Not long ago, I had the pleasure of going back to my alma mater, Western Kentucky University, to speak to students in the Department of Communication as their Alumnus of the Year. Dr. Helen Sterk, the department head, had asked me to talk with students in the department about, among other things, what had provided the best training for giving conference talks, speaking at meetings with current and potential clients and the like.
While I give much credit to some great instructors I had during my time at WKU, I think my answer surprised many of the students there: My most beneficial training had come from appearing regularly in front of a couple hundred pro wrestling fans at the Ohio County Park in Hartford, Ky., which is—as the sign reads—"Home of 2000 Happy People & a Few Soreheads." I always played the evil owner of our local pro wrestling league, Universal Championship Wrestling.
Perhaps not surprisingly, that revelation received a few shocked expressions from the faculty and quite a few laughs from students. But I went on to explain why "the squared circle" of small-town pro wrestling shows was the perfect training ground for more engaging, more relevant, and more responsive public speaking. Here are lessons pro wrestling can teach us about becoming better communicators:
- Know what you want to say, but don't script it. Too often, industry conferences are filled with people who have nothing to say aside from the miniature book they've crammed into their PowerPoint presentation. (Considering our technological luck at Peppercom when we go on the road, we'd never make it out of a new business meeting alive if we based our whole presentation around our slides.) When I first started working in marketing and corporate communications, I fell victim to jotting down everything everyone said I "had to mention" in a new business meeting and found myself clutching to ticking everything off the list. And that style is always destined to, at best, bore the audience and, at worst, crash and burn. In the wrestling ring, no one has weeks to memorize their lines; there's no option for reading. And the audience, especially at small-town shows, forces you to think on your feet. If you can't adapt as you go, you'll find yourself lost in front of a couple of hundred fans who are unlikely to show much remorse. A few mental bullet points and a few good lines you know you want to get in are all you can afford yourself.
- Listen to your audience. Wrestling fans aren't shy about what they think. As all of these examples show, they will let you know what they think in the most direct way possible. As a villain, I wanted to inspire anger but never boredom. The moment I quit getting a reaction was the moment I had to start changing up my performance, or move on. And I learned that through much trial and error. I remember one segment that sounded good in planning but stretched on 30 minutes in reality, with various wrestlers interrupting and coming out. It set the stage for every story we wanted to have for the rest of the show, but we had to wake the fans back up to watch it. I can remember an early business meeting where an eloquent set of points I wanted to make on paper translated to a CEO who looked to be dozing off in reality. It was moments like that which reminded me that I needed to go back to the lessons I learned "on the mat."
- Be ready to adapt. Wrestling is live performance art. Things don't always go according to plan. Sometimes, someone else goes off script. In one of the shows I was in, a wrestler who started taking his role a little too seriously decided to, impromptu, take the show in a different direction and attack me. I had to, as they say, "roll with the punches." In another show, a wrestler pinned a man upside down and the person playing the role of referee, inexperienced with wrestling's rules, counted the illegal pin even though every fan in the arena knew this was bogus. I jumped up and proclaimed the match had been officiated under new rules that I'd put in place. The audience went from having their "suspension of disbelief" ruined and thinking we had no clue what we were doing back to thinking I was the evil puppeteer working behind the scenes to keep their heroes from winning their matches. In corporate communications, you never know when a presentation might take an unexpected turn or a colleague, or you, might make a major misstep. You have to be prepared to take things in a different direction on the fly, if the need arises.
- Be colorful. Pro wrestling is a place for larger-than-life characters and lines that shock and anger the fans. My character, as the evil owner, was supposed to be a bit of a snob who looked down on fans. When our attendance was low, I'd claim that I would have to quit putting on shows at the end of the month, because the welfare-dependent wrestling fans needed their "lazy and crazy pay" to afford tickets. At one show, I offered an open contract for anyone from the crowd to sign up to beat me up. I taunted everyday wrestling fans; women (my mother was in the crowd.); an elderly man (my grandfather was in attendance, too.); and even our two wrestling commentators, one of whom was wheelchair-bound and the other of whom was a little person. By the time a "real" wrestler came out of the crowd to accept my challenge, the whole audience couldn't wait to see me get my head bashed in. While I wouldn't advocate that marketers aim to be offensive or to play the villain on the stage of a business meeting or industry conference, being a contrarian, delivering a provocative line, and staying true to the character you develop for yourself are all essential elements of corporate communication.
- Be funny. Wrestling fans comes to see over-the-top antics and ridiculous story lines. In one show, my cowardly "owner" character finally said he would be ready to step into the ring and battle a longtime nemesis. Then, when match time came, I came out in a wheelchair and neck brace, claiming I'd slipped only moments before on the icy sidewalk outside the park building while having a pre-match spearmint gum. The fans yelled in anger as I introduced my replacement—a burly wrestler—and especially when, toward the end of the match, I leapt from the wheelchair to interfere and cost their hero the contest. As the fans booed in disgust, I claimed my recovery had been because of miracle water I was drinking at ringside and then summarily offered the same water to the local pro wrestling commentator, who was wheelchair-bound. The fans booed in great disgust and of course were delighted when, later, I received my just deserts. But the key to getting them engaged, even when they were angry, was in making them laugh.
