The most important question to ask in an interview

Ah, the interview. The one hour or so that compacts years of experience, future years of ambition, and only your best qualities on show while hiding your quirks that the interviewers just aren’t ready for yet. 

It’s a big ask for such a short amount of time. You have one shot for a first impression, one shot to make the right impression, and one chance to articulate your suitability in a concise way that covers all the good bits of your career and personality.

You can understand why some companies opt for the multiple setting interview: half hour phone interview, two hour group activity, one hour hypothetical case study/role play (who to chuck out of a hot air balloon is a fav’), and one hour face to face interview.

Although this draws out the painful experience of an interview, it at least provides more time for you to be able to demonstrate a number of soft- and people-skills while knowing you have another chance or two to really shine.

But what if you only have the traditional format of a one hour interview?

You have a lot to cover in such a short time; how do you know you can cover everything while also begin to understand what the panel think about you?

Before I get to the one question you need to ask at an interview (y’know, just for a bit of suspense), there are the usual pointers that you need to cover throughout the interview:

“I’ve nothing to wear!” – something that fits well and is comfortable but formal. Interviews are worrying enough as they are without having to worry about how your stomach looks in a particular shirt, for example.

Arrival – arrive waaaay too early. It’ll settle your nerves knowing you’ve arrived with ample time.

Intro – just go in for the hand shake, without hesitation; no awkward ‘right hand in, right hand out’ scenario, just be the one to make that decision of shaking hands.

The job spec – learn it inside out and make sure you can answer each of their requirements, even if you don’t meet them 100%. Tell them that and what you can already do to balance this. Keep a copy of this in front of you during the interview.

Your CV – bring this with you and highlight the good bits as prompts.

Your responses (STAR) – that is: what was the Situation you want to talk about that demonstrates your answer; the Tasks you identified to address it; the Action you took; and the Results that followed. Might be worth adding the potential negative consequences had you not reacted in the way you did.

Your questions – lots of questions about the company (using the information you already found out about them online as an opener to a question), about the team you’d be working with, and my favourite, what the interviewers like the most and least about working there.

And of course, THE BIG QUESTION

Capital letters for this one, it’s that important.

Everyone I have shared this question with have fed back to me how well it served them and their interview. And for every time I have used it myself, I have slept better that night.

I thought of this question following a job rejection about 5 or 6 years ago, a devastating blow at the time. The job sounded really interesting and could’ve been the first step to a promising career.

A couple of days after the interview, the interviewer rang me up and told me the bad news – I didn’t get it. She kindly met up with me to provide more detailed feedback:

Interviewer: “You did really, really well…”

Me, to myself: Not helping

Interviewer: “…you have really good experience…”

Me, to myself: Not helping

Interviewer: “…and your CV is really well put together…”

Me: “Thanks, I followed this awesome advice!

Interviewer: “…In the end, it was down to you and one other person…”

Me, to myself: REALLY not helping

Interviewer: “…and we decided to go with the other candidate.”

On a personal note – I would like each and every one of you to go out and spread the word so that one day, all interviewers can know that telling rejected candidates that “it was between you and someone else” is the least helpful piece of feedback. Just stop. It comes across as eeny-meanie-miney-mo-esque.

Anyhoo, when I asked the interviewer what made her decide the other person over me, she said that as it was so close she had to look at what one of us could do that the other couldn’t, and as the other candidate knew how to make and use Excel macros, they picked him.

“….but I can do macros”, I said, “you never asked me, nor was it listed in the job spec”.

She apologised profusely but admitted the deed was done, the offer letter was out and that was that.

And it was at that point I promised myself that I would ask the one Big Question at the end of each interview that I want to share with you:

“At this point of the interview, are there any concerns you might have that I can address now?”

It’s as simple as that, but it’s an effective question that provides you the opportunity to iron out any niggles they might have, that could potentially be the make-or-break decision maker.

Had I have asked that question, they would have asked “Yes, as a matter of fact, you haven’t mentioned if you can do macros – can you?”

Of course retrospectively I’m glad I never got the job as I wouldn’t have got to a position I’m in now.

I used the question in an interview a year or so afterwards, and there was indeed a niggle the interviewer had that they weren’t going to bring up but decided to, seeing as I had given them some sort of permission. Their concern, left unaddressed, was potentially a deal breaker, but from asking this question, I was able to put their mind at rest with some reassurance.

I got the job – perhaps not solely from asking that question but I thought about how different it may have turned out if I didn’t ask that question, and if it would have been a close call between me and one other person.

Side note: it was that very job that introduced me to the world of HR and literally changed my working life. There you have it folks, not just The Big Question, a life changing question!

I thoroughly recommend asking this simple question at the end of the interview. Even if you feel uncomfortable asking it, make a joke out of asking such ‘a cheeky question’.

Asking this will also help you sleep better at night following the interview. It really is a dreadful time between interview and hearing the outcome so although it won’t remove 100% of the worry, it will take the edge off of it.

