Monday, February 7, 2011

Strengthen the Weak Link on Your Interview Team

It's down to two. The client asks that your project team come in for the shortlist interview, which is supposed to include a 30-minute presentation. In particular, they want to hear from your lead engineer Joe Bore, who has distinct expertise in this kind of project.

Oh no, not Joe! He's a great engineer but he looks painfully uncomfortable when asked to speak before a group. What should you do?

All of us who have been around this business for a while have faced this problem to some degree. Many very capable technical professionals do not perform well in a formal presentation. Yet they can be crucial to the team's success in a shortlist interview. At this stage of the process, clients are looking for comfort and chemistry with the people who will have important roles on their projects. If one of those key people comes across as stiff and uninteresting, it can kill your firm's chances of winning the job.

Consider the following tactics:

Forget the monologue, dialogue instead. Ever listened to your proposed project team discussing strategy in preparation for a shortlist interview and thought, "If only the client could be here right now. We'd win this job. Our guys really understand this project"? Unfortunately, that confidence and competence doesn't always translate to the presentation itself. Formal speaking roles pull some individuals out of their comfort zone, making them look weak even when discussing a subject where they are particularly strong.

One tactic to ease the discomfort is to engage the client in a dialogue as part of your presentation. Insert questions at specific points in your talk to get some conversation going. This helps create a more informal, less threatening atmosphere, which better positions your teammates to show their best stuff. This requires some careful facilitation, because you don't want to ignore the client's request for a presentation. But done properly, this can be a very effective approach (over 80% of the teams I've coached to use this tactic the last decade have been successful).

Interview your awkward teammate. Another twist on the dialogue method is to ask the Joe Bore on your team specific questions instead of having him give a prepared talk. The presentation leader, rather than giving the floor to Joe, simply asks him a series of questions that have been rehearsed in advance. Joe may not even need to leave his seat. I like this approach to involving team members even when there isn't a problem presenter involved because multiple speakers can disrupt the flow of your presentation.

Don't just talk, do something. Even a polished presentation and splashy graphics don't necessarily convey the image of a firm that can get things done. Consider working in a more "hands-on" approach, especially for the Joe on your team. For example, have him sketch a rough process diagram or write some other information on a sketch pad as he discusses it. Bring a set of plans for a similar project that he can reference. Many reluctant speakers do well with such activities because they're more like a routine project meeting. Plus I think these tactics often can better portray your expert's ability than working from prepared slides or graphics.

Prepare for the toughest questions. It's always a good idea to anticipate the most difficult questions the client might ask and plan your answers in advance. I've witnessed several interview teams go down in flames when they stumbled over such a question. Even if you can't produce a great answer, your ease in addressing the question can impress the client. Besides the answer, be sure to plan who on the team will respond if the question arises.

Practice, practice, practice.
In my experience, most firms in this business practice too little for important shortlist interviews. I find it interesting that firms can spend ten times as much time on a proposal with long odds as they do on an interview once the field has been narrowed to a few. Practice helps everyone, but especially the ones who are least comfortable with presentations. Usually it's best to have at least three dress rehearsals, more if things aren't coming together as well as they should. Focus on the presentation (with dialogue), but don't ignore practicing your answers to tough questions.

Here's where I differ from most presentation coaches: The primary goal should not be a polished presentation, but reaching the point where your team appears comfortable, competent, and authentic. Even an error-free presentation can come across as phony (like some stage acting). The team will connect with the client better when they seem genuine. And for the Joe on your team, this is especially important.

So it's usually best to avoid trying to "coach up" your weak presenters to handle speaking roles, if you can. Instead, create a presentation and interview structure in which they can show their strengths, not expose their weaknesses. Each Joe will be different, but the goal is the same: Put him in a role where he can show his best.

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