Earlier this year I was asked to sit on an interview panel for a Director of Communications position. The organisation requested my support to reduce eight candidates down to four through a series of written and communication tests. I have helped a number of people prepare for job interviews with international organisations and companies, but I had not been in the recruiter’s chair for many years.
It was a great vantage point to assess what works and what doesn’t.
Below are ten observations based on interviewing candidates remotely:
1. Prepare. It is a cliché, but preparation does prevent poor performance. I was shocked that some candidates had scant knowledge of the organisation’s vision and mission and had not thought enough about the value they could bring. Employers are looking for what you can do for them: what gaps you can fill and what problems you can solve.
2. Don’t over-prepare. One candidate had obviously been privy to some confidential information and revealed it. This did not go down well with the panel.
3. Be prepared to answer questions based on your tests and motivation letter. As a side note, make sure that your cover letter is a single page. It should be employer centric and make them want to read your CV. (We received one letter that was 7-pages long – not a good indication of someone’s ability to be clear and concise!)
4. Give examples of what you like about the organisation’s mission, values and activities, and where it can improve.
5. Keep your answers short – less than 1 minute as it is very easy for the interviewer’s mind to drift. If they want to know more, they will ask follow-up questions.
6. Have real examples of when you have failed or not succeeded. This makes you more authentic.
7. Give examples of your experience from across your career and not just from one job, as this shows the breadth of your knowledge and expertise.
8. Don’t b…s…t! Interviewers are usually very senior and a good judge of character. They have interviewed countless people and can spot someone pretending to be someone they are not!
9. Don’t read your answers from a script. Everyone can see your eyes moving from left to right. It says you are not a great communicator as the audience loses connection and interest.
10. Look straight into the camera. If you look away and your eyes dart everywhere, it can make you seem unfocused and rather maniac!
Many people I know – both panelists and audience members – are wondering what is the point of panel discussions.
This is what I am told by the senior managers, leaders and experts I have been training in various communication skills.
It seems they are often too promotional, disorganised, lack focus and fail to deliver any new insights or engage the audience. In fact the audience takeaway seems to be at the bottom of the organisers priority list for a successful panel discussion
And ignoring the audience is having consequences as organisers tell me that fewer people are showing up for virtual, hybrid or in-person panels. It would appear that post pandemic we are all suffering from a case of “zoomitis” and thinking twice before we tune in or turn up to an event.
Putting the audience first
Organisers need to clearly articulate why they are organising the panel and the outcomes they want to achieve, including answering the question why the audience should attend?
Here are some questions that ensure a more audience-centric focus:
• Why is this topic important right now?
• What are the key challenges the audience is facing on this topic right now?
• What does the audience need to know?
• What does the audience want to know?
• What is the benefit to them? Why should they care?
By the way, these are the same questions you should ask when preparing a presentation. Presenting is all about the audience – and so is organising a panel discussion!
It is only once they have thought about their purpose and the audience that they should invite the speakers. Big names can be a draw, but they, like all panelists must be ready to address the issues raised in the panel and not see it as an opportunity to promote their organisation.
Engaging the audience
Most direct audience engagement usually happens during the audience Q&A. Unfortunately, this sometimes doesn’t happen because the moderator runs out of time, often because there are too many speakers are on the panel.
I feel that the Q&A is given short shrift, seen as an add-on rather as integral to the event. In my view, the audience should feel part of the discussion from the beginning to the end. The moderator, for example, can ask the audience’s view at the start of the panel with a raise of hands, or poll, as well as at certain moments during the discussion and can even ask for their opinion or response to a comment made by a speaker.
The moderator’s role is not only to ask the questions the audience wants asked – similar to that of a good journalist, but also to keep them in mind throughout the discussion.
If organisers and moderators take a more audience-centric approach to panel discussions, I am convinced that they will not only get better outcomes, but that the audience will turn up in droves for other events, they organise.
What lessons have we learnt from how we communicated on the COVID health crisis that we can apply to the climate crisis?
That has been a recurrent question in some of the panel discussions I have moderated at conferences over the past year.
Two years ago, this month WHO announced a global pandemic. Since then politicians may not have admitted that they got things wrong, but scientists certainly have as this article reveals.
What became increasingly clear is that scientists are comfortable with not having a definitive answer. Being proved wrong lies at the heart of scientific progress.
But the media failed to understand this at first. Editors want certainty and journalists like to give answers. News tends to be black and white, while science is shades of grey.
Julien Pain, producer of the French TV programme, True or False, told me during a panel that “journalists learnt that as science evolves scientists change their mind on issues such as lockdowns, masks, and vaccinating children.”
He said that journalists should have focused on “what we know for sure, what we don’t know and what we need to know”. This he thought would at least have dampened the anti vaxxer arguments about not trusting governments due to their constantly changing policies.
Interestingly, he felt that scientists tended to fall into the trap of playing the media’s game and were not cautious enough with their answers. Perhaps, he opined because they wanted to be on TV or radio.
One of the best public health communicators in history
One man who became an instant celebrity on British TV and radio was the deputy chief medical officer, Jonathan Van-Tam. He managed to translate scientific concepts in ways that the public understood.