If you’re looking for more tips on interviews, have a look at the great advice Clear Cut Selection provide on their blog. They also offer one-to-one interview mock and coaching sessions tailored to your needs. Not an affiliate, just pointing readers to awesome content.

Good luck with your interview(s) and don’t forget to ask this question!

 

 

How to write a business case

Articulating an idea in a way that illustrates the benefits for the business usually takes its first formal format as a business case. This is used to set out the key solutions, advantages and a practical roll out plan to senior or executive leaders who must be sold on the idea without too many criticisms or concerns. 

There is no hard and fast rule when it comes to layout – you might find that your company has its own particular and preferred layout whether it’s an unspoken obligation or a mandatory template.

Or you might get to choose your own layout – just try not to be too creative about it as it needs to have some sort of degree of formality to be taken seriously. Unless of course it’s a case study that the business needs to be more creative then by all means have at it!

Whichever the layout, this post explains the key sections a good business case should have to make sure everything is covered. You don’t necessarily need to stick with the title of the sections but make sure the nature of each section is included.

Introduction

The first section should introduce the business case that covers the current situation ie the problem or situation your plan can solve. At this point you don’t particularly want to touch on your proposed solution – reveal this too soon without the background story and you risk the leaders being turned off too soon.

When people hear a controversial or seemingly outlandish idea without having worked through the motions to understand why the idea can actually work, no amount of explanation can convince them to change their mind once it’s been made too soon.

The introduction would normally stick to what is happening right now in a way that suggests that an answer or resolution is needed to stop this happening.

Implications

This section broadens the introduction or current situation. The introduction has acted as a hook, the beginning of the story that convinces and sometimes shocks the audience to pay attention.

This section covers the implications of what the current scenario is producing and takes the shock further. It’s essentially telling them to look at the things that are happening as a result of this problem.

To help you with this, stick to cold hard facts and figures, any that will help you portray the issue accurately.

It’s important not to put across your own agenda, which is easier said than done, but keeping to the figures and facts, and what they’re telling you is a good start. You shouldn’t be selective with this either, omitting certain facts from the case purely because it doesn’t fight your case very well.

On the contrary, you should include these not only to prove the integrity of the business case (by being transparent with the data) but to also help pinpoint exactly where the issue lies.

For example, if you’re trying to prove that your team’s performance is dropping due to lack of wellbeing initiatives, but miss out two team members whose performance is actually increasing, including these in the case can actually help your point.

The point isn’t that the team’s performance as a whole is declining, it’s that there are localised issues, and being able to see the differences between the high and low performing members can help your case if you’re providing a specific rather than general solution.

Detriment of taking no action

The ‘Implications’ section focussed on the facts and figures now, the result of the current issue. This section looks at the detriment of inaction and projects these facts and figures into the future.

These predictions highlight the potentially escalating nature of the issue, bringing home the big message that essentially says “this is a big problem and if we don’t do something about it now, it’ll only get bigger.”

At this point graphs that illustrate a trajectory of decline and/or peril will help the audience digest the information quicker.

As I talked about in this post about presenting data using graphs is a good way to show the overall picture without the need of specific numbers, or in other words, all the lines are going in the wrong direction and that’s bad.

So far, the business case has looked at the current situation, the implications of the situation and what will happen if no action is taken. We have them at the edge of their seats for a solution!

Proposed solution

And lo you have a solution. Not only does your solution correct all the wrongs of the previous three sections, it details the proposed approach.

It’s all very well in saying, for example, employees will be rewarded for their hard work to resolve an issue of lack of engagement, but it’s not enough to support your case.

In this section, you need to detail how your proposed solution will be rolled out, anticipating any questions you might expect the audience may have. These need to be written in clear actionable points, which will in turn essentially be the specific requests you are asking the audience to agree on.

They should know exactly what you will go away and do by them agreeing these points, as well as the consequences of them, i.e. resolution.

This can be helped by referring specific actions to specific people or teams from the previous sections, to the point where if you were to read back over the problem sections, they can be ticked off one by one as “sorted”.

You could have a separate section for Results but by doing so you run the risk of subconscious disassociation between the proposed solution and the results.

As such, I recommend keeping them together, as a single unit of solution and results rather than two separate points to consider.

You may also have a number of solutions up your sleeve and want to run each of them by the audience for their preference. In which case, it’s good to have some sort of clear comparison to the options, the strengths and weaknesses of each, and your recommendation with reasons.

Conclusion

The concluding section will consist of a summary of the case and a formal request to consider it as a whole as well as agreeing those actionable points.

Where applicable, it can be helpful to use this section to direct them to any appendices or annexes* that helped you with your business case, or any extensive and comprehensive pieces of data that aren’t necessary for the business case but still available should it be needed.

