Presentation Lessons from Your Client’s Side of The Table
Stephanie Craft, MBA
Every year, I call a variety of my clients’ clients to get their input on what impresses them in project interviews and what doesn't. While the Facilities Director of a Community College District in California declined to be interviewed, he did make me an offer I couldn't refuse. Rather than taking his word for it, he invited me to attend their next interview to experience the process myself. What I learned provided great insight into what works (and what doesn't), when your firm decides to participate in a formal interview process for a potential client job.
Presentation: Who Talks and What to Say (or Not)
Each team was to provide a 15-minute presentation followed by nearly an hour of Q&A. There's always been the rule floating about our industry about only bringing people to the interview who have a speaking part, and in this case, some abided by that and some didn't. It didn't seem to make a difference with the selection committee. What did seem to matter is what was said and who said it.
One team didn't let the Project Manager have a speaking part. The seasoned, gray-haired Principal did all the talking. Occasionally, the PM would try to dive in when there was a break, but it was rare. The selection committee was not impressed. They didn't have a chance to get to know the person they would be working with. One selection panelist mentioned that it often seems the Principals like to hog the spotlight. Sometimes it's because they love their firm and truly want to sell it as the best, but more often than not, it comes across as ego.
One firm closed their presentation not by saying how they could help the client or provide the best solution, by rather by saying they wanted to work for the College because they hated working in their local city and wanted to work someplace else for a change! On the way out, this same Principal happened to comment to one of the selection committee members that he hoped they didn't have to make the drive to the College again because it was so far away. Little did he know, but he had just sunk himself.
Best and Worst Ways to Converse In Q&A
The selection committee had a sheet of 18 questions that were to be asked in rotation by each committee member to the team. That meant there were approximately 3 minutes to answer each question, which seemed reasonable enough. Did we get through all 18 questions with any of the teams? No. Most of the answers were so long-winded and rambling that sometimes the question didn't even get answered. Important note to team members: answer questions concisely and then stop. Don't get caught up in so much detail that you overshoot the question. The committee is only looking for a clear, concise answer, not your entire history.
Two teams did the best job at responding to questions. How? The principals answered very few, if any, of the questions, deferring them instead to the PMs. The PMs answered the questions, citing examples from their past work experience to support their answer. The PMs conveyed an ease in answering the questions. They were confident in their abilities, yet low-key in their communication style, so they came across as both knowledgeable and easy to work with. This allowed the committee to learn how he or she solved problems and helped his or her client throughout the life of the project. It also gave them a sense of whether or not they felt the PM was someone they could work with.
The Selection Process: What Happens When You Leave
What impressed me most about the selection discussion was that it came down to one simple concept: a group of human beings talking about what they liked or didn't like about the prospect of working with another group of human beings. First, they acknowledged all the teams were qualified or they wouldn't have been interviewed. So what was the deciding factor? I would say it was which team gave the committee the feeling they were heard and understood. Our challenge in an interview is to create an emotional experience with the selection committee because when it comes down to it, it is an emotional decision they are making. It is based on their subjective, gut instinct (which gets scored!). Clients want to hire the team that they believe has their best interests at heart – and they have to feel that – to be able to offer a winning score.