Leading Meeting Professionals

Professional Convention Management Association

July 2014

American Graffiti: Eric Wahl Shakes Up Meetings

As told to Christopher Durso

The graffiti artist and author of Unthink: Rediscover Your Creative Genius paints onstage as a way of helping business professionals get in touch with their own creative spirit. He’ll deliver the opening keynote at DMAI’s 2014 Annual Convention in Las Vegas this month — sponsored by Convene.




I decide what paintings I am going to perform as I watch the energy of the audience fill the general-session room. However, the painting plays a very secondary role to the content of the messaging. The painting is my hook — an “aha” moment — to capture the audience and release them from the boundaries of a traditional keynote experience and let them know we are going on a journey to a more unconventional blending of entertainment and education.

The paintings are also selected after I know the exact demographics of the audience. I am not going to paint Lawrence Welk if my audience is 18-year-old sales professionals, and I am not going to paint Miley Cyrus if my audience is 45-to-55-year-old financial-service professionals. Then a careful selection of music and inspiring video are woven into the fabric of the choreography to create a multimedia experience — in three minutes. My goal is to catch the audience off guard and create a wow experience.

I don’t just talk about creativity using pie graphs and analytics. I show them in real-time how to unleash their own creativity that has been dormant for years, because it catches them off guard. Firstly, it catches them off guard that they are watching an artist crank rock music and paint a recognizable portrait with my bare hands in less than three minutes, and then it surprises them again that this long-haired Gen X graffiti artist actually knows a great deal about competitive landscapes in every industry and business, how to amplify brand identity, navigate social-media ambiguity, how to build trust with customers and provide actionable substance to drive business growth and maximize ROI in a rapidly changing economic landscape.

We have a lifetime of all thinking the same standardized way, whether it is reading or writing or studying the Harvard Business Review. I submit that there is tremendous opportunity to grow market share and anticipate emerging trends in future markets by letting go of traditional notions of “marketing,” “sales,” “leadership,” etc., and having the courage to create opportunities that your competitors never even dreamed possible — like Uber, Airbnb, Tesla — and possibly that your valued customers did not yet know they even needed. Breakthrough thinking is one idea away.

I have found some of my greatest creative breakthroughs occur when — are you ready for this? — I am laser-focused and militaristically disciplined. The paradox of creativity is that structure creates freedom. I am a naturally creative spirit who has built my business with extreme orderliness and attention to detail. The strength of this structure gives me greater confidence and freedom to create.

In studying the masters, Beethoven sat down every day at daybreak, regardless of season, and composed until 3 p.m. Kafka started writing at 11:30 p.m. each night. Mozart taught lessons by day and composed only in the evenings. Picasso ate lunch each day with his family in silence and only allowed visitors one day per week. Mark Twain awoke at 5:30 a.m., ate a hearty breakfast, and wrote until 5 p.m. When fanatical discipline is combined with empirical creativity, the challenges of mental fatigue and mind blocks are no match in the pursuit of excellence. The only thing these individuals have in common is the rigidity of their daily routines, carving out the pockets of quietude to listen to their inner creative voice.

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