‘This is not soccer’ – communications lessons from Nigel Owens

Referee Nigel Owens gestures to the players during the Rugby World Cup game between Samoa and South Africa at North Harbour Stadium in Auckland, New Zealand, Friday, Sept. 30, 2011. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe)
Referee Nigel Owens gestures to the players during the Rugby World Cup game between Samoa and South Africa at North Harbour Stadium in Auckland, New Zealand, Friday, Sept. 30, 2011. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe)

In case you didn’t notice, the 2016 version of the Six Nations kicked off at the weekend, meaning Europe’s top rugby union stars will be knocking lumps out of each other every weekend until the middle of March. While the games are always enjoyable (especially if they end in a Welsh victory!), another undoubted highlight is the chance to see, and hear, the best referee in the world in action – Nigel Owens.

Now, you might well be wondering why I’m writing a blog about a rugby referee, regardless of how good he is at his job or how funny some of his now legendary quips are. But if you think about it, it does make sense; to keep control of 30 warring gladiators on the pitch, Nigel has to be an exceptional communicator, otherwise the community he is in charge of for 80 minutes on matchday would fall apart.

As such, here’s a few things that we, as communicators and community managers, can learn from one of the most famous match officials in the world.

Lead by example

A lot of people from outside the world of rugby will probably know about Nigel Owens because of his cutting and hilarious quips on the field – lines like ‘this is not soccer’ and ‘you will be treated like adults if you behave like adults’ have gone down in folklore. But being funny doesn’t get you the big gigs – Nigel was chosen to referee last year’s world cup final because he’s the best in the business. He leads by example and has built the trust of his followers, in this case the players on the pitch, and he has earned the right to dish out the witty lines. And therein lies our first lesson; focus your energy on the being the best you can be. Do this, and your audience will respect and trust you and you’ll earn the opportunity to have more fun with it later on.

Be clear

Nigel leaves no-one – whether it’s players on the pitch or his fellow officials – what he decision is and his reason for it. Can you communicate your message as effectively as Nigel can? If not, why not give it another try? (Genuinely didn’t intend the rugby pun there, but now it’s happened, I quite like it).

Know your purpose

As funny and entertaining as he is, I’m sure Nigel would be the first to say that the matches he referees are not about him. He is there to manage the game and it flow – it just so happens that he is wearing a mic so you get his input as an added bonus. This is something you can apply too; your communications should not be about you, they should be about helping things flow and making things happen.

Call out poor behaviour

In a game before Christmas, Nigel told off one of the players for swearing as there would be children watching the match on TV. As a community manager, you shouldn’t be afraid to call out poor behaviour – this is why you should have a set of guidelines as to what is acceptable and act on them accordingly. If Nigel can tell off a hulk of a rugby player for swearing in person, you can definitely call out unwanted behaviour online.

Be funny, where appropriate

If you put in the legwork and make sure people can see that you lead by example, can communicate clearly, you know your purpose and you deal with unacceptable behaviour, you will earn the right to have more fun and be funny. When Nigel brought back a wonky line-out throw and said ‘I’m straighter than that’ (Nigel is the world’s first openly gay rugby referee) it was fine, and hilarious. However, if Nigel hadn’t already proved himself to be an excellent communicator and community manager he might not have felt so free so throw that line out there.

Be sassy, where appropriate

Nigel’s famous ‘this is not soccer’ line has achieved legendary status and, as already discussed, he earned the right to use it. But you, as communicators, can earn that right too – just take a look at the sassy replies dished out by the Tesco Mobile twitter account. Obviously, you can’t away with it all the time, but when used appropriately it can really help improve the bond between you and your audience.

Don’t tie yourself to one channel

As a communicator, make sure you have alternative means of getting your message out there if your normal channel lets you down – for example, what would you do if the dreaded fail whale appears on Twitter? When Nigel’s radio stopped working and he needed to get a decision to the Television Match Official, did he give up? Heck no – he borrowed a mobile phone from one of the team’s physios and talked through the decision using that!

Be conscious of the reasonable onlooker

This is a principle I talk about time and time again when I’m training colleagues at the University of Warwick; when it comes to talking to followers/customers/enquirers online, not only should you answer their question but also be aware of what a reasonable person who happens to see your conversation might think. When you bear in mind that 80% of most social networks are ‘lurkers’ who never engage with you but watch and build an opinion of you, you have to demonstrate that you can talk to people in a professional, helpful and reasonable manner. Take the time Nigel called all 30 players in to give them all a telling off – not only did this do his job on the pitch, but everyone watching in the stadium or on TV would surely have come away from that incident thinking what a competent referee he is and how reasonably he dealt with the situation, thereby ensuring that their opinion of Nigel was still incredibly high.

Be generous to everyone in your community

Where do you think Nigel was sent to work for his first match after officiating in the world cup final? An Autumn international? A glamorous European tie? Try a Welsh village match instead. A week after the game’s biggest showpiece, Nigel was to Gowerton RFC for their match against Crymych RFC. Did Nigel treat those amateur players differently? Not in the slightest. In fact, he was praised for helping the game flow even better than matches at that level normally would and he took the time to meet fans at the game. Whether it was a country’s star fly half or a small village’s fullback, Nigel was as generous with his efforts to both of them. If you can offer this kind of equal and generous treatment to all of your followers/audience, you’ll do just fine.

See more about Nigel’s visit to Gowerton in this BBC Wales piece.

So there you have it – a few genuine communications lessons you can learn from Nigel Owens, and not just a flimsy attempt for me to get some sport into my blog! What do you think? Are there any other Nigel-isms that are relevant to communications and community management?

*Image sourced via Huffington Post 


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