Let’s start with full disclosure: our family watches American Idol regularly. I’m not terribly proud to report this; it is one of the more poorly-produced shows on television and many of its stars are self caricatures. But it is an opportunity for a family with two headstrong teenagers to actually engage in an activity together, and as I think about it, not since the Carol Burnett Show has there been good singing on television. And most of the time, the singing is good.
As I watch the contestants perform in front of live audiences and large television audiences, I cannot help but try to draw parallels to my chosen profession. But when I really think about it, few exist. American Idol might be a fast track to fame for a chosen few, but the rest have to play by rules that few others have to. Idol contestants are typically victimized by three things:
- They are amateurs. Most of those who make it deep into the competition have had no experience before large audiences and do not know how to engage them. In many cases, even simple performance skills—such as how to hold a microphone or how to move on stage—elude them. This is not meant as a criticism; the rules require that they be amateurs. Simon Cowell conveniently forgets that fact, a few of the younger girls cry, everyone boos him, and it all makes for good television.
- The standard is impossibly high. This too makes for good television and these kids certainly learn about poise in the face of pressure and strength of character in the face of criticism. But here is my pet peeve: all you regular viewers out there, what is the most common criticism leveled against the contestants (after being “pitchy,” a word I had never heard pre-Idol, despite growing up around accomplished musicians)? Bad song choice, right? They are constantly being harangued for not choosing the right songs. Yet of all of the teen and young-20s pop stars in the top 100 at any one time, less than 50% of them write their own songs or choose which ones to cover. They have producers and studio executives that do that for them. Why are these amateur singers being asked to do that which most of today’s professionals do not even attempt?
- The scrutiny is extreme. I need look no further than our family’s debate du jour. One of my favorite singers this season is Crystal Bowersox, an unpretentious and wickedly talented young woman. She is everything that is good about Idol—an unassuming mom from a town in Ohio that would probably never have been discovered were it not for Idol. My wife, Becky, however, does not think as highly of her as I do. While she likes Crystal’s voice just fine, she describes her as “too earthy.” That might be a completely legitimate point of view. Bowersox is not glamorous, does not dress particularly well, and puts on no airs whatsoever. Becky’s right, she is earthy. But I have to wonder: Of all of the artists in Becky’s iPod, in how many cases does she know what the singers look like? In most cases, we like our singers because they sing well—we have no idea about anything else. For all she knows, maybe half of Becky’s favorite artists are earthy. One of my new favorite bands is called Porcupine Tree and I don’t know the first thing about them. Maybe they look like porcupines. On Idol, if you look like a porcupine, you’re not going to win.
The profession of public speaking is different, and thank goodness! Of course your appearance makes up part of a first impression; this is America, after all, where actors can be elected Governor and President and Sarah Palin can, um, be Sarah Palin. But in most cases, audiences care more about whether you can deliver the goods. In a land where “Death by PowerPoint” is in everyone’s lexicon, business presenters don’t have to do a whole lot to distinguish themselves from others. It is not nearly as important what you look like or whether you know how to hold the microphone properly. If you know how to craft an engaging message, if you can speak with passion, and if you can get out from under their slides, you are going to do well.
I don’t mean to suggest that these are easy things. Getting an audience to feel the weight of your message can be very difficult (especially if you get buried by overladen text slides). But they are much purer challenges than the ones with which Idol and other reality shows saddle their contestants.
All of this said, there is one aspect of American Idol that has made its way to our discipline as presenters. As the legions of Twitterers continue to gain traction, your audience can vote on your presentation as if it were a performance. Imagine, your very own Simon Cowell, telling you that your presentation was self-indulgent and horrific.