This basic structure is a good starting point when constructing your business case. It almost follows a story format: this bad thing is happening, causing all of these problems, and they’ll only get worse, until help comes along to solve the issue and as a result good things happen…

Very crude way of putting it but you get the gist!

Hitting the right note is your aim, particularly if you’re in front of a tough crowd to please.

* Ever wondered what the difference between an appendix and an annex is? An appendix is additional content relevant to the main body of text that you have put together but is better as an aside, for example case studies or tables of data. An annex is a supplementary document that has been put together by someone else but still helpful for reference or part of your research, for example a report on performance by the CMI, or a relevant article. 

 

Establishing professional credibility

I’m lucky enough to be part of a tribe of fellow avid doers – HR professionals. We tend to be just as enthusiastic about practising as we are preaching, as well as having a professional drive to lead, manage and develop our careers in confidence. I see an HR professional as a person, regardless of their role, and not a person who has an HR role.

A lot of this is down to having professional credibility. For those who are striving to get into the HR industry, have just started, or need a boost to the next level, they need to establish this professional credibility.

Professional credibility sits at the core of any person, in any profession, and acts as your career’s reputation. This can be easy to establish for those who have years of experience and contacts, with a wall full of framed qualifications to match.

But for those who have little or no experience, proving your professional credibility is that little bit harder. Sometimes this can be down to:

  • age (due to less years of experience rather than an ageist assumption that younger workers are less professionally credible) – years of experience can only come with age, but only if we’re looking at it quantitively; those who have to wait for Father Time can rest assured knowing that the best experience, like a lot of things, relies on quality;
  • lack of confidence – lack of confidence correlates with lack of knowledge. We lose confidence when we’re unsure of things: the direction of a conversation; the specifics of a particular topic; the reactions of others;
  • lack of drive – sometimes it can be a result of just not having the get-up-and-go needed to develop credibility, having an expectancy of it rather than working at it.

So if you do have the get-up-and-go, and you want to work on the first two points, two steps to establish professional credibility are:

  1. Immersion
  2. Application

Immersion

Breaking into a new profession, finding your feet with it, or looking for ways to progress within it is no easy feat. Immersion is one really good way of making this a lot easier.

So what do I mean by immersion? Immersion looks at immersing yourself into the industry, any industry, by being a human sponge. Absorb everything and anything about it to the point of obsession by researching into everything about it. Books, magazines, social media conversations, blogs, contacts, short courses, long courses, podcasts, videos – anything you can get your teeth into.

A lot of industries have become saturated with the internet making it easy for everyone to have a platform (even simple dorks like me!). While some people might think this is a bad thing, I like to see it in a more positive light.

You see, when starting out, or building on your professional credibility, you feel like you need to know more than you currently do. But with anyone being able to talk about any old gobbledygook, who do you listen to?

I say: ‘everyone’. While you have a blank (or more blank than you would like) canvas, there is no telling who to listen to or who to ignore. By absorbing everything and immersing yourself into that world, you begin to form opinions of your own, to link multiple ideas together, to spot discrepancies in arguments. In time, you’ll then have all the information to hone in on the methodologies and ideas that make sense to you and that you believe in; you’re not excluding the left over bits, you’re actually using them to establish the grounding of your understanding of the topic.

You’re gathering everything you need to know to a point where you can start to reject and question findings based on your own knowledge you have suddenly developed and not on other people’s thought patterns.

And to think, if you had decided to ask someone else for their opinion on who to listen to and ignore, you would’ve only been given their ideas, their opinions, thus losing out on all the other information and the opportunity to form an opinion and way of thinking that’s uniquely you.

Having worked in a number of industries and made a go at a number of careers, I have always immersed myself in these (…well the interesting ones anyway) with this method. Accounting, holistic therapy, and health and safety? Courses, research, qualifications and industry-related media for all the above. And ditto for HR where the immersion exercise grabbed me, enthralled me and adopted me. Which takes me to the second step.

Application

After immersing yourself in the profession and you feel like you have a good understanding, even at a foundation level, so much so to form opinions, acceptance and rejections, all this knowledge you have needs to be used to establish your credibility.

By applying this knowledge, you’re demonstrating everything you have discovered; most of the time this can be done passively – you’ve immersed yourself so much into the field, it is second nature and can be applied by discretionary effort.

Being more active about it involves some creative thinking and understanding your intentions and goals so that these actions are aligned to them. Actively establishing your professional credibility takes a lot of effort and mental energy so you need to be aware of the direction your efforts are taking you and that they’re lined up to what you want in your career (have a look at this post on professional motivation if you need a hand with this).

Applying your new-found knowledge is essentially putting your understanding to practice, putting it out into the world in real life scenarios which in time gives a grounding to your credibility.

