Presenting at Interview?

Mar 22, 2010 by

If I mention the words “Power” and “Point” you are likely to immediately feel the onset of boredom, roll your eyes, and hover over the “get me out of here” button on your browser. Please don’t click away just yet… I have discovered something that might help you if you’ve been asked to do a presentation at an interview.

Put your toes into some fresh water.

Credit where it is due: I have recently read two key books that have transformed the way I view presentations that utilise PowerPoint. I also have to say that I can’t think of any reason not to use PowerPoint (and, yes, I do mean the Microsoft program) when you are presenting… other than, perhaps, the cost.

Cliff Atkinson’s, “Beyond Bullet Points” is a great approach to presentations. This book explains, in very straight-forward terms, the science behind why you keep falling asleep during presentations. It also shares why you can never remember anything from someone else’s PowerPoint presentations. It offers a solution.

Nancy Duarte’s, “Slide:ology” will teach you how to start thinking like a designer, use images, create impact, and generally build exciting presentations. It sits very nicely alongside Atkinson’s work but goes further into many technical tips that really will help you to help folk connect with what you are telling them. This book is very visual and easy to read and dip into.

Why do most people’s presentations fail at interview?

When was the last time you saw an interviewee present and then, 15 minutes later, could genuinely remember what they presented about? Maybe you’ll tell yourself that you were looking at their presentation style and how they presented themselves… as if the content wasn’t important. Ok, if you’d set them the task of presenting on a hobby then maybe you weren’t looking for deep memories, but what if they were presenting on their vision for your business? Why can’t you remember a damn thing?

People’s presentations fail because:

  • The interviewer cannot remember their content and message.
  • They didn’t do anything different from what the other interviewees did, so they didn’t stand out.
  • They used the right tools to try and do the wrong job.

What if you could present a difference?

What if you could stand out because your presentation (including the PowerPoint, your style, and your content) were markedly different from what most people do? What if the interviewer could remember most of what you said, even when they couldn’t remember what anyone else said? Do you suspect that this might give you an edge?

Well… I am not going to post up the content of Atkinson and Duarte’s books, tempting as it might be… but I can give you some pointers.

The brain doesn’t want to process clutter.

Your brain can handle as much data as you care to throw at it – whether words, pictures, smells, noises, whatever. It can also store as much data as you can cram into it – memories, knowledge, whatever. What it cannot do, however, is process everything fast enough to keep up with a really cluttered presentation. The brain’s “working memory” is limited… so presenters have to, as Atkinson puts it, thread their information through the eye of a needle.

Most people clutter up their slides. The standard slide has a title, a list of bullet points, and usually at least one image. Add to that the quite common company logo on every slide (something Duarte dislikes passionately!), slide numbers, background images, different colours… oh, and what you are SAYING as you present… and what you are DOING as you present… phew! The needle’s eye is crammed and only bits get through. The bits that get through will be remembered only if they can be organised into something… well, memorable.

Good presentation is an exercise in minimalism.

Duarte suggests that if you have a big load of text to share with people, like loads of bullet points on every slide, then you are better off sending them a Word document. The same goes for numeric data – send an Excel spreadsheet. Do not try to cram it onto a presentation slide.

Atkinson suggests that you limit yourself to one properly-formed sentence of text and one image per slide. These should relate to what you are saying. The PowerPoint slide should reinforce and support your presentation of your idea. As the brain can handle one verbal message and one visual message at a time, this will help get your idea through the eye of the needle.

Going further, Atkinson suggests that your should organise your ideas into a format which will be easily accepted by most human brains. That is to say that you should aim to hook your ideas on to a structure that most people are already familiar with. His suggestion is to use the three-act structure of story.

Duarte suggests that you get rid of anything that does not add to clarity. For example, remove background images, colours, shadows, effects, animations and such that do nothing but clutter up the message. She also suggest that we learn about the colour wheel and some basics of design. It took me about an hour to digest the basics and it was worth it.

Finally, both seem to suggest that what the presenter is doing and saying need to support the overall message. That means having a separate patter to what is on the slides, learning it, rehearsing it, and figuring out the body movements that go with it.

What was the question?

Before you go to an interview and present, make sure that you’ve answered the question that is in the interviewer’s mind. It’ll be a variation on one of two basic questions:

  1. Can this person present a case and create impact for our business?
  2. Does this person have a coherent and compelling vision for the role?

It’s also possible that they might be asking themselves if they like your style.

Remember: this sits alongside the recruiter’s need to be convinced that you can solve the challenges that the role you are interviewing for will face. How does your presentation persuade them?

Before you can present you need something to present.

This might seem obvious but I have lost count of how many presentations I have given and received that did not have a beginning, middle and end. You need all three. To deliver that, you need to have a solid sense of what your ideas actually are.

What is the one thing you want the interviewer to do once you stop presenting?

Atkinson calls this, “the call to action”. What outcome do you want? Yes, I know you want them to hire you… and that might be a valid call to action, even if it seems a bit clumsy.

  • What ACTION would define your strategy for their business?
  • What ACTION might be at the heart of this new role?
  • What ACTION will be your signature achievement if you get this job?

Focus on the outcomes and then you can build a case to persuade your interviewers that you mean business. Their business.

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