Could it be time to set aside the Magic Football?

Could it be time to set aside the Magic Football?
March 27, 2020 Beth Nyland

Who’s on your mind right now?

In this uncertain time of the coronavirus, the people I’m thinking about are:

  • Striving to stay fit and sane while honoring social distancing rules in a crowded metropolitan neighborhood
  • Navigating a new “workplace” from a makeshift home office, having just started a new job on Monday
  • Terribly disappointed they won’t get to perform in plays and concerts that have been indefinitely postponed and likely will be cancelled
  • Out of work because Employer B delayed their start date by two months—just days after Employer A accepted their resignation
  • Running a small business, striving to keep working while clients slash budgets, reduce headcount, and reprioritize projects while everyone works from home
  • Suddenly experiencing distance learning in their final semester of college (and anticipating a “graduation” that may amount to a diploma delivered by mail)
  • Trying like mad to manage fears of illness, job loss, and isolation from loved ones
  • Dreading the eventual return to “normal” life, because “shelter in place” comes with an anxiety-relieving pace and solitude

And that’s just my immediate family.

When Jill and I help clients craft business stories—messages designed to influence change, challenge thinking, and motivate action—we always start with audience: Who do you need to reach, and why? The better you know your audience, the better you can choose the right time, place, tone, and substance to start a conversation.

To illustrate this kind of audience awareness, we use the Magic Football.

See this bubble?

This bubble represents the stuff that matters to you, the one with something to say. It’s a relatively small container, because you’re communicating for a reason. You’re focused on achieving a particular outcome. And because it’s about YOU—what you know, what you want, and how you feel—you know its contents very well.

Now look at this bubble:

This bubble stands for everything that matters to your audience, the person you need to reach. It’s way bigger than your bubble, because your audience cares about a helluva lot more than you and your priorities. You may have a general idea of what’s inside this bubble, but to get a specific understanding, you’d have to make assumptions or do some research. (And you should.)

Now, let’s put the bubbles together:

See that intersection, where the two bubbles overlap? That is the Magic Football.

The Magic Football is the sweet spot where you and your audience share some interest or experience or desire.

The Magic Football is common ground.

In close, friendly relationships, this intersection may be a little wider. But in contentious business relationships—say, between an aggressive seller and a skeptical buyer—this wedge can be hard to find. When common ground is not immediately obvious, it’s worth investing effort to find it. Why? Because the inside of that Magic Football is where you start a compelling (read: persuasive) conversation.

But right now, our common ground isn’t much of a mystery. The world over, the coronavirus has given people a shared set of circumstances—an uncomfortable plot of common ground that seems to be growing under us all.

The pandemic is our Magic Football.

I think about the “small talk” I’ve experienced these past few days. We aren’t killing time chatting about weather, sports, or political primaries. Nope. We’re discussing the virus. Everyone can talk about it, because everyone is experiencing some kind of emotion or fallout from it.

And these conversations are not about persuasion. (I beg you not to devolve into unhelpful, unhealthy competitions for “who has it worse.”) Before we can get down to the business of being compelling again, most of us need at least a little empathy and expression. We want to understand and be understood.

We’re asking questions like “How are you holding up?” and “Is there anything you need?” and answering with responses like, “I’m really nervous/scared/angry/confused/insert-your-emotion-here.” and “My hands are raw from all the hand soap and sanitizer.”

It’s useful to acknowledge shared struggles. But can we agree not to stay there?

While we’re in this uncertain time, when our Magic Football seems occupied by a scary situation we cannot control, let’s have conversations that explore the outer reaches of our bubbles. Who knows? Maybe we’ll discover unexpected intersections way out there on the edges.


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