There are a vast array of ideas to apply your knowledge:

  • contribute your own opinions and findings to work conversations, debates and meetings (thereby proving that you are someone who knows their stuff and can contribute your own unique perspective to work matters)
  • putting yourself forward to lead projects, talks and meetings (thereby building your confidence in taking your knowledge a step further to ‘leader’ rather than just ‘thinker’)
  • allowing your own skills and knowledge to shine through your daily work, as well as supporting other teams and projects that may not necessarily fall under your remit (thereby demonstrating you can apply your professional know-how to your role, developing it into your own, as well as applying it in unfamiliar territory and other specialisms)
  • contribute to blog posts, articles and profession-related online forums (thereby developing a network and contributing your opinions and voice to a wider audience, outside of work)
  • finding your voice through a number of extracurricular activities outside of work, for example starting your own blog, actively managing your online presence and putting yourself forward to write, speak and facilitate on areas of interest (thereby establishing yourself as a professional dedicated to their specialism, strengthening your reputation, and forever developing your own skills, knowledge and confidence)

These are just a few examples of establishing your professional credibility both inside and outside of work. It’s a good idea to ensure you put yourself out there beyond your place of employment, even if you intend to stay there for the foreseeable future, as not only is it a great way to network, you get to learn from so many people who think differently to your organisation. And if you are thinking of leaving in the foreseeable future, this is a great way to progress in your career in your chosen area.

Building integrity

Applying your knowledge to establish your professional credibility can only work when you are trusted and have integrity. Establishing credibility and trust are logically synonymous but sometimes forgotten. If you are seen as someone who lacks integrity and trust, your knowledge, regardless of its ground-breaking qualities, will fall on deaf ears. People will just not believe you and not take the time to listen to what you have to say. As a side note, if for whatever reason you need to establish yourself as a trustworthy professional, work on this first before applying your knowledge.

Establishing your professional credibility can be good fun. Indeed, I’m having immense fun establishing my own professional credibility; writing this blog is just one way I’m doing this. It takes time and the end result is barely measurable but having patience, and trusting the process, the steps your making day by day to put yourself out there as a professional dedicated to the profession, will inevitably pay off.

 

Recording yourself to improve your verbal communication

I’m delivering this post, very aptly, as a video post today in which I talk about recording yourself to improve your verbal communication.

In this video, I cover:

  • The benefits of recording yourself, including getting over the ‘umms…’, getting used to your voice, and being conscious of your body language
  • How the recording set up is easier than you think
  • What to say when you’re recording yourself
  • And the things to avoid.

I’m hoping to do more of these video posts every now and then. Let me know what you think!

 

How to present HR data

Retrieving and disseminating HR management information is one thing but presenting this data to various audiences that engages and informs them, without sending them to sleep, is a different thing altogether. Understandably, the topic of statistics doesn’t tickle everyone’s interest even though we understand that they are crucial to inform decisions, measure impact, and project trends.

So how do we relay metrics to key decision makers and tell them what they mean without losing their attention span within the first 10 seconds?

The answer can be summed up in one word: illustration.

Illustration, in all manner of meanings, can help audiences understand not just what the stats are, but what they’re illustrating. This can be done literally through illustration, that is presenting the data in pictorial format with graphics and charts, or figuratively, that is illustrating the idea of what the stats are saying.

Death by PowerPoint

It’s almost customary to include some sort of PowerPoint-bashing in an article about presenting, and this one is no exception. Granted there are times when PowerPoint or other similar and just-as-useful programmes are appropriate and necessary, and indeed for presenting data in person. But I want to bash the generic, almost primal use of slides that present data in a cold and useless way. White background. Bullet points. Comic Sans. Word-for-Word reciting. Cringe.

Have you ever sat in a presentation when so much data is displayed in monotonous charts, accompanied with labels and figures, and then the presenter reads off each and every single piece of data that is already on there, one by one, as if it adds value to what is already on the screen? Don’t do this. This is a sure way to kill what little attention people might have had prepared themselves for, for a notoriously tedious topic.

What’s worse is that this way of presenting data is also a time killer. This style of presentation could be done by email – the presenter doesn’t need to be there as essentially they will only read off of it anyway. The audience’s attention will in fact be MORE engaged reading it from an email as they don’t have the robotic narration in the background.

So how can we illustrate data and metrics?

The first thing to ascertain is the purpose of this data; how is this data being used? You might have several answers for several audiences from the one set of data, so by determining context before illustrating your data, you as the presenter can add so much more value than reciting numbers and percentage points.

Understand the purpose of the data and you can paint them a picture. By way of example, let’s assume you are presenting on the effectiveness of training, beyond attendee feedback:

Instead of saying:

“15 staff went on line management training in the last quarter, compared to 7 in the previous quarter”

Say:

“The amount of managers developing themselves has rose by more than double in the last quarter than that of the previous.”

These sentences are very similar and I could be accused of being pedantic. But the second sentence explains the data in words that people understand. “More than double” is more easily comprehensible compared to hearing two lots of numbers. Of course 15 is more than double of 7 but the more you recite numbers, the more they lose meaning.

