Leveraging Lessons from Susan Boyle’s Audition

April 27, 2009

I assume by now most of you have seen Susan Boyle’s audition as part of Britain’s Got Talent.  You’ve watch how this middle aged woman with a somewhat frumpy appearance and some awkward mannerisms, amidst giggles and rolling eyes, captured an audience’s heart as soon as she was given the opportunity to showcase her strength.

So what does this have to do with business?  Everything.  An audition is basically a job interview and there’s so much we can learn from Susan’s experience and example.  Did she fit our profile of a singing star?  No.  Did she know that the audience was laughing at her?  Yes.  Did she let that distract her or take her off her game?  No.  Did she change minds?  You bet she did!

So, yes the whole story plays like a Hallmark Movie of the Week on speed.  But why has this story had so much impact and viral traction (with over 45 million views to date?)   Why have so many of us not just watched this once, but several times?  Here are the things that have resonated with me:

People can be so cruel
Pam Belluck’s recent New York Times article “Yes, Looks Do Matter,” explains why we stereotype.  But teasing is a cruel extension of stereotyping.

Several years ago, I mentored a wonderful girl from a nearby elementary school.  One day when she was about 11, we were working together on math and she started to cry.  When I asked what was wrong, she told me that the kids on the bus were teasing her and calling her fat.  This beautiful girl was wasn’t stick thin, but was by no means anything approaching “fat.”  I reassured her and then she said, “They always find something to tease about.  Will it always be this way?”  I explained that children can be cruel, that it usually stems from their own insecurities, that she should remember who her friends are and listen to them, and that a thick skin will serve her well.”  I further explained that adults aren’t like that.  They don’t tease. 

I haven’t thought about that conversation for years until I watched Susan Boyle’s audition.  It reminded me that adults do tease.  We tend not to tease to someone’s face in the same way that children and adolescents do, but we do tease.  When in the setting like Britain’s Got Talent etc. it seems that it is acceptable through a kind of group think to laugh at someone out loud.  Either way, adults tease.  Even if we don’t tease to someone’s face, we say things and tell stories behind people’s backs that we wouldn’t say to their face and would prefer they never know we said.  We should know better. 

Lesson: Shame on us!

Minds can change quickly
There was only one person in the auditorium that day who had faith in Susan’s voice and that was Susan.  The shift from expectation to experience reminded me of a pendulum swinging.  The further back the weight is pulled from its equilibrium position, the broader the trajectory.  In Susan’s case, based on her appearance and mannerisms,  the expectation of excellence was so low that the reality of her performance caused an even greater audience reaction than it might have had the audience expected her to be “good.”

Perhaps that’s why both the judges and the audience erupted when they saw that “she can sing!”  There was suddenly a new bandwagon and everyone in the room wanted on.  The judges whiplashed from dread to a look of pride, like that of parents who always believed in an awkward child’s potential and were now seeing it unfold before their eyes: Simon smiled every time Susan hit the high notes; Amanda pointed upward, willing Susan to nail the difficult upward progression on the word “shame;” and Piers looked almost moved to tears.  The judge’s and audience’s enthusiasm and support demonstrated their surprise with a sprinkling of guilt.  (Maria Puente’s USA article “Why Susan Boyle Inspires Us,”  lists many of the things we feel as we watched Susan’s audition.)

Lesson:  Don’t give up on the success you deserve if you have the talent.  One win can change everything.

Crunch Time
Professional athletes talk about how the crowd often pulls them through the toughest games.  The crowd supports them, even when they’re not playing well.  The crowd simply wills them to succeed.  Think about how scary this must have been for Susan to go out there not expecting the audience’s support and certainly not getting it (before she started singing.)  It would have been easy to understand how the judge’s and audience’s response to her pre-song chat would have made her crumble.  Not only didn’t she crumble, she soared.  It made her performance that much more impressive. 

Lesson: The more resistance you anticipate, the stronger you must be.  Keep your focus.  The best response to resistance is excellence.  Be excellent!

Confidence and Excellence only gets you so far
Susan knew she was good.  Right before she went on stage, she said “I’m going to make that audience rock.”  It only took a few seconds for the audience to shift from judgmental laughter to supportive applause.  So, by the time the judges “votes” came about, she knew she had done well.  But her elation, and wonderfully joyful stamping feet upon hearing the judge’s three yes’s indicated that she was someone who had always had talent, but that she was never fully recognized or rewarded for what she was capable of.  It’s one thing to sing, another thing to sing extraordinarily well, another thing to sing extraordinarily well in front of judges and an audience that are laughing at you, but you still need to fully win them over to have hopes of broader success. 

