I love watching clips from America’s Got Talent (AGT), the talent show. If you have never seen the show, it’s your classic audition-elimination competition. Any act can audition, and they all compete for a million dollars and the possibility of launching a career.
If you spend any time watching the show, you will start to wonder why some acts make it, and others don’t. Because of the variety, we can’t just chuck it to talent. It’s not about the best singer, and some skills aren’t even comparable. Can you objectively compare a magician with a dance team of 20 people?
In this article, I want to answer this question and show you how it relates to team building. All companies are on the hunt for talent, and they are looking for those superstars. Those individuals stand out from the noise, just like the acts that make it to the final show in AGT.
Success Isn’t What You Expect
AGT works despite the huge range in acts. In any given season, you will have singers, magicians, dancers, and comedians. The variety makes the show entertaining, but it also makes judging a nightmare. Imagine if the Olympics were to combined all of their sports into one massive competition. How could sprinters be judged against swimmers?
And yet, the show works. It is clear that the judges are looking for certain qualities that aren’t always obvious. Like many good executives, they might say they “know” a good act when they see one — the classic Supreme Court “I know it’s porn when I see it” approach. However, behind every “gut” feeling, there is some process going on. There’s logic to the madness.
Before we get to the 3 attributes that I believe make a successful act, let’s look at the attributes that don’t play a critical role. This is not to say these things don’t matter but that they are not the most important. For anyone considering auditioning for AGT, you are better off focusing on other things.
First, uniqueness doesn’t matter as much as you think. In any given category, there are countless previous contestants. It’s unlikely that someone is going to do a magic act that is 10X better than what they have seen before. The same goes for singers, comedians, and anything else.
In fact, truly “unique” acts tend to be wacky and unsustainable long term. They might be “shocking” enough to get through the first audition, but there’s usually a lack of substance that prevents them from going to the future rounds. A perfect example of this is “Tequila Guy.”
Second, it’s not age. An act may be young or old, it doesn’t matter. Teenagers have done well, and older adults have also done well. Most acts seem to be in their 20s and 30s, but I think that’s a function of the stage of typical artistic careers and less so a requirement for success.
Third, previous fame doesn’t guarantee success. It is well known that AGT will invite acts to come audition on the show. Some of them are already famous in their space. Take Junior and Emily Alabi, a salsa couple that has won multiple world championships. They are some of the best in their field, but they didn’t do well in the initial auditions.
Fourth, it’s not production value. Some acts have an incredible ability to put on a show. Lights, choreography, outfits, and more. High production value is likely correlated with experience but most of the acts that make it don’t have complex productions. In fact, simple acts tend to get better later on in the competition when the producers provide them support for production.
The AGT Talent Formula
So what makes acts successful? What are the things to look for that can give us clues to how well someone might do in the show? 3 factors: enthusiasm, confidence, and skill refinement.
Enthusiasm is when an act is excited to be on the show. They might be nervous, but their overall demeanor is one of excitement. Enthusiasm is contagious. If you live in LA, you might have heard that someone has “great energy.” I’m not sure what this means, but I would bet they are talking about enthusiasm if I had to guess. A great example of this is Preacher Lawson, who came in second place during his season.
Confidence is different than enthusiasm though the two likely go hand in hand. You can see when acts are confident in what they can do. Confidence comes from experience, but it doesn’t always manifest itself even after years of practice. An example of a confident group is the World Taekwondo Team, which received a golden buzzer for its audition. When asked if they could win the competition, they answer yes, point-blank.
Skills refinement is the actual skill they are demonstrating. You may be highly enthusiastic and confident, but you need to back it up with actual skills. People might think that the more skilled you are, the more confident and enthusiastic you will be. I’m not sure if the correlation is that clear. I think “average” acts in terms of skills can shine through the other two factors. Take someone like Bradon Leake, who becomes the first poet on the show. He’s obviously good at his skill, but his confidence and enthusiasm might be his secret sauce.
I believe that the 3 factors must be present for a successful audition. You can make up in some areas by increasing others. You can find acts that didn’t come across as confident but completely shined when it was time to showcase their skills. An example of this would be Courtney Hadwin, who came across as shy and nervous at the beginning of her audition. However, when she started singing, everything changed.
I also have to note that some acts have incredible stories. Their stores tend to overpower the other factors, and I think they tend to translate to confidence and enthusiasm for the judges. Mandy Harvey is a great example here. She’s a deaf singer who lost her hearing in her early 20s. Her story is inspirational, and I think she comes across as highly confident and enthusiastic about life. Her singing skills were the cherry on top.
Applying the AGT Talent Formula to Your Team
Naturally, these ideas can apply to team building and recruitment, a common topic among my clients. All companies are looking for that special talent that supercharges your strategy. Companies tend to focus too much on the skill portion and neglect the other factors. Engineering hiring is perhaps the best example with their intensive coding interviews involving whiteboards and hypothetical situations about planes in the sky.
You may have someone talented in front of you but are they enthusiastic about your company and their career? You can’t teach enthusiasm, but you can teach almost any other skill. Is the candidate confident about contributing, or will they need constant encouragement to let their talent shine?
Be on the lookout for those candidates who deserve your metaphorical golden buzzer. These candidates aren’t just good at what they do, but they will be a joy to work with. Their enthusiasm will become contagious, and their confidence will resonate across your teams. Next time you watch AGT, look for these 3 factors in auditions. You may start seeing things that others don’t.