I’m intensely introverted and nothing rattles me as much as talking at length about myself. So, yeah, I suck at interviews. Unfortunately, I’m stuck doing a lot of them – so I need to get better fast. Here’s a compilation of tips that I’ve dug up while trying to solve my little problem (It’s bad that I’m trying to find a book that tells me how to talk to people, isn’t it?)
1. Research – learn everything you can about the company and the job
2. Figure out what makes you tick – yes, I have a list of my skills written down so I don’t forget them
3. Be honest about your introversion with the interviewer – I don’t like this suggestion much; I mean how do you work that into a conversation about a job?
4. Find out what the most common interview questions are and write down the answers. This actually works pretty good for phone interviews, but not so much for in-person interviews.
5. Focus on the job and ask a lot of questions about it. Try to make the interview less about you and more about the job.
6. Pretend you’re talking about someone else
7. Be enthusiastic – No, no, no! I end up sounding slightly hysterical when I try for enthusiasm, so I’m going to give this one a miss
Any other ideas? I could really use them!
The other day a potential client asked me to describe the process that I used for proposal development. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a good answer because my process pretty much is to 1) figure out what needs to be done, and 2) do it.
Managers love processes, because they allow for reproducible results and interchangeable staff. It’s assembly-line thinking; if you assemble a widget according to a fixed rules, in a specific order, it’s easy to replace any one person. The problem is that individuals are not interchangeable, and each person brings a distinct life and occasional brilliance to a product – think of Steve Jobs at Apple.
Maybe I’ve just spent too much time working alone, but I think that most “proposal processes” should be thought of as general guidelines and memory aids, not as rules. Proposals (and any engineering project, really) have so many variables that a flexible approach is absolutely necessary. The best process for a given proposal is going to depend on the personalities of the people involved, the client’s needs, and a bunch of other worries, including the budget and schedule. Every project is different and that reality needs to be reflected in the way you approach the work. Call it agile management if you like.
So here’s my official proposal process, for anyone that asks: 1) figure out what needs to be done, and 2) do it.
The executive summary is by far the most important part of your proposal. It may be the only part of the proposal that many decision makers read, and they will be reading it without any context. Out of your entire document, this is the piece that is most purely a sales document.
You have just a few short paragraphs to convince the reader that you are qualified and that your idea is worth funding. If you can do both of these things, the reviewer will keep reading. If you can’t then all of your other work is wasted.
No matter what else you decide to put in your executive summary, the following three things must be part of it:
1. Exactly what you are proposing to do
2. Why what you are proposing is important to the reader
3. Why your team is uniquely qualified to do the work
Remember, at this point the reader won’t have any context for what you’re proposing, so keep the executive summary relatively simple and high level. Make it readable – that means short, crisp sentences, clear ideas, and meaningful language. Every word counts in this section. Be ruthless. If a word or a sentence doesn’t add something to the summary, cut it out.
One of the first things you need to do as you prepare your proposal is to identify what marketing drones refer to as your unique selling proposition.
Wait! I’m sorry! Don’t leave!
Don’t be frightened – the unique selling proposition is just marketing mumbo-jumbo for figuring out what makes your company special and unique – like a precious snowflake. In other words, why should anyone hire you and not the guy down the street?
This is a tough question (and by the way, it’s worth doing for yourself as well as for your company). Company mission statements are supposed to answer the question at a high level, but most mission statements fall terribly, amusingly, short.
(For some fun, try the meaningless mission statement generator at Laughing Buddha. My favorite? “Our company exists to globally and reliably revolutionize timely products without losing sight of our original goal to assertively leverage existing inexpensive information.”)
Your unique selling proposition is something that is completely honest and specific. You can’t fake this, and you can’t hide behind empty words (synergistic anyone?). It takes some real thought to identify one or two things that makes you or your team unique.
Is your team utterly reliable (and can you prove it)? Are you fantastic at thinking up creative solutions to transportation problems? Do you know how to bring new building products to the market quickly and efficiently? Do you hold patents or have some unique knowledge that you can make use of?
Write a statement that describes what makes your company or your team special, and remember – honest and specific. This is the hook that will carry everything else you write in your proposal.
Resumes are the heart of any proposal qualification section, which is sort of what a job hunt is too. To write a compelling proposal (or job application), there are a few things that we need to keep in mind:
1. Resumes should tell a story. Of course, people don’t usually go in a straight line from their first job to the job or opportunity they’re trying to win, but the resume should make it look like they did. Most people are qualified for several different job titles; for example, I can tweak my core resume to show that I’m a project manager, a technical writer, or a proposal and marketing specialist. For each opportunity (job) you should massage the job descriptions to highlight the bits that are relevant to the reviewer. Penelope Trunk offers a disturbing, but fascinating opinion on this subject.
2. Job titles are meaningless. I once held the job of “Communicator I.” Doesn’t tell you much about what I did every day does it? A description of job responsibilities is more useful, and helps you accomplish #1. There’s no rule against making up your own job title to give reviewers an idea of what you actually did.
3. Cut mercilessly. If an item can’t support the story you’re telling, delete it. Most solicitations put a 1-2 page limit on resume length, and that’s a good rule to follow for personal resumes as well.
4. Hide the negative stuff. Everyone has something potentially negative in their job past. We’ve all been fired, or laid off. Maybe we have a big gap in employment, or maybe we stayed in a dead-end job for longer than we should have. There are ways to move the focus away from these things. For example, there are ways to bury employment gaps if necessary. In a chronological resume, listing the years (rather than full dates) will often do the trick. If you quit a job in January 2010, and started working again in December 2011, you can honestly state that you worked at job 1 from 2008-2010, and at job 2 from 2011-present and a 2-year gap magically disappears.
5. Be honest(ish). This may sound counter to the advice in #4, but I’m not really advocating lying on resumes. There’s a difference between spin and deceit. You want to highlight the positive and keep the negative invisible. You don’t want to completely make anything up, because you’ll get caught.
Mountain Beltway over at the American Geophysical Union has a great blog post up about how words mean different things to scientists and to the general public. If you’re trying to discuss your research with normals, this is something you need to pay attention to.