With the above example, you could take the stats a bit further, providing you have the information available:

“Formal grievances raised have reduced by 25% in the same time period suggesting that line managers are more confident in managing conflicts before they escalate.”

This adds relevance to your presentation and adds another measurable dynamic to your illustration. This illustrates the impact behind the figures; there is a possible correlation between the increased uptake in manager training and the decrease of grievances. Although it’s a number, including the figure “25%” adds a quantifiable impact that is easier to mentally digest than reciting numbers like “the number of grievances have reduced from 76 to 57.” When first hearing this, is that a lot, is that a little? They don’t need to know the numbers, just that the numbers have been reduced by 25% – that’s instantly quantifiable.

If they need to know the numbers

When illustrating your data, the objective isn’t to eliminate the numbers entirely – without these there is no presentation. All you’re doing is explaining what the figures mean so the audience is informed on what to do next or assess retrospectively. However keeping these numbers to hand during the presentation means that your presentation is backed up by cold hard statistics when challenged or questioned. They’re handy to have in the background but they’re not necessary to be shared. If the data is being presented through a report or paper, and in other words you’re not there to have these figures to hand, supplying this hard data as an appendix means it’s readily available for those who want to see this but is separate from the main body of the report.

Infographics 

I have written before about my love for infographics. They are the older, much cooler sibling of the pie and bar charts and take data presentation to a new level.

Using infographics to present your data contributes to the relevance of the figures, as touched on above. Depending on how the illustration is put together, it can be easy to instantly portray the impact and effect of figures on a number of variables and other metrics.

Infographics can also skip the unnecessary commentary and narrative as the pictures will speak for themselves in a way that the audience can immediately identify and put into a bigger picture context.

You need to think creatively when jazzing up a cold subject like data so using infographics to present the data gives the audience a break from seeing the same presentation-by-bullet-points they’ve grown to loathe. There are a number of sites that allow you to create infographics in a variety of styles and designs that require no payments, licenses and attributions. There are paid options available but they’re unnecessary for the likes of what you need them for.

Stop reciting!

I cannot emphasise this enough. This advice can be applied to presenting in person in general – do not recite word for word from the slide that is already in front of people if you are presenting the data verbally. If a visual representation of what you are speaking aloud is in front of someone, they are much more likely to read what is in front of them than hearing what you are saying. Worryingly, they are also reading ahead which means assumptions are already being made on something you have yet to say and you lose the impact. Similarly, resist the temptation of swapping or skipping words in an attempt to look like you’re not reading it word for word. Everyone knows what you’re doing and you’re more than likely to stumble over your words.

You can resolve this by using the slides purely to prompt and illustrate what you are saying. As mentioned, data can be a tedious subject to explain so keep the words to your commentary and keep the data on the slides.

Know your audience

After discovering the joys of creating infographics can bring to your life, you’ll be tempted to use infographics for every presentation. Although this can be informative and more useful, certain elements of infographics might not be appropriate for very serious and traditional audiences. Presenting data to a management board for example should be done in a slick and simple manner, almost to the point of being cold. They really want the cold hard facts and although you may want to illustrate the impact etc. in an innovative way, sometimes this can be done simply with a bar chart or diagram.

So now you know there is another way of presenting data, you should be able to add impact to your presentation or report without boring the audience or reader. As long as the illustration is appropriate, your cold data is made available, and the digestible data hasn’t been skewed in the process of making it easier to understand, your data and metrics can go far beyond than just numbers.

 

 

When work won’t pay for training

As avid doers, we love a good course: a structured and linear progression towards a shiny new qualification (and even a shinier post-nominal) which gives us more competence and confidence in a particular topic, and which will lead to promotions, your own executive office and world domination.

Just one snag – work won’t pay for it. It might be development that you can bring back into your job (even at a push, I’m sure the principles behind crochet can be applied to the corporate world) but for one reason or another, work are unable to fund it.

Perfect. By the way, if there was a grammatical way to type a word that doesn’t sound sarcastic, I could have done with it there. It really is a blessing in disguise that work won’t pay for training or a course, or in other words, that you have to fund it yourself. If you have your heart set for a particular course, and a particular topic you want to develop, then you would be doing it one way or another anyway (if you’re as stubborn as me).