His skill lay in his masterful use of the metaphor. He told the BBC that “I like metaphors as they bring complex stories to life for people.”
He uses a whole range of metaphors from sporting – football in his case, to journey (planes and trains) to those about weather (storms) and food (yoghurt).
In the UK, he managed skilfully to persuade people to get vaccinated, protecting others and themselves.
As he leaves his post this month to take up a job in academia, he will be sorely missed as a scientist who managed to communicate clearly, confidently and with as much certainty as possible during the COVID crisis.
Journalists like to probe during an interview and often ask you a question about what you would personally do or what you think. Depending on how you answer, you can find yourself caught in a spider’s web that is difficult to escape.
In this blog, I will share an experience and give you some tips on how to answer this type of question.
As head of media at WWF International, I attended a press conference in London organised by WWF UK to launch a report on an oil spill off the coast of Spain. A journalist from the Guardian asked the speaker from WWF UK – would you eat the fish? He replied; I would not eat the fish. The speaker from WWF Spain and the report’s author replied that the fish was safe to eat.
This scenario is a public relations nightmare – two people from the same organisation contradicting each other during a press conference. I was not moderating but sitting in the audience observing, so powerless to act. Afterwards, I went up to the journalists to attempt some damage limitation. How will you spin your way out of that one? The BBC environment correspondent asked. I am not, I replied, but I suggest you talk further with the author of the report.
The problem was that the Spanish speaker had been great as a spokesperson when the oil spill hit the coast but struggled to convey the main points of the report in English. The journalist from the Guardian had become frustrated and asked the classic tricky question. The problem was the speaker from the UK had not thoroughly read the report and thought that if he added the word “personally”, his answer would be satisfactory.
Unfortunately, that is not the case.
The headline in the Guardian the next day was that the fish were not safe to eat, making the work of WWF Spain with the fishers even more challenging. It is safe to say that we all learnt lessons from that press conference!
If you speak as a representative of an organisation, your opinion has to be the same. Journalists often ask this question when they sense that your personal opinion may differ from the “party line”.
It is, in my view, fair game to ask policymakers, decision-makers and regulators, for example, during the pandemic, if they are vaccinated or would vaccinate their children.
Strangely, it can be more difficult to answer on behalf of a close relative. A few weeks ago, an investigation from the police watchdog criticised the London Metropolitan force for misogyny, racism, bullying and sexual harassment. Have a listen to this
on BBC radio.
The presenter asks the spokesperson for the police watchdog if he would feel comfortable if any of his female relatives relied on the Met if they were vulnerable in any way. It is often a question that comes near the end of an interview, in this case it is at 05.52
You will note that he doesn’t answer directly but uses the question to drive home his message about the need to call out such behaviour when it occurs.
The personal question is a trap only if you let yourself fall into it. It can work in your favour and that of the journalist, providing them with good quotes and soundbites. And, if you proactively include a personal example or story in your answer, it can build credibility help to understand and bring your point to life. Just make sure, though, that the personal is always on your terms!
I have waited two years to tell you this story. In January 2020, I went on a guided walking tour of Vienna with an Austrian friend. It was memorable because it was bitterly cold, and we wondered if we would last the two and a half hours. Forty of us were huddled together at the meeting point stamping our feet and rubbing our hands as snow threatened.
We should not have worried as our guide, Wolfgang Rigon, from Good Vienna Tours was a master storyteller, who kept us all captivated as he showed us the sights.
We stopped at least a dozen times as he told us a story, bringing alive the glorious and not so glorious history of the city. I recorded a couple of those stories on my phone. Have a watch of a powerful storyteller in action.
He must have told this first story about Marie Theresa, who gave birth to 16 children, hundreds of times. For us, the audience, his passionate delivery made us feel as if he was telling it for the first time. See how he connects with the audience by making it relevant to the modern-day experience.
He also knew how to make us laugh.
And he expertly used the rhetorical devices of the rule of three – repetition, hyperbole and metaphor – comparing the bed to a tennis court!
He also managed to hold our attention with longer stories. Here he told the tragic story of Sisi, who married Emperor Franz Joseph 1 at sixteen and became Empress Elisabeth of Austria and Queen of Hungary.
Note the transition at the beginning from the previous story about a beautiful horse to beautiful Sisi.
He tells the story using a structure that would be familiar to viewers of Pixar movies – the makers of the Toy Story series. First you give some context, building up the character of the protagonist by describing their world. Then one day something happens to disturb that world and the protagonist faces a challenge. In the case of Sisi, she gives birth to a child who falls sick and dies. As a result of her death, Sisi loses her mind and goes on the run across Europe. Until finally, she gives birth to a boy who is later killed and she is shot by an assassin in Geneva. Wolfgang then wraps up the story in one sentence saying from her youth to death she led a life of tragedy and that is why it became a Hollywood movie.
During our break for Viennese coffee and strudel, I asked him whether storytelling had been part of his three-year course to become a guide. He said unfortunately not. They had only been taught historical facts. But he had learnt over the years how to hold an audience’s attention come rain or shine. Or in our case, come snow in deep mid-winter!