What American Idol has to Teach Professional Speakers:
(Or: Everything I Need to Know I Learned from Taylor, Carie, and Fantasia)

Okay, I admit it. I watched it. I ogled each week. I confess: I enjoyed American Idol. There, I said it. It’s not like I have a Clay Aiken action figure… at least not that I’ll admit.
However, if you’ll indulge me for just a bit, I’ll show you how American Idol can teach speakers a thing or two about rising to the top of the crowded and talented world of professional speaking.

Aside from the universally accepted wisdom of The Simpsons, Lessons from the FOX network have just gotta be few and far between, but there is something to be said for what American Idol can teach us as professional speakers. And that lesson is that talent and content are important, but in order to reach the top you need more: you need a unique and engaging personality. Let me explain.

Last season, I watched as the long lines of seventy thousand contestants were slowly trimmed down to the top thirty-two singing contestants; each of them dripping with talent. And then the top thirty two — all of whom I would pay money to see perform (well… I might pay a little…maybe…. ) — were trimmed down to a single winner. With so much talent, how could one winner be singled-out? The answer: State Primaries! Oh, that’s a different contest.

No… to win the American Idol you have to be hugely talented. And you need to pick out the right songs, and you need to be fun to watch. But talent isn’t enough; you also need to have a remarkable and unique individuality. And you’ve got to be able to showcase your original personality right alongside your talent. Your personality has to be visible to the audience.

Wanna be a great magician? Guess what? In order to separate yourself in a marketplace crammed with talented entertainers, you need to learn what those kids learned on prime time TV: rely on just your magic skills, tricks and “lines” and the Simon Cowells in your audience will call you “dreadful.” You’re voted off. You’re fired. You get the home version as a parting gift.

In case you have no idea what American Idol is because all you do is read The Economist and watch PBS — allow me to bring you into modern pop culture: Seventy thousand kids auditioned for a musical talent contest. The winner, the next American Idol, would be America’s next pop sensation. After several eliminations, the field was reduced to thirty-two finalists. Obviously, to get that far among such a huge talent pool means that the top thirty-two were special. They all had amazing voices, natural skill, and huge amounts of talent. They were all darn good.

But as we saw them compete, it was clear that some of them just didn’t have ” it.” Sure they were good, and a few of them were very good. All of those top thirty-two were outstanding. But most of them still left us wanting more. Why?

So I set out to find the missing piece of the puzzle. I studied them each week… I thought about their performances, and I talked about them with my family. (After all, nobody’s gonna admit they watch the show to people who aren’t family.) I read commentary. I checked the website. And one fact became obvious: I need a hobby.

But seriously, the more I watched, the more I realized I had watched most of the contestants before. Well, not them, but their acts. They were very good imitators of pop stars that have come before, ie. Whitney Houston, Celine Dion, Elton John. They danced just right. They shut their eyes at touching moments and clenched their fists during intense lyrics. They were just the right type of cool and hip. They looked at the camera, worked the crowd, and said all the right things. But to me — and apparently the rest of the audience that eventually voted them all off the show — it was mostly just over-planned, over-practiced choreography. It was just shtick they thought made them look like a pro. It wasn’t unique. It wasn’t special. And most importantly it wasn’t real. It was just young people trying hard to act how they thought a pop music star is supposed to act. It reminded me of myself early in my career when I tried to mimic Nate Liepzig’s accent. But I digress.

In the end, a young man named Taylor Hicks was named American Idol 2006. He was as talented as the rest; I thought he was fantastic. But more than his musical skills, his personality was unique and refreshing. He didn’t cover up the real Taylor with some made-up version of a rock star. He did not resemble another contestant or imitate another celebrity. He didn’t have any rehearsed-looking gestures or moves. He was himself. And now he is number one. Sure, he had tons of talent, but so did the rest of those young singers. Sure, he was rehearsed, prepared and coached. But so were the rest of the group. The reason Taylor Hicks won was because he was the singer who was the best at being himself on stage. His distinctive and one-of-a- kind personality — and his ability to show us this personality — set him apart.

Of course the other finalists had personalities, but they didn’t know how to make their individuality available to us. They never let themselves come THROUGH. We never saw them… we only saw the rehearsed and prepared version of a rock star they wanted us to see.

American Idol offers a huge lesson to us as professional presenters. Too often speakers (and even entertainers) cannot make it past the finalist stage. They have the talent. They have the skills. They know how to do the trick, pause just so, and to work a crowd. They might even be able to make you cry or make you laugh. Whatever. But without the ability to showcase a unique and individual personality they never progress beyond that. They have the same clothes, gestures, stories, and expressions as other “stars” who came before them. But they fail to go on to the final round because they have failed to speak with their own words… from their own self.

Think I’m wrong? Name your favorite celebrities in ANY field and you’ll find that they all have totally unique, definable, and likable personalities. For example, in the world of comedy consider Bill Cosby, Jay Leno, Ellen Degeneres, Billy Crystal, Chris Rock, and Herbert Finkle. Any of those stand out? Of course! Herbert Finkle…. He just copied other people’s style and material and never made a name for himself. The others didn’t follow anybody else’s road map. They don’t act like anybody else. They are just themselves — and we love them for it. They’ve created their own mold.

So what’s my point? In our pursuit of excellence in the magic and entertainment world, I’m suggesting that you work hard to define your own personality and work hard to make your unique, special and remarkable individualism show through to the audience. Yup. You gotta have skills, talent, and even shtick. But… if you’re gonna be on top… if you are going to avoid an insult from Simon Cowell … you’ve gotta be yourself. Just like Taylor.

Check out my work as a professional speaker and humorist to see if I can get my personality out there by clicking here.

Brad Montgomery
Professional Speaker, Comedian, and Closet Idol Fan

© Copyright 2007 Brad Montgomery Productions, (Denver, CO_

Read More:
American Idol and Professional Public Speaking?

1 reply
  1. Corporate Sacramento Magician Doug Kevilus
    Corporate Sacramento Magician Doug Kevilus says:

    It’s very similar to something my mentor taught me. The audience has to first like you as a person before they’ll appreciate anything you do on stage. If they don’t like the person on stage it doesn’t matter what the performance is, the crowd will not enjoy it.

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