You see, funding your own course has so many benefits:

  • you get to choose how you want to take the course (online, classroom, weekends, evening)
  • you get to choose the course to complete. The topic doesn’t therefore necessarily need to relate directly (or at all) to you current role
  • you get to choose the provider. If the topic is offered from a number of course providers, you can choose the one that suits your needs, budget, membership benefits and general preference.
  • you have no obligation to finish the course if it’s a load of pants (I’d strongly recommend you finish it anyway but you won’t feel obliged to do it because work are paying for it)
  • the sense of accomplishment when you complete the course feels so much stronger knowing that it was on your own steam than if you did it as part of work
  • you have no strings attached to your employer. You could leave your company the day after you completed the course without any guilt (or debt if your company has a clause that repayment needs to be made within a certain time after the course if you leave)
  • but the best benefit of funding your own training is that it shows absolute professional determination and initiative to your current, and future employers

Professional determination and initiative 

I cannot begin to tell you how good this will look to your current and future employers as it really illustrates your determination and perseverance. In interviews you get to also explain why you funded it yourself – not “oh, them there wouldn’t pay for it! Grr!” – but that you assessed your own skills and abilities, you understood what was required of you in this, and any future role, and you proactively sought to bridge that gap by taking the course by any means necessary.

It’s also important to remember that taking a course or enrolling on any sort of training doesn’t always have to improve your career prospects. This might initially sound contradicting to the whole ethos of The Avid Doer ie career progression and getting where you want to be professionally. To me though, I believe you can progress and develop yourself without necessarily having better career prospects as an end goal (new job, promotion etc.), but instead so you can progress and develop in your own role. These additional skills help boost your productivity, performance, efficiency and confidence in your current role, and really make it your own.

Unrelated qualifications

This approach also explains to employers why you underwent seemingly unrelated qualifications to the current role as it was appropriate at the time to learn that particular skill even though it wouldn’t have led to better prospects.

For example, if someone wanting to work their way up in accountancy but has a qualification in marketing, it’s still worth mentioning why they decided to train in that, which clears up any doubt of in their dedication to the field but also recognises a qualification they would have still worked hard for.

Of course you will have to be selective in which ones you decide to include, but you need to identify which skills you picked up during, and as a result of, completing the unrelated qualification are transferable to your current or prospective role.

But when it comes to your existing employer not paying for the unrelated qualification, you can still follow this process of identifying the transferable skills and how they will play a part in your existing role.

“But courses are expensive” 

I hear that. Funding your own training does, obviously and non-figuratively come at a cost. It also relies heavily on your personal and financial circumstances.

Luckily, training online, or “distance learning” keeps costs down, and most even allow students to pay for the course in installments. And most will even qualify you to be an actual student ie student card discounts!

Other qualifications also allow people to just sit the exams; the Certified Insurance Institute for example have exam areas around the UK for people to complete their tests. Before this, those sitting the exam would have just needed to buy the relevant books and studied that way, rather than just enrolling in a course. So the total cost would just be the books and the exam fee. However if you’re the sort that needs a tutor to talk you through the content or to motivate you into completing chapters etc. this self-learning approach might not suit you.

I am a huge fan of learning and development (“L&D” in the bizz) and also of distance learning, so much so that it’s worthy of its own post which I will be publishing soon. I’ll be writing about picking the right course, finding the right way of doing it, making the time and tips on self-discipline.

In the meantime look at what’s available out there; I think you’ll find they’re a lot more affordable than you realise. Of course before you commit to any financial commitment like an installment plan, you should always do your sums and seek professional financial advice if appropriate. You should also assess the amount of return on investment ie will the benefits of gaining this qualification outweigh the cost and time it will take to complete it.

If it is an expensive course, the benefits really need to be tangible to your existing role (or your career aspirations) and speaking with your manager will help eliminate the possibility that the course isn’t necessary for your existing role (which might have been the reason why they decided not to fund your course).

So that’s why all is not lost if work decide they’re not footing the bill for your course. Dare I say it’s better they’re not paying for it as by funding it yourself, you add so much weight to the qualification, demonstrating to your current and future employers that you have the get-up-and-go to learn what you need and want to learn come what may. It also demonstrates you’re not one for giving up at the first sign of resistance and instead find other ways to develop yourself.

 

Leading brainstorms in 5 easy steps

Last week I shared 3 easy steps for preparing a brainstorming session and explained that putting in the effort and hard work into these steps will make leading the session a lot easier, as well as maximising its effectiveness.

As a recap, the 3 steps to prepare a session were:

  1. Identifying the objective – why is there a need for a brainstorm, what are the desired outcomes, how will these be presented to the end user
  2. Additional information – what information will you need to give you and the group some background knowledge to put the session into context
  3. Format – which approach will you take?

Now you have prepared the session, you should hopefully know feel more confident in leading the session. These 5 steps should help you:

Step 1 – Introduction

It’s crucial to set some basic ground rules for any type of brainstorm session. This should always include the likes of:

  • No belittling or dismissing ideas – all ideas, no matter how far-fetched or ridiculous, are allowed
  • No interruptions
  • Respect other people’s views and communication style
  • If the group wanders into a tangent, explain that the idea will be noted separately (so not to lose any good ideas) and that the group should come back to the main topic in the time they have.

The introduction should also include a brief summary to the group about why they’re in the group, the reasoning behind the session, the objectives, and how the findings will be used.

