Monday, July 20, 2009

A Lesson in Presence from The Next Food Network Star

Developing presence is one of the most common coaching requests from middle and senior executives. It’s rare that someone comes out and says “I need more presence,” but it’s common for people to review their 360-degree feedback or reflect on their career progression and decide they need a better ability to engage others and generate respect and support.

The Next Food Network Star is a reality program where a season’s worth of contestants come together to compete for the prize of their own show on the Food Network. Culinary challenges are thrown at the contestants each week with the aim of finding out two things: do they have cooking expertise, and do they have the presence to become a television star?

Something that makes the show different is that the judges’ panel includes two food network executives who provide real feedback and coaching. They want to select the finalist with the most presence who will generate ratings for them next season. Along the way they want to develop the finalists with the best potential to maximize their presence for the home audience.

This week, we got a lesson in developing presence from Melissa (season five, episode seven if you want to Google it and see the show highlights). In this episode the network deliberately messes with the finalists, putting them on a live breakfast show with various technical faults they can’t anticipate and have to deal with on-air. The host gets Melissa’s name wrong repeatedly, and in various other ways gets her totally flustered on live television.

We see Melissa panic. Her delivery quickens, the tone of her voice goes up, and her facial expressions give away that hunted look that communicates “get me out of here.” Afterwards the judges tell her what they saw, and give her advice on how to improve. Here are the three things she does to improve her presence:

  1. Incorporate stakeholder feedback
  2. Communicate to connect
  3. Get in flow and enjoy the work

      1. Incorporate stakeholder feedback

      People usually do one of four things when they're faced with negative feedback. They claim it wasn’t really a problem, they provide reasons why they really aren't unhappy with the outcome, they blame something or someone else, or they act like what we know happened didn't really happen. We can call these the justify, rationalize, excuse and deny strategies. The trouble is, trying to justify, rationalize, excuse and deny when we know something went wrong just makes things worse. It makes people want to argue with you so that you “get it,” or it makes them want to punish you so that you “get what’s coming to you.”

      Melissa takes the opposite and better tactic. She acknowledges feedback and shows respect for her stakeholders by demonstrating to them how she has incorporated it into her behavior. Note: she doesn’t always have to agree, but she always at least acknowledges feedback and shows how it will affect what she does next time. In almost every case responding positively to audience feedback builds presence. It makes you invested in your success because they feel a part of what’s going on with you. In this case the judges panel are a proxy for the real at-home TV audience. Nevertheless, in a strange way watching Melissa take on the panel’s feedback engages our attention and commands our respect and support.

      2. Communicate to connect 

      There are many aspects of communicating with presence. In this episode Melissa loses her audience when she is seen to mildly panic in front of them. The judges advise her to be more commanding with her communication. Melissa focuses on what she feels she can control, and we hear her tell herself that she is going to slow down her delivery to be more impactful.

      “When I slow down my speech my mind and body follow” she says. This is actually great advice for anyone. Call it gravitas, purpose or presence; we know that people with slower and more deliberate communication generally command more audience attention and respect. Speed of delivery is something concrete and actionable that most people can control.

      3. Get in the flow and enjoy the work

      You have to “read between the lines” to see this one in the episode. When people are given pep talks before going out to perform they are often told to “just go out there and enjoy yourself.” It’s easier said than done. However, I believe that’s because the advice often misses one vital aspect. You have to “get in the flow” and go enjoy yourself. Think of getting in the flow as being totally immersed and carried along by the work.

      Flow is a concept popularized by the psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. The big implication for presence is that audiences tend to mirror the emotions and behaviors of their presenters. Humans are wired for empathy and imitation. If we see someone enjoying themselves and fully engaged in their work we tend to be more interested and enjoy ourselves more as well. In her final challenge of the episode Melissa lets go of her anxieties, slows down her communication and visibly enjoys being fully engaged in her cooking. (And as an added bonus her better performance comes out in her cooking!)

      Presence is an elusive concept. Having an impressive appearance or bearing, commanding respect and attention, enlisting others sympathies and support--who wouldn’t want these things?

      In this episode we see someone take on three highly actionable behaviors and improve their presence.
      Koliso has a three part program for clients who want to improve their presence:

      1. Actively solicit stakeholder feedback and visibly incorporate it into your behavior.
      2. Communicate to connect (we often at to look at just what they are doing to lose their audience).
      3. Get in flow and enjoy your work.

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