Here’s something that my close friends know about me, that most people don’t — I’m a huge pro wrestling fan. I grew up right when wrestling was becoming big in the late 1980s. I watched the WWF and NWA on Saturday afternoons, stayed up late to watch Saturday Night’s Main Event, and would watch pay-per-views when they were released on VHS. Later, I was a fan of RAW, Nitro and ECW on cable, and read “insider” newsletters that revealed what happened backstage when the cameras stopped rolling.
Though pro wrestling today is a billion dollar media and merchandise machine, its traditions go back over a hundred years, to when it was a brotherhood of traveling toughmen. Certain trade secrets and business lessons from pro wrestling have been passed down from generation to generation. Some of these made a lot of sense to me, and I’d like to share ones that are especially relevant today.
It’s All About Storytelling
While wrestlers use the squared circle and microphone as their canvases, everything they say and do is part of telling a story. They establish who their character is and what they believe in. They tell their story through their mannerisms and words, their ring gear, and their actions. The wrestler must show the audience who they are, and most importantly, make the audience care about them. Characters force the audience to choose what values they identify with. Successful characters are loved or hated, but never evoke indifference.
Think about your own branding. Is your company message clear? Do people know what you stand for and what differentiates you from all of your competitors? Most importantly, do you have customers who your message resonates with? Has your business built a tribe? An initial part of storytelling is establishing the character of your business.
The most memorable storylines in wrestling history use common themes that elicit visceral emotions. Recurrent themes include betrayal, jealousy, revenge, deep-seated fears, family rivalries, patriotism, friendship, love, overcoming obstacles and transformation. We relate to characters that undergo challenges and eventually overcome them. The best stories occur where the protagonist and antagonist have logical motivations and they both believe they are right. The viewer becomes emotionally invested as the stories move forward. The more nuanced and slower the story unfolds, the better.
The goal is to get your prospects and customers emotionally invested in your business. Ideally, they will follow you as you overcome adversity and grow. If they identify with your story, they can become your advocates. This is the holy grail of brand storytelling.
Use The Time You Have To Make An Impression
A solid reputation takes time and experience to build up, both on a wrestling card and in the arena of business. In both cases, trust isn’t given right away—decision makers will see if you can prove yourself with larger and larger tasks, until your reputation is firmly established. If you are a new business, or fledgling entrepreneur, you are competing for attention and trust.
Prospects are unlikely to become customers right away. They must hear your name, and see examples of your expertise several times before they decide to make an initial purchase. Like a wrestler climbing the ranks, newly launched businesses must use whatever time they get in front of their audience to show poise, attention to detail, and passion for their craft. Your business may not be a main event brand yet, but if you look and sound professional each time a customer finds you online, eventually they will trust you and buy from you. Use whatever time and attention you do receive to convey the personality and benefits of your business.
Make the People You Work With Look Good
In the wrestling world, there’s an unwritten rule that you don’t “bury” anyone that you’re working a storyline with. Two opponents can have a beef, but they should never, ever verbally deprecate the skills or accomplishments of their opponent. Storylines are designed to elevate both competitors at the end. While one must ultimately win and the other must lose, the audience must see both grapplers as being on a comparable level. They must see each confrontation as a competitive battle. If one person in the story continually diminishes the other person, the audience sees that second person as a lesser star and eventually, a joke. If a wrestler defeats an opponent who is not in the same league as them, it elevates no one, and the feud is waste of time.
How does this relate to design? If you are a designer, and you constantly vent about your clients on social media, it diminishes their value, and eventually makes you look poor for working with them. Even if you do not name these clients and you are making snarky comments about them, it makes you both look foolish, and it makes you look like a glory hound.
Wrestling has been able to continue for decades because each generation of stars helps to elevate the next generation. If you are a designer, it is your job to do that same job of elevating your client. Even if they do not know what they are doing, even if they are not ready for it—it is your job to educate them and establish them to the best of your ability. Never do or say anything that will diminish your client in the public eye. Making them successful will make you successful, so be mindful of your words.
Be Authentic, Be Interesting
@ttimsmith I've been thinking about that a lot. Being 100% authentic, but also being interesting, telling a compelling story.
— John Locke (@Lockedown_) May 1, 2014
A saying you’ll hear a lot of wrestlers say is that the best characters are an extension of the real person, but “turned up to 11”. A wrestling audience responds to a character that feels authentic, not contrived. The communications on your website should also be authentic. It is easy to get caught up in saying things you think people want to hear, or phrasing things in the same way that others do. Page copy that is loaded with industry jargon is disingenuous, and makes your business seem the same as everyone else.
Instead of mimicking the rest of your industry, you’ll have to work to find your own unique voice. If you find writing difficult, try recording your speech, and writing that down so it sounds like you. Don’t like writing? Try making a video series or launching a podcast instead. Close the gap between how you sound in person and how you present information online. Be authentic, not a vanilla clone that is devoid of personality.
It’s not just what you say, it’s how you say it. Writing website copy is like cutting an effective promo in the ring. In order to move people to action, you must speak with a combination of conviction, logic and emotional appeal. Talk like you would if you were face to face with a customer, bringing your knowledge and passion for your craft with you.
Find One Person, and Speak To Them
Finding a market for a product or service is something many businesses struggle with. This process usually begins with interviews, surveys, and other research to determine a problem that needs solving. Sometimes products are created to fill the needs of a specific person the founder knows. Instead of creating avatars of ideal customers, a product targets an actual person, and their need is also shared by other people in a similar situation.
Jake “The Snake” Roberts, considered to be a master of ring psychology, talks about this concept in this clip from the 1999 documentary, Beyond The Mat. Listen to the section from 3:04 to 4:04 on how everything he does in front of the crowd is designed to tell a cohesive story. He talks about choosing one person in the audience, and melting them into their seat. By focusing on performing for just one person, the belief and emotion that is generated spreads through the crowd organically. That is powerful stuff.
The Road Will Own You
Journeyman wrestler Buddy Wayne has a saying, that “the road will own you”. This refers to the rigorous schedule wrestlers must keep, driving to a new city every day, checking into the hotel, getting a workout in, finding a nutritious meal, arriving to the arena, doing their match, and repeating the process every day. For main event stars, this schedule becomes even more demanding. Even highly disciplined wrestlers can have a hard time coping with burnout.
As entrepreneurs and business owners, we often push ourselves to extremes in order to succeed. We need to realize that we are not automatons, and we need to budget time for rest, exercise, nutrition, and our relationships if we want to avoid mental and physical burnout. The 14 to 18 hour days that are glamorized in startup culture can chew us up and spit us out if we are not careful. Be wise, and don’t let your own personal road own you.
It’s Not What You Make, It’s What You Keep
Most wrestlers have a limited time in which they will achieve peak earnings. If they’re lucky, they will spend years sacrificing their bodies and building up their popularity so they can have a few good years where they can capitalize. Because of this, a well-known saying among wrestlers is, “It’s not what you make, it’s what you keep”.
This should be a lesson for everyone.
What I get out of this is that you need to be intentional with how you allocate your money. A person who earns a large amount, but spends it unwisely can end up worse off than someone who earns far less, but protects their earnings. Money is a resource, once harvested, it can be invested or it can be squandered. Make every dollar count for something, and take nothing for granted.
Do you have a useful lesson from another industry that you’d like to share? Let me know in the comments below.