Lesson:  Your talent can’t grow in a bubble, you will need external support.  Part of success is being able to garner support from those you need to take your career to the next level.  “A ship is safe at harbor, but that’s not what ships are for.”


So for parents of kids who are misunderstood, teased or bullied, I hope you’ll watch Susan’s performance with your kids.  Talk to them about courage, self confidence, and how teasing can be turned around.  Tell them how Susan was often teased as a child, and how that made her stronger.  Encourage them to find and nurture their own gifts, and that the best revenge for the teasing is success.

For parents of the beautiful and popular children, I hope you’ll watch this with your kids and take the opportunity to talk to them about impressions and outcomes.  Discuss what’s acceptable, inappropriate and cruel.  Ask them what kind of person they want to be and whether putting someone else down makes them higher or lower.  Some of the questions below could be useful too.

For teachers at all levels, you couldn’t get better class discussion material if you wrote the script yourself.  Show the audition to your students and then lead a discussion with some or all of the following:

  •  As you watch the video, jot down the words you’d use to describe Susan.  Stop the video for discussion after her hip roll, right before she starts to sing, after she sings, and then get final impressions after the judge’s comments
  • After viewing the full video, ask whether all those words are accurate, fair?  Which are, which aren’t?
  • How many of those words also describe you?
  • If you were Susan’s friend, what advice would you have given her as she prepared for her audition (would you have said, “be yourself” or would you have tried to change her in any ways, which ways?)
  • If you were Susan’s friend, what would you have said to her right before she went on stage? 
  • If you were sitting next to people who were giggling about Susan’s appearance and mannerisms, what would you do?
  • If you were interviewing Susan for a job, would her appearance impact your impression of her?
  • If Susan showed up as a new person at school or on your work team, what would you expect of her based upon her appearance and first impression?
  • Is that fair, acceptable, accurate?
  • What is the downside of those impressions?
  • What are the lessons for the school yard classroom or workplace? (Have each person write down three lessons, then go around the room until there are no more fresh answers)
  • Wrap up the discussion by asking for each person’s favorite take-away and request that each person make a personal commitment to change something about themselves based on the discussion.

For managers, take a look at the list above and see if it sparks some ideas for you.  Ask yourselves how often you let your pre-conceived ideas judge your approach to your employees.  Do they impact the way you view their performance and how you assign projects?  Are you using the right traits to judge how you manage people?  When interviewing, do you embrace all aspects of diversity or tend to stick with your original vision of the right new hire for the role?  What level of teasing do you tolerate and participate in?  What type of team/department do you want to run?

For job seekers, apply for the job you know you can do, even if you’re an unlikely candidate due to “not looking the part” or lacking some experience.  Show up at the interview prepared for resistance.  But respond with confidence, a thick skin and a sense of humor.  Even if you don’t end up getting the job, you’ll have made a positive impression, and you never know where that could lead.

For Susan Boyle, you go, girl!  You are an inspiration.  Thank you.


10 Responses to “Leveraging Lessons from Susan Boyle’s Audition”

  1. Michael on April 28th, 2009 2:42 am

    Laura, I’ve seen this video and I think it is a good case study for many of the things that you’ve called out!

    If you’ve got talent…you’ve got talent, it can’t be denied, no matter what, color shape, or size!

  2. Colleen Aylward on April 30th, 2009 4:31 am

    Laura, nicely penned… you’ve got talent!

  3. GarykPatton on June 16th, 2009 10:41 am

    Hello, can you please post some more information on this topic? I would like to read more.

  4. body detox diet on July 31st, 2009 3:59 pm

    Susan Boyle was my bet on Britains Got Talent. She has a very beautiful voice.

  5. melatoningirl on August 22nd, 2009 8:38 am

    Susan Boyle has exceptional voice. I wish i had a voice like her.

  6. Arthtritis Pain Relief Health Site on September 2nd, 2009 2:56 pm

    Susan Boyle has a great voice and for me she was one of the best contestants.

  7. acnemedication on September 11th, 2009 10:59 am

    Susan Boyle has a good singing voice but it is not only the voice that counts if you want to win a singing contest.

  8. Razel on October 21st, 2009 2:11 pm

    the voice of Susan Boyle is phenomenal and for me she is a great performer. too bad she was unable to make it to the finals.

  9. Taylor on December 22nd, 2009 4:20 pm

    Susan Boyle has a superb voice. Me and my sister like her performace a lot and we voted for her.

  10. Kerry on January 9th, 2010 5:51 pm

    Susan Boyle has a great voice, no doubt about that. She was my first choice in American Idol and sadly she did not make it.

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