Step 2 – Leading the session

At this point, most of the hard work has already been done. You’ve prepared, you’ve told everyone why they’re here and what you expect of them. Your main job throughout the session is to make sure people stick to the ground rules and that each attendee has their chance to participate.

You will also need to make sure the input is balanced, for example, if someone is doing most of the talking, thank them for their input and tactfully ask if someone would like to add to their point or come up with a new idea. This opens the floor to everyone else, briefly but professionally silences the person doing all the talking and subconsciously gives permission to those who feel they need it to speak up. If there is someone who seems disengaged or just doesn’t provide any input, use this time to single them out by asking for their specific view.

Just don’t single out too many people – if a lot of people are disengaged or not participating, it might be appropriate to ask the group why this is. Word it in a way that isn’t accusatory but more inquisitive for example “The group isn’t coming up with a lot of collective ideas, do you think we’re missing something? Do you feel this approach isn’t the right one for idea generation? Do we need to work on this individually and reconvene at a later date equipped with more information? If so, let’s discuss what this information should be and decide how we will find it.”

But what happens if there’s a lot of enthusiasm and participation? Keeping an eye on the time is essential. If there a number of sections or topics you need to get through, you must make sure you stick to the allotted times. Going over time on one topic will have a knock-on effect for ALL following topics. However, enthusiasm shouldn’t be killed purely because an agenda you have created states the group needs to move on to the next topic.

Over time you will be able to figure out a way of allowing the time to go a bit over and shuffling the timings for the other topics. This of course is more restrictive the less time you have, but if you choose to do this, make sure you inform the group so they are confident the time is being looked after. If push comes to shove and it’s evident a lot more time is needed, you can always look into the option of having a follow up meeting at a later point.

Step 3 – Collating and relaying the information

About 10 minutes before the session comes to an end, you will need to start to discuss as a group which ideas are going to be taken forward. So that no ideas are lost (for example they might not be appropriate for one particular issue but is a good enough idea to not waste) you might find it helpful in categorising the ideas. Below are some examples of categorising your ideas:

  • Immediate action/Non-immediate but important action/Park for another project
  • Action within a month/Action within 6 months/Action within a year/No immediate action
  • Actioned by Team A/Actioned by Team B/Actioned by Team C
  • Needs approving/No approval but needs referring to/No approval or reference needed
  • It’s worth have a separate category for any ideas that weren’t related to this topic

Once the ideas have been categorised, relay the information by category to the group. This helps everyone structure the ideas in a logical pattern, but also highlights how ideas will be acted upon.

Step 4 – Formatting the outcomes

After the session, begin to format the ideas in the best suitable way, which should have already been determined in step 1 (third bullet point). Usually you could summarise the ideas by both category and as a whole. In some instances, you might find highlighting key themes in the ideas, or starting off with the big ideas that then feed into the ones with less impact. As with any presentation of data, it is all about the audience. How do they want to use the information? What do they really need to know? What would constitute as being too much information? Can the data be presented visually, for example with a word cloud to highlight common themes, or with a graph, or even infographic?

Step 5 – Follow up

Be sure to keep the brainstorm group updated with how the information is being used. It can sometimes be disheartening when you take part in a session and you hear nothing from the lead again, especially after having put the effort into the session. Even if the ideas haven’t gone any further, for example with management, let the group know this, ending it with a general “I will continue to chase and will contact you if there is any progress”. This means you won’t have to keep updating them on a regular basis if there is nothing to update them on.

It is also important to follow up with the end user. If the findings have been presented to the end user (see the post for tips on presentations) it is useful for them to also receive the same or more information by a follow up email for them to peruse in their own time. It’s always courteous too to remind them that should they need any more information or more work done on this (eg to include you and/or the group in any follow up actions) for them to get in touch.

I’ve taken these 5 steps on leading a brainstorm, and the 3 steps we looked over when preparing for brainstorms, and combined them in an awesome infographic which I’ll share on The Avid Doer’s social media accounts, and put at the end of this post.

Brainstorms are a great way not only to collect and formalise ideas, but to also bring different teams and people together whose differing perspectives can really add a fresh light on an issue. Essentially the success of a brainstorm lies within the solutions that are generated; making sure the preparation, format and facilitation of the session only makes the generation of solutions more time effective.

It’s also important to remember that as long as the solutions are found, the group have a say in how they are found. If you have a certain way in which you wish them to reach the end goal, but the group are veering to a more productive or innovative approach, it’s OK to take their lead and ‘roll with it’ – granted that the desired outcomes will be met in the same (if not less) amount of time.

Now, of course leading any sort of group, including brainstorms, involves an element of public speaking but as avid doers, we recognise this is something we need to work on to succeed in our careers. Even if your dream career doesn’t involve any public speaking, it’s a skill worth developing, especially if you consider yourself as an introvert or shy (please note these are two completely different things).

