Avoiding American Idol Syndrome

Don't be the William Hung of the business world: Know your weaknesses, and work to rectify them

Auditions for season six of the hit Fox (NWS) show American Idol are under way (see BusinessWeek.com, 1/31/06, "Simon Cowell: From Idol to Inventor").

Across the country, pop-star hopefuls are lining up by the thousands to catch their train to stardom. Like many Americans, I'm still stunned at just how good truly bad singers think they are. Do they sound like Mariah Carey in their own heads but like a sick crow to the rest of us? It's amazing that they can't hear what we hear. Well, it may be sad, but it makes for great television. I'm certainly addicted!

During my career as a business journalist for CNN and today in my work as a communications coach, I developed a theory that has proven to be remarkably accurate. I call it American Idol Syndrome. Here it is: Those who claim they're great presenters are inevitably the worst. Those who are more modest, and who ask for feedback, are by the far the best.

Don't ask me to explain it. I'm a journalist, not a therapist. But it's absolutely true. I've tested the theory for years and it has never been wrong.


  One day when I was hosting a television program, I walked into the green room (which is never really green) to introduce myself to a guest. I asked if she had been to makeup and she responded, "I don't need makeup. I come across great on camera." Okay, I thought, not a big deal. Maybe she's right. "May I review some questions with you before we go on the air?" I asked. Her response: "No, I do this all the time. Producers tell me I'm the best guest they've ever had."

I began to have a nagging feeling that this interview would not make my résumé reel. My guest was simply too arrogant about her presentation skills. Sure enough, the interview was a disaster. Her conversation was convoluted and confusing. Her slouching body posture made her appear unconvincing and incompetent (see BusinessWeek.com, 2/22/06, "The Worst Presentation Habits").

And the fact that she had refused to prepare was all too evident. The producer, who could communicate with me through an earpiece, told me to wrap the interview as quickly as possible. At the end of the interview, the woman was surprised that it was so short. I didn't have the heart to tell her the truth, so I made something up like "We had breaking news."


  In reality, a cat caught in a tree would have made for more compelling television. The guest was never invited back despite her best attempts to contact the station. You see, American Idol Syndrome not only exists among aspiring singers, but among business professionals as well.

Poor business communicators—those who are dull, uninspiring and confusing—are often completely oblivious to the way they come across. They don't seek out advice, are reluctant to improve their skills, and are simply painful to watch. Then there are those men and women who through thoughtful discipline improve their ability to tell a story and convey their message. They stand apart. Here are a few great examples I have met:

The Governator. California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger may have made a name for himself by building his biceps and flexing his muscle on the big screen, but when it came to public speaking, he knew the same discipline that helped him succeed before would help him shine on this new stage. Schwarzenegger spoke little English when he first arrived in the U.S., but he attacked the language barrier with the same focus and determination he brings to everything else in his life.

One of Schwarzenegger's closest friends once told me that the Governor was a natural ad-libber, but not a natural presenter. He had to work at it. Schwarzenegger approached public speaking as his next goal to conquer. In the early 1990s, he started giving more speeches, asking his advisers to find him more opportunities. He constantly solicited feedback and advice from his family, friends, and staff.

Reporters would say that he was "practicing" to be governor, but in reality he was simply trying to improve a skill that he knew would serve him well in whatever role he chose next for his life. "That's Arnold," his friend told me, "he's always determined to sharpen his skills. Presentations are no exception."

The Builder. New York real estate dynamo Barbara Corcoran took a $1,000 loan from a boyfriend and turned it into a $5 billion-a-year real estate empire. I don't know what happened to the boyfriend, but when I spoke to Corcoran it was clear she turned out just fine. Her business communications skills didn't come easy, though.

Corcoran's early attempts at making speeches fell far short of her expectations and she was determined to improve. Many business professionals, when faced with perceived failures, avoid taking initiatives that cause them frustration, grief, or pain. Not Corcoran. After an uncomfortable speaking experience, she signed up to teach a course at New York University.

Corcoran taught for the next five years and improved so much as a communicator that today she is a sought-after speaker and television commentator. Even when I interviewed Corcoran for my book, she was asking me questions. Great communicators always seek advice.

The Dynamo. John Chambers is the CEO of Cisco Systems (CSCO). You might not have heard of him, but his company touches your life every day. Eighty percent of Internet traffic travels through Cisco's routers and switches. I consider Chambers one of the most gifted pitchmen in Corporate America. But is he really "gifted" or does he work at it?

I think a lot of his charisma has to do with the latter. He never considered himself an outstanding orator and has consistently sought out advice to improve his abilities. Chambers not only spends hours preparing and rehearsing for critical presentations, he constantly solicits help from his executives and marketing teams to improve his performance. Nothing is taken for granted. He has always been modest about his skills, but his performances are astonishing.

Don't catch American Idol Syndrome. It can strike anyone at any age—people who think they're much better than they are at singing, speaking, or virtually anything they endeavor. All of the leaders mentioned above are immune to this debilitating syndrome because they practice and seek out honest feedback. It works for them. It will work for you.

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