In the Hot Seat: A Proven Strategy for Evaluating a Job Applicant's Presentation Skills
Note: this article originally appeared on PSVillage Pulse on July 1st, 2015.
Years ago, I failed an interview so comprehensively that it profoundly influenced my approach to interviewing candidates as a hiring manager. This unique interview was not a formal personality test. It was not one of the popular open-ended math or logic questions, such as "why are manhole covers round?" It was not even a formal interview with a hiring manager, although he was in the room. It was a presentation that I had written, on material I had taught.
We ask professional services personnel to perform a broad spectrum of tasks, regardless of their written job description. It is an essential skill to deliver a successful presentation, whether to a small working group, boardroom or an auditorium. As a hiring manager, you may have asked questions about applicants' presentation skills and techniques. You may even have gone so far as to ask for them to make a presentation to you and a colleague as part of the hiring process. In doing so, you may confirm that they can stand upright, narrate bullet points clearly, and advance slides on time.
However, the act of giving a presentation requires the presenter to be capable of dealing with the messes of modern business. Attendees do not always arrive on time, and may leave early. Often, at least one or more members of the audience were required to attend and have little to no interest in the presentation being shown. Urgent matters outside of the conference room are vying for attendees' attention, whether by messaging or by a phone call. Remote participants may join by phone and neglect to mute their phone while grocery shopping. Based on my prior experiences, it may be necessary to present with no slides in a foreign country during a four-hour power outage. Alternatively, I've had a couple classes over the years interrupted by small earthquakes. Life will intrude on even the most seasoned presenter's material.
These realities are as true for a small workgroup meeting as for a paid $2,500 a head three-day seminar. The cost of attendance does not make people pay more or less attention to the presenter. It certainly does not guarantee attendees will not fidget with their mobiles.
As the hiring manager, you could choose to ask scenario-based questions. "Tell me, " you'll say, "what happens if it's 9:15, but the presentation was to start at 9 AM, and the room's only one quarter full of paying attendees?" The candidate will burble something about making small talk, or getting started, or perhaps waiting a bit more, as the traffic's doubtless crawling out there.
Both you and the candidate know the truth - you cannot predict how they'd react. They just made up an answer to placate you. You should not be satisfied and hope their behavior reflects well on your firm.
As part of my final interviewing process, I ask the candidate to prepare a forty-five-minute presentation on any topic of their choice. I explain that we will provide a projector and conference room and that some participants may join by phone and web conference. The candidate should leave time for questions at the end. I also ask that if they are bringing a PowerPoint or Keynote presentation that they also bring their laptop. I've seen presentations about the economics of cigar shops, computer security, sailing, music production, and finishing hardwood floors, and a grab bag of other topics near and dear to each candidate.
I send a standard email to about fifty employees at our company headquarters. The invitee list appears to be drawn nearly at random from the enterprise directory. Their departments vary, their titles vary, their skills vary. I typically choose people whose calendar is open, and with whom I have at least a professional acquaintance. What matters is that some of them show up, and follow the instructions, provided in full below:
We have a candidate for our %WHICH% position in the office on %DATE%. We have asked %HIM/HER% to deliver a forty-five presentation on any topic of %HIS/HER% choice. The presentation will start at %TIME% in %MEETINGROOM%.
Our professional services personnel deal with many stressful situations in the field. One of the most stressful is when the first day of a training class does not go well at a customer facility. We'd like your help in recreating this experience for our candidate to assess %HIS/HER% skills as a presenter. A web conference and dial in are also available.
How you can help:
- Show up late to the presentation.
- Show up early, and leave early.
- Take a phone call part way through - although please do step out after a while to be somewhat polite.
- Spent the entire time working on your laptop and ignoring the presenter. This is encouraged.
- Spent your time texting on your phone / tablet.
- Ask detailed questions about the presentation.
- Ask unrelated questions about the presentation materials, or ask about something presented ten minutes ago.
- Have a side conversation with whoever's sitting next to you.
- Neglect to mute your phone line if joining via teleconference.
What you should not do:
- ask interview questions
- let %HIM/HER% know that this is a wholly constructed scenario
-- END OF INSTRUCTIONS --
As the hiring manager, my role is then to watch then how the presenter handles the ensuing low-grade stress during their presentation. They will know that something is wrong, but they will not be able to place it. Just the sensation that things are going badly is sufficient. People are walking in and out of the room. Someone is apparently working on his or her laptop instead of paying attention. Moreover, is someone on the phone doing the dishes?
As a courtesy, I will send a thank-you note to attendees after the presentation, and ask if they have additional feedback about the presenter. Typically, watching the evolving reactions from the candidate during the presentation is enough to make a hiring decision. It might be possible to list the most common responses from speakers, but it'd be of little value.
As the hiring manager, evaluate the presenter and their presentation against how they would represent your firm under similar trying circumstances. Is this someone you'd want in front of your customers in less-than-ideal conditions? If they handle this manufactured situation with grace, it is likely that they will with customers. If they do not, then the question is whether or not they have enough other compelling skills and are interested in learning how to improve their performance skills in front of customers.