Step Up To The Plate And Outside The (Batter's) Box

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I'm getting nervous before we're even through the bottom of the first inning, and that's before my Blackberry illuminates yet again to indicate another incoming e-mail. My opponent has just nabbed an "in these challenging times" reference sending his runner to first base and pushing another run across the plate. Now I'm losing 2-0.

Ten minutes earlier I had agreed to a game of Meaningless Clich? Baseball with another reporter who is covering the same conference as I am. We are the Julio Francos of the conference coverage game, greeting each other with a worn out "Can ya believe we're still doin' this?" and aware those around us are shaking their heads with a "Man, they've been around the game a bit long" comment. Between the two of us we've been to every hotel, airport, and rental car counter in the country, with the frequent guest/flier/renter program points to prove it, in the process living a giant, perverse lifestyle paradox in which we are rewarded with exactly what we don't want. What we really secretly desire is a Stay At Home points program, sort of a Get Out Of Jail Free card that can be invoked when you just can't bring yourself to start packing again.

Suddenly, my speaker comes through with a strong pair of back-to-back singles. "Work harder, not smarter," intones the session speaker, followed almost immediately by the equally inane, "You do better work when you work better."

In the game of Meaningless Clich? Baseball, a hit is scored every time a conference speaker uses a clich? as part of his or her presentation. Baseball has games of pepper, we have the occasional salty observation. Baseball has the relief pitcher, we've got the silver pitcher of icewater pitcher. Baseball has its bullpen, we get to listen to a lot of bull. Because this is a contest between myself and another grizzled member of the media, our game has the moral underpinnings of a match between the Chicago Black Sox and a team managed by Pete Rose, so we've agreed to e-mail each other every clich? for Official Scorer approval before putting a man on base. We had our choice of four conference sessions to choose from, each a sure-fire, can't-miss, box office smash, goldmine of clich? potential. We had played rock-paper-scissors, instead of the coin toss, with my opponent winning and wisely choosing a session on "Future In Jeopardy! Capturing The Gen X, Y and Beyond Member." Always lots of clich? fodder there. But methinks my esteemed media rival has miscalculated, because among the other choices was "Transformational Leadership." Heck, the title alone is a ground-rule double of clich?s, and the speaker is a consultant, to boot. As part of the rules of the game, we had also both agreed beforehand to each select one word or phrase that would be an automatic grand slam. My rival, veteran of the conference world as he is, opts for any reference to "brand loyalty," and I cringe. Given his session title, that's like sending Barry Bonds to a T-ball game. I mull my choice, consider the speaker and topic, and finally choose each and every reference to Starbucks. Now it's my opponent's turn to grimace; he knows you can't be a conference speaker without citing Starbucks, which has just recently begun batting lead-off in the lineup of clich? conference references, just ahead of Southwest Airlines.

I get another e-mail. My opponent is gloating that his speaker has just scored a roundtripper with his first reference to "brand loyalty." Speakers on the subject of Gen X and Y typically spend the first half of their remarks firmly proclaiming that these consumers are absolutely not brand loyal, then spend the remainder of their session urging credit unions to make such consumers loyal to their brand. With the grand slams, my opponent is up 10-zip and all I've got is two bags filled. I'm beginning to think my choice is like the U.S. team at the World Baseball Classic-all hype, no ring-when suddenly my speaker morphs into Ted Williams. First, three consecutive references to the session title, "transformational leadership," followed by a classic meaningless clich? I haven't heard dusted off in a while, "paradigm," and almost immediately by a newey-but-a-baddy buzzword, "change agent." Now it's 10-4 and we're getting into the fourth inning (it's a 45-minute session and mentally I've divided it in into nine five-minute innings) and I'm counting on my speaker to demonstrate he's the tortoise, not the hare, that the race doesn't go to the swiftest or the strongest, that slow and steady...well, you've heard the clich?s.

The Blackberry buzzes again. My opponent wants a ruling. His speaker is citing "brand disloyalty" more often than chicken fingers can be found at a reception. He believes it should be a grand slam; I, suddenly a stickler for the rules, say it's a single. Still, the five references push another two runs a cross and it's 12-4, but I've got the optimism of a Yankees fan. My speaker is prattling on about leadership, which is not the same as actually leading but is a whole lot safer, and tosses out references to "enterprise-wide innovation," "active listening," "transformational culture," and a PowerPoint slide that reads, "Webster's defines leadership as..." The folks around me have no real idea what this guy is talking about, and neither do I, but who cares the way I'm scoring? But now it's the eighth inning, and I need my leadership guru, whose bio doesn't seem to include any actual leadership posts, to start swinging for the fences. I hear the crack of the e-bat, as my opponent Blackberries that he just scored an "e-relationship." Doesn't matter. First, my speaker, who fittingly says he is a "coach," loads the bases with "synergy," and then keeps right on hitting ropes with "strategic," "cross-functional teamwork" and "relationship-enhancement."

Still, I'm looking for my rally cap, as a lineup of single hitters can't cut it in the National Clich? League, when "coach's" presentation switches to steroids mode. First, a half-dozen references to Southwest Airlines (which, given his speaking fee, I don't believe he would consider flying), before the caffeine-fueled grand slams start coming with PowerPoint slide after PowerPoint slide about everybody's favorite overpriced coffeehouse and the new grand staple of conference keynotes.

In the bottom of the ninth I pull it out with a 24-23 victory, thanks to 45 minutes of lots of style, little substance. But hey, it's the American pastime.

Frank J. Diekmann is Publisher of The Credit Union Journal.

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