Paraprosdokian: (n) a figure of speech in which the latter part of a sentence or phrase is surprising or unexpected; frequently humorous.

Why am I leading with an SAT word that sounds like an instrument you hope your doctor never has to use on you?

Simple answer: I love them (f.y.i., so did Winston Churchill).  I find them very helpful in describing an unusual circumstance or relieving a stressful situation.  Some of my favorites include:

  • “Where there is a will, I want to be in it.”
  • “If I agreed with you, then we’d both be wrong”
  • “Since light travels faster than sound, some people appear bright until you hear them speak.”

Yet one paraprosdokian in particular seems most appropriate for many of the civic campaigns I see these days — “To be sure of hitting the target, shoot first and call whatever you hit the target.”

Let me explain.

In most civic campaigns, you start with an idea, a hypothesis, or a target.  In other words, we start with the change or outcome we want to see happen as a result of our efforts.  It might be getting a specific piece of legislation passed or repealed.  It might be a change in zoning laws that allows for an industry cluster to locate and grow, or a collective action taken by the community to keep a park, pool, or school open.  Whatever the campaign, it starts with a target.

But almost invariably, even as the civic campaign progresses through all the elements of a successful effort – research; identification and recruitment of champions; coalition building and maintenance; and monitoring the political, social and economic environment – the original target might move.

For example, a longstanding target for advocates for quality public transit in Pittsburgh has been finding a dedicated funding source that can grow over time. This has long seemed to be the best target not only for funding critical public transportation, but also a way to help with housing development, traffic flow, construction costs, greenhouse gas emissions, etc.

However, during the course of a civic campaign to establish a new, dedicated “tax” for public transit, public pressure is significant, but resistance from legislators towards a new tax is so strong that the state funding is shifted instead to put more money into transit – without a new dedicated tax.  The target of a single dedicated funding source that can grow over time has changed to something different. In other words the target has moved, but you still hit it.

Another example would be an economic development initiative started almost 15 years ago in Pittsburgh called the Digital Greenhouse.  Its target – using a new approach for combining public and private funding, academic research universities, and workforce development agencies – is building an industry cluster in Pittsburgh specifically focused on new computer chip-based technologies.  It was intended to do more than just create a handful of companies, instead creating a whole new industry ecosystem.  That was the original target, at least.

While it had some limited success in reaching that original goal, it has had far more success ever since it developed a whole new target.  That new goal was the creation of a new economic development model, which subsequently led to the highly successful creation of a life sciences industry cluster.  In short, the target has changed from the digital systems industry to a whole new economic development model.

So what are the lessons to be learned about hitting targets in civic campaigns?

1.Be flexible and prepared to adjust strategy – you can virtually guarantee that changes will occur during the implementation of a campaign, so be prepared to adjust your aim.

2. Keep your eye on the ball and you will hit the right target – it just might not be the original one you were aiming for!

3. Celebrate “modified” wins – it is important to recognize that you did indeed hit “a” target, because bigger wins often follow in the wake of these smaller ones.

Got a story of your own about a target you reached, a target you changed, or a target you just can’t seem to hit?  Share it below!