect or prepare for becomes the driving force of the game story.
For example, you prepare copious notes on the visiting team quarterback and he gets hurt on the first drive of the game. Just like that, everything changes. You have to change with it.
Business & Presentations Work the Same Way
Sure, sometimes you can see big trends coming but other times the climate changes over night. A new tax, a disruption to a foreign government, an election outcome—all things out of your control—can force you to make a decision: stick with the plan or move off script.
If you stick with the plan it won’t work because what you planned for has changed. Your plan is largely irrelevant. Moving off script can save the day, but only if you have a script to move off of.
That’s why preparation is crucial, but trusting your instinct that your preparation no longer matches the circumstances is equally important.
Don’t Get Ahead of Where You Should Be
In the 2011 AFC Championship Game, with time running low in regulation, Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco threw a pass to the end zone where Ravens receiver Lee Evans got his hands on the ball. As soon as Evans touched the ball, I said, “Touchdown Ravens” because it looked like a sure touchdown. No sooner had I said that than a Patriots defensive back reached out and knocked ball from Evans hands.
But I had already called a touchdown. I had essentially lifted the lid on euphoria, giving every Ravens fan a glimpse of making a trip to the Super Bowl.
I had to retract it. Or at least try.
“No, he can’t hold on. Incomplete.”
It only took me a nano second to reverse course. But I shouldn’t have had to. If I had let the pass attempt play out and stayed behind it instead of getting in front of it, I wouldn’t have put the audience through the agony of misleading them.
The Experience Applied to Business
As business leaders we make the same mistake when we get ahead of ourselves, make presumptions, put too much weight on expectations, and see with our hearts instead of with our eyes.
That one play taught me to follow just behind the ball and not get out ahead of it when I’m broadcasting a game.
Every business has a “ball” too, a driving force that everything else follows. What’s the “ball” in your business?
Whatever it is, stay just behind it and not out in front of it. Sometimes the ball takes strange bounces. Those moments are easier to adjust to if you haven’t erroneously committed to something that hasn’t happened yet.
Get into The Game, Not Just The Outcome
No one likes to lose. I get that. We all want to win. But you don’t get to win all the time. And sometimes, you don’t influence the outcome. But you always have influence over the input.
If I just put my best effort into broadcasts of the games I thought the the Ravens would win, I would be cheating the audience. I would also miss some amazing experiences.
It’s Not Just About Winning in Broadcasting or Business
Some of my favorite broadcasts have actually been in games the Ravens lost. I couldn’t control the outcome, but I was totally present, totally engaged, and on-point in the broadcast. That’s my job as a broadcaster. Be present. Be on target. Paint the picture.
In presentations, we can’t always control the quality of the audience. We can’t always control if the audience is going to get it.
In business, we can’t always control if we win or lose but we can control our commitment to the process.
I like to tell presenters that I coach that there are three types of presenters:
- The ones who just get through it
- The ones who just do it
- The ones who get into it
I always get to choose how I approach a broadcast. I always try to choose option three: get into it.
You always get to choose your communication and leadership style. Whether you are leading a company, a department, or a workshop, the more you get into, the more your followers will too.
Sure, you’ll still face the sting of a disappointing outcomes sometimes, but you will never again face the sting of a disappointing input.
Call What You See, Not What you Expect
Listen to the Crowd
The crowd in a broadcast is far more than just the backdrop, the background noise. I consider the crowd a partner in a broadcast. The crowd has something to say. Sometimes the crowd speaks with pure emotion. Sometimes the crowd speaks from a place of insight. Sometimes it speaks from a place of frustration or from expectation.
Whether or not the crowd should know better, whether or not you agree with the crowd is irrelevant. It’s still important to listen to the crowd. Sometimes when the crowd is grumbling or booing early in a game, I’ll even say, “Listen to this crowd.”
The crowd always has an opinion. And the crowd wants to be heard.
Business Has Crowds Too
In business, the crowd can be an audience or a marketplace. Fail to listen to the crowd and before you know it, the crowd might tune you out too.
Let me underscore this point: The crowd isn’t always right. You don’t have to follow the crowd. You have to acknowledge the crowd.
It works that way in a business leadership and business presentation too. A lot of people who have lived in palaces, real and metaphorical, found themselves out on the street because they didn’t listen to the crowd. They didn’t factor the crowd into the conversation.
Crowds (Audiences) Matter in Business Presentations
In presentations, it helps to acknowledge where the crowd is coming from—even if you disagree:
“I know you are upset, but I want to share an insight…”
“I hear what you are saying, but here is what I see that you might not see…”
“If I’m hearing you correctly, then you want XYZ. I hear you. But if we do XYZ, we also run the risk of…”
The crowd doesn’t really want to be right. The crowd wants to be heard.
Listen to your crowd and make sure your crowd feels understood. A crowd that doesn’t feel understood becomes a crowd that stops showing up. Good luck with your business when that happens.
Rely on More Than Just Your Own Eyes
In 2017 the Ravens were playing on the road in Nashville against the Tennessee Titans. Midway through the first quarter, the Titans made a substitution at running back. They put a rookie named Adoree Jackson in the game. He wore number 25. I looked at my flipchart. I didn’t have a number 25 at running back for the Titans. My heart skipped a beat. Who in the hell is number 25?
Fortunately my spotter, the person who literally gives me another set of eyes on the field, recognized what was happening. The spotter was my son Zack. He quickly flipped to the defensive side of the flipchart, spotted number 25 and pointed him to me just as the Titans handed the ball to Adoree Jackson, number 25. I didn’t miss a beat because I relied on more than just my own eyes.
Leaders Can’t See Everything
Play-by-Play taught me that. Leading your organization or department is a lot like broadcasting a game. There are dozens of moving parts, countless considerations, a stream of split decisions you have to make. And you can’t see everything—no matter how much you can see.
Having people around me whose skill set, instincts, and talent I trust expands my ability to adjust to the unpredictable without getting caught off guard. And because I can trust in more than just my eyes, I can keep my eyes focused where they need to be, on the ball, the clock, and the flow of the game.
Your Leadership Vision
Where do your eyes need to be as a leader in your organization? Where are your blind spots?
Trust what you see, but know that you can’t see everything. Rely on more than just your own eyes.
This holds for presentations and speeches too. Ask the people around you who you trust how they see the situation, what they see as the key points, how they would handle approaching this group. They may see some things you are missing, some things that can make the difference between success and failure.
The NFL broadcast booth is a high pressure environment. Failing to prepare is a shortcut to failure.
Bt preparation alone won’t guarantee success. You have to make split second decisions, accept that you won’t be right every time, and still move forward to the next split-second decision, adjustment and unpredictable moment.
Critics will eagerly point out your shortcomings without having ever once done your job.
And if I’m guessing correctly here, what I face every Sunday in the broadcast booth whether in Baltimore, Denver, Nashville, or Cincinnati, probably sounds a lot like what you face every day and every week too—and certainly every time you stand in front of the room leading a presentation, conducting a meeting, or giving a speech.
Here’s to continuing the journey in business, in broadcasting, in presentations and striving to keep learning, keep growing, and keep getting better.
For now…the Hay’s in the Barn!