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Ten Success Factors for your Panel Interview

If you have been following me for a while you have seen me taking on interim management responsibilities from time to time. I believe that leadership coaches should not just do theoretical work but practice what they “preach”. In that tradition I just finished a 14 months stint as general manager in an IT company and had the pleasure to conduct a series of panel interviews with numerous candidates for open positions, both for executive manager level jobs as well as individual contributors. 

All interviews were done via video conferencing and the candidates had a couple of days to prepare. The interview style was supportive and not aggressive at all. Quite a comforting setup you might think, nevertheless I was surprised by how many candidates had serious problems during these sessions. In this post I want to share some best practices from this experience. While some of them might look like the obvious to you, I recommend you take them seriously.

PART 1: PREPARATION

Preparation is the mother of success!

  1. Do your research

Of course, you’ll look at the company websites. However, make sure to dig a little deeper. What do they say about their strategy, products and/or services? Download the annual report if they are a public company. What markets are they in, who is their competition? How has the stock price been doing in relation to general market trends? What are analysts saying? How was their performance of the last couple of years? Are they growing? Study the latest press releases. Look at Glassdoor to find out what their employees are saying about them. Ask your network – people who worked there or competed with them.

Have a look at their management – corporate and local. Who will you be meeting with during the panel interview? Look the individuals up on LinkedIn and other social media and again, ask your network.

2. Understand what the job is all about

Get an excellent understanding of what the job that you are applying for is all about. Study the job description and ask yourself: what would be exciting about this job? How does the ideal candidate look like? Is that me? How does success look like? In which ways will I contribute to the success of the company. Ask as many questions as necessary to get the full picture. It is important that you don’t underestimate this part – take it seriously and keep asking yourself: “what have I missed?”.

3. Make your presentation a masterpiece

Usually, you will be asked to prepare for a presentation on a specific predefined topic. We’ll go into much more detail about how to orchestrate your story itself. Here we’ll focus on the preparation. What are the main messages you want to get across? What would be a natural flow? Which visuals do you want to use to express what? How will the slides support your message and enhance your narrative? What are the key takeaways for your audience?

4. Take care of your setup – it’s the stage you are performing on

The setup is the framework for delivery your presentation. Make sure you have a great webcam (HD if possible) and a good microphone. Using a headset will help but you need to be comfortable with your appearance. I would stay away from Bluetooth and use good old cable. It does not need to be charged and does not change connections without you noticing.

Stand up – do not sit or at least use a stool. You have a totally different, more powerful energy when you are standing. Do not use a virtual background. Unless you have a professional setup with a green screen, your audience will see some strange artefacts especially if you are moving a lot. Should you use a virtual background, don’t use the one from the company you currently work for. This is a private interview! 

Make sure they see you in the right proportions, not too big, but not a dot in the far distance either. Most importantly your eyes must be on the same level as the camera lens, and you need to look straight into it. It helps to put a post-it next to the lens with a note: look here!

Finally, have a plan B ready in case you have a problem with the technology. Your phone will work well with all video conferencing tools. Just plan in advance where to position it safely.

5. Practice, practice, practice …

Repetition is the mother of skill. I would not learn things by heart as it lacks authenticity, but you need to practice your intro, so you feel safe getting started and most importantly practice your timing. Do it several times in front of an audience. Have them ask questions and get their feedback. Record it and review it. Do it over and over until it sticks ☺

PART 2: YOUR PRESENTATION & FOLLOW-UP

Now it becomes serious. You are well prepared and ready to go.

6. Dress appropriately

Adjust to the audience that you are presenting to. If in doubt, get some guidance from the person who is arranging the session. In any case, make sure you feel comfortable in the clothes you are wearing. Business casual is nearly always a safe choice.

7. Be aware of and adjust your state

State is everything! First make sure that you are in good shape. Never do it if you’re sick or otherwise handicapped. Your state is determined by physiology, focus and language and you can’t hide it. Your audience can “read it” instantly within the first couple of seconds and make an unconscious decision if they truly want to listen to you and your story or rather shift their attention to something else. Of course, you want to hold their attention the entire time. 

We already talked about standing up during the presentation, facing your audience. Pay attention to the tone of your voice, the speed, the volume and other so called sub-modalities. Play with it during practice. Try to be entertaining and engaging.

What will you be focused on during your pitch? Are your thoughts about self-doubt or self-confidence? Are you using positive language? Do you embody a winner? Work on your state during practice.

8. Your presentation is your story 

The real power of your presentation is in your state, not in the slides. Connecting to your audience in the beginning is key! Watch them, not yourself during the presentation. Add some drama to your story, specifically when you tell your story. Have a look at the Hero’s Journey as a guideline. Most movies follow this blueprint. 

You need to always keep the energy high. Never ever read from a script! You will immediately lose your audience – maybe once and for all. Think about ways to reconnect in case you seem to have lost them. Use visuals, pattern interrupts, ask a question etc. The last topic you covered is most likely to generate the first question. With this in mind you can trigger a topic of your choice.

Finally, avoid talking about a topic that you don’t understand or do not feel comfortable about. Your audience will immediately notice and might home in with more questions.

9. Use Q&A to shine

This section is very important as it is interactive in nature. Make sure you understand the question. If in doubt, clarify & verify. Take your time, do not shoot from the hip. Don’t fake anything – be authentic. Do not imagine too much about why someone is asking a specific question and don’t take anything personal. Definitely have your own questions ready. A candidate without questions raises doubts. 

The question that will most certainly come up is “why are you interested in this job”, so be prepared. It is ok to ask for feedback, but do not count on it. They might want to debrief first. Give them feedback if appropriate. Thank them for devoting their time and attention.

10. Drive the follow-up

Keep communication going after the session. Ask them if they want a copy of your presentation. Mention what you learned. Tell them about your status, additional questions you might have. Don’t be too pushy – give them some time.

Don’t be too disappointed if you get negative feedback. Don’t push them too much into justifying their decision and whatever you do don’t argue with them. Think about what you have learned during the process and be honestly grateful for that. 

Please post any questions you have in the comments below and good luck with your interview.  

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