Promo ability is one of the most highly debated topics in wrestling.
If you've ever been discussed pro wrestling on the internet, you've probably had to argue about whether a specific wrestler is a good promo or not at some point. Preferences are, of course, dictated by personal taste and biases, and everyone will have a different opinion on what constitutes a "good promo". What these debates usually lack is in-depth reasoning about why we prefer certain promos over others.
I'm not suggesting there is anything inherently wrong with liking something "just because". But in my case, I've noticed that it's not so much based on random enjoyment of specific performers, but rather on common factors that shape my opinion on the promo ability of wrestlers, both in a positive and negative sense.
Most of these factors revolve around authenticity.
Let's all agree on something. Wrestling acting is generally bad. While there are some exceptions, when we compare acting in pro-wrestling to that of actual films, it just doesn't look good.
There are several reasons for this: pro-wrestlers are generally not professional actors; they have to perform live, and they have far less time to plan and rehearse their performances. That is bound to somewhat hurt the authenticity of the delivery of promos.
Furthermore, pro-wrestling promos have historically had a very specific style when it comes to delivery or the way dialogues are structured. While we're past the yelling and over-the-top intensity of the 80's, influences from that era are still perceivable in today's landscape. And we're probably never going to move away from the odd concept of people communicating via big uninterrupted speeches.
The very nature of speaking in professional wrestling is very strange because it is completely and utterly unnatural. I've never met anyone able to utter a perfectly eloquent ten minute speech, and it's not exactly the sort of thing I'd expect someone to do while preparing for a fight. The problem is exacerbated when multiple people are in the ring, exchanging ridiculously long monologues which they're supposedly coming up with on the spot.
But this in itself doesn't irk me that much, since a strong delivery and compelling, realistic content can usually make up for the lack of authenticity. Plus, it often fits the character: Bray Wyatt is a cult leader, so it makes sense that he cuts long, semi-poetic promos; Paul Heyman is essentially a hype man at this point, so his long eloquent speeches fit the task he's been given; and the Miz's obsession with being considered a top Hollywood actor makes his (not overly) theatrical mannerisms a little more logical.
My issues with this sort of speaking format derive from two things.
The first one is delivery. So many wrestlers in WWE are so disingenuous in the way they speak, to the point where the fact they're playing a character becomes so evident it actively hurts my enjoyment of the product. Things like flow, tone, and cadence are so important in conveying genuineness. Many wrestlers show too little emotion and deliver their promos in a monotone and uninspired manner. These are your Colin Cassidys, Apollo Crews, Kalistos, Nikki Bellas and (as much as it pains me to admit it) Baron Corbins of the world.
But as grating as those people can be on the mic, they are nowhere near as abrasive as our "overactors". This group includes people like Charlotte, Natalya, Enzo Amore, and perhaps the worst of the bunch, Dolph Ziggler. The first group gets more of a pass from me because some people in real life can actually be a little monotone. But the people listed in the second group are literally unable to come across as real people, which makes it so difficult to buy into whatever they're doing.
A particular individual on that second list also exemplifies another issue with the pro-wrestling promo tradition. Wrestlers often tend to get a little too cute with the way they script and structure their promos (isn't that right Mr. Amore). Indeed, the aforementioned problem of long monologues is made even worse when promos are overly topped with rhetorical devices, little jokes and excessive wordplay. It makes the promo feel scripted, and that never a good thing, because of that "authenticity is good" thing I'm trying to argue.
Some wrestlers have been able to find a good balance between the employment of catchphrases and wordplay and realism (Chris Jericho, for instance), while others have not. The latter group includes Enzo Amore, in many cases John Cena, and certain Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson (hot take alert).
So this is the point where you're all wondering "So, who's actually a good promo in your books huh, you pretentious smark?" The answer is simple: people who sound and come across as real, and are able to express emotions without sounding phony or over the top.
My perfect example is Kevin Owens. The man is, in my opinion, the most genuine superstar in WWE right now. While he's able to cut a baller angry intense promo, the calm and somewhat sassy tone he employs most of the time comes across as very authentic, because it's almost conversational (Similar praise could go to people like Samoa Joe and Alexa Bliss). I believe that this sort of tone is part of the reason people love Talking Smack so much, because it makes interactions and dialogues feel real.
Owens' promo ability is complemented by some of the best facial expressions in WWE, and by his occasional use of stuttering, which makes his promos feel less polished and rehearsed and therefore more authentic (a technique often used by another excellent and very realistic promo in Becky Lynch).
The main thing that separates Owens and other equally brilliant promos from the rest, however, is the fact that they've been able to find their unique voice. This is not so much a delivery or performance issue, but it concerns the content of the promo themselves. Building on my original point, not only is acting in pro-wrestling kind of subpar, but so is the writing.
Again, WWE creative is only to blame to an extent. Writing quality content for multiple hours per week without any breaks, while also having to accommodate a micro-managing 70 year old man with bad taste is a difficult task and the quality of the writing is going to take a hit as a result. But WWE scripting is often so unnatural, by the numbers, stale and repetitive that brief glimpse of non-scripted content can make a huge difference.
As fans, we've become so good at identifying particular lines that creative REALLY wanted to hear on TV, and quickly dismiss them as lame, and rightfully so. Things like Roman Reigns' "One versus all", or Rich Swann calling Neville a "Royal Sourpuss" make us cringe, because they feel unrealistic, forced and artificial. Whenever something someone says doesn't fit the mould, it really stands out.
What is the best part of New Day's promos? The catchphrases, the part when they explain the current angle, or the short lowkey comments Kofi and Big E often make under their breath? Personally, it's that last one, because it comes across as improvised and authentic. Give me a "And that'll be Charlotte in a year" comment over any Booty O's talk.
And it doesn't necessarily need to be improvised, it just has to feel different from WWE's usual writing. I don't know if someone on creative gave Alexa Bliss the line "Say hello to obscurity for me", all I know is that it feels too wonderfully sassy to be something WWE came up with. Maybe someone backstage came up with Kevin Owens' "I am cute, thank you for noticing" comment, but that's so far from the style of humour WWE does that it feels fresh and different.
Most importantly, it feels real. So much of what WWE puts on television feels contrived and unauthentic. And I fully understand pro-wrestling is always going to be inherently campy and somewhat goofy to an extent. I don't need for Raw to feature Oscar-level acting, but efforts to make the show, and particularly the promos feel a bit more genuine would go a long way in making the shows feel more compelling.