- Know your role. For the above scenarios to work, I had to embody my character. This was in my hometown, and many of the fans knew me personally. I had to be offensive enough to anger them without being so offensive that I hurt anyone. Most of all, I had to get the fans riled up but not get in the way of why they were really there: to see wrestlers perform. When my talking and antics dragged on too long, I heard it from fans, and you could fill all the energy leak out of the room. We went from being a "big show" back to the reality of being a bunch of guys dressed in costumes with little more than a flimsy curtain separating the so-called dressing room from the stage. For every panel or business meeting I've been in, my trial-and-error in the wrestling ring has been very instructive. I have to remember when I'm supposed to be on stage, and when I'm not. After all, every speaking engagement is an ensemble performance.
- Remember that your audience is performing, too. If the wrestling show is a team show, the hardest-working members of that team are the fans. I remember being at one show where a little boy was taunting me the whole show. He yelled at me every time I came out on stage with some quite colorful insults. Then, at intermission, I met him in line at the porta-potty (a glamorous life, performing at small-town pro wrestling shows). I expected a particularly rough insult. Instead, he smiled and said, "You're doing a great job out there." I smiled in return and said, "You are, too." Not to worry; the nicety wore off a few minutes later when we were both back on stage, and he was back to hurling verbal barbs my way. A business presentation is no different. People have come to share their work, network with other professionals, and build their own career. So you have to think about your performance as an ensemble involving everyone in the room.
- Interact with your audience. Good pro wrestling performers know that people don't come to local shows to sit and watch. They come to cheer on the hero and to engage in arguments with the villain. They are there to perform, and they are looking for wrestlers who give them a chance to play their role and get involved in the show. Business presentations are no different. Give the audience as many openings as they can to get involved. If you aren't there to recite memorized lines, you can get all your material in along the way.
- Put yourself in your audience's shoes. In order to do everything I've described above, good pro wrestling performers must know their audience and have to be able to read everything they say and do from the audience's eyes. For the villain, what will inspire them with anger without truly offending them by going too far? For the hero, how can they acknowledge the fans and get them behind them without pandering? How do you give the fans time to breathe between big moments and the chance to shape where the performance goes through their feedback? The majority of successful wrestlers were fans first, and they know how to empathize with fans because they've been in those seats as a spectator. And being able to think about everything you say from the audience's point of view, rather than just thinking about what you'd like to tell them, is crucial for successful business communication.
- Ground your performance in truth. Many expert pro wrestling performers have said, "Your character works best when it's just you with the volume turned up." For my pro wrestling character, I played Sam Ford, the local newspaper columnist who left Kentucky for the greener pastures of grad school and, later, employment on the East Coast. I complained about having to come back to Kentucky for shows when things had "gotten too out of hand." I bragged about my vast wealth and success. When one fan complained that I talked too much and she wanted to see more wrestling, I pointed out that I was the successful owner and she was the lowly fan who had paid her money for a ticket with no refund, so I could do as I pleased. When a little boy started taunting me, I took to lecturing his parents about raising him with no manners and how such parenting was what was wrong with society today. When I did my job well, I made people momentarily forget that they actually knew me and become convinced, within the show, that I was a jerk who needed to be taught a lesson. And, while I exaggerated and said many things I didn't really mean, I always started with a kernel of truth to exaggerate and extrapolate from. Again, while you don't want to insult your professional audience, your performance will only resonate if you focus on knowing who you are and building your performance on what is real and what is true.
In my time at Peppercom, I've had the chance to participate in stand-up comedy training as part of my professional development. The lessons from stand-up are much the same. (And it's one of the reasons Peppercom now leads "Comedy Experience" sessions for companies.) So, while I've never challenged anyone to a fight during a client meeting nor have I taken to crass insults lobbed at South by Southwest attendees, I've found my time spent in a wrestling ring invaluable.
Even if you don't want to take the step to put on the Spandex and lace up your boots (for my audience's sake, I'm glad to say I never went to those lengths...), I'd recommend you go to a local wrestling show at the armory or that old furniture store in town someday. There's much you can learn, and the presentation you save may be your own.
Sam Ford is Director of Digital Strategy for Peppercom Strategic Communications, a Futures of Entertainment Fellow, a research affiliate of the Program in Comparative Media Studies at MIT, and an instructor with Western Kentucky University's Popular Culture Studies program. He was named 2011 Social Media Innovator of the Year by Bulldog Reporter and serves on the Membership Ethics Advisory Panel for the Word of Mouth Marketing Association. Sam is co-editor of The Survival of Soap Opera with Abigail De Kosnik and C. Lee Harrington and coauthor of the forthcoming book Spreadable Media with Henry Jenkins and Joshua Green. Follow him on Twitter @Sam_Ford.
[Image: Flickr user beast love]