Over time, I will share ways that have helped me overcome these jitters, as well as inviting guest writers to share their tips on confidence. In the meantime the post I wrote on presentations offers a few pointers on how to handle speaking to a group of people.

 

Preparing and leading brainstorms

Preparing brainstorms in 3 easy steps

Brainstorming, blue skying, thought showers, idea mills…call them what you will and find least offensive, they are a powerful tool and I’m a huge fan. As a bubble of productive creativity, they are a safe hub of generating ideas that tackle a particular problem, decide how to get a particular outcome or direction for a particular project, plan a particular event – I could go on.

In short, it’s a dedicated session to dump ideas and provoke discussion and debate on feasibility, practicality and follow-up concepts.

If you have been asked to lead or facilitate a brainstorming session, you may be wondering how to go about it. Without resorting to brainstorming the ways in which to facilitate brainstorming sessions (although this is do-able), here are 3 steps to help prepare your session.

Step 1 – The objective

The first thing you need to be clear on is the brainstorm’s objective. Without being absolutely clear on this, you cannot effectively steer the session to the desired outcome. The three questions you should be asking yourself are:

  • What events have taken place to warrant the brainstorm – understanding what has happened for there to be a need for a brainstorm, as opposed to a meeting, round-robin email etc., will give you some background to the reasoning behind this. This should be included in the introduction to the session (look out for next week’s post on leading brainstorms) as it sets the scene for the attendees.
  • What are the desired outcomes from the brainstorm – ideally you should have been given a clear outcome for the brainstorm. If you can answer the first question, the outcome should be in context with the reason for the session.
  • How will the outcomes be presented after the session – how do the end users (this could be the person asking you to do the brainstorm or for another team who will take the actions away) want the information to be presented. Rarely will you be able to get away with presenting the crude pieces of paper the group dumped their ideas on, so you will need to determine before collecting the ideas how they will be cleaned up and summarised smartly to the end user. This should still be done at discretionary effort if the end user is happy to see the crude pieces of paper.

Step 2 – Additional information

Once you know the objective of the brainstorm, decide what additional information you will need. Being prepared will increase the effectiveness of the session, as well as avoiding any embarrassing questions you cannot answer in a room full of people, making you feel a little more confident. Additional information could include: the background; statistics or figures that help illustrate a problem; information from other people or teams that are not part of the session but will help with how the attendees come up with ideas; an agenda, explaining how much time will be spent on introductions and each topic; or case studies from other teams, departments or external organisations on how they approached a similar issue.

You’ll especially need to know who the attendees will be (or decide who they should be if you can) and what their experience, background and potential perspective will be. If you know them personally, it would be helpful to know if there are too many strong/weak vocalists. This will also help you to decide how to format the session.

Step 3 – Format

Now you know why the brainstorming session is needed, what its purpose is and all other additional information including who is attending, you will need to decide the format of the brainstorm. This needs to be appropriate to the audience, the objective and the time you have to conduct the session. You’ll also need to consider the strong/weak vocalists, for example, if there are more loud people than quiet, a big group session might not be the best option as the quiet’ns might not feel comfortable competing to be heard. As long as you can create and develop productive and usable ideas, there is no wrong way about it, but there usually is two or three ways that work the best. There are more and more ideas on different types of brainstorming – far too many to list and link to (but I’ve listed my favourites below) – so have a search on the number of formats and pick the best one that caters for the audience, objective and time. A few to mention are:

  • Old-fashioned brainstorm – a group of people giving the objective and begin to create, challenge, develop, imagine, and (hopefully) applaud ideas.
  • Individual and group think – similar to above but the objective and additional information is provided to the attendees well in advance. They all then individually start generating ideas before the session. They then take it in turns to share their ideas to the group on the day of the session. Not only does this really help for time-sensitive meetings, it also allows the attendees to do their own homework and gather their own additional information that would help the session.
  • Sticky notes – this is particularly helpful for ideas that aren’t too lengthy or complex and normally consist of 1- to 5-worded answers. The attendees are each given a sticky-note pad and use one note per idea (they can work on their own or in separated groups) and then stick these on a big board at the front. The group then discuss the ideas and can rearrange the positioning of the notes if there are a sequence of events. This is usually called storyboarding.
  • Stepladder brainstorm (1992 Rogelberg et al) – this is a new one for me and have only recently heard about it but it’s an interesting concept. Essentially the attendees are asked to leave the room bar two people. These two are then given the objective and so begin to create and discuss ideas. Then one person from the group that left is brought in to join the two people and given the objective. The one person tells the two people their ideas before the two people tell them what they came up with. Then another person joins the 3 people and so on. It’s a great way to steer away from ‘groupthink’ yet allows each person to have their say while also benefitting from the group’s thoughts.
  • Talking stick – this is a method where each member of the group provides an idea and the thoughts around it individually and in turn. The name comes from schools when children could only speak with they held the talking stick (my school had a wooden spoon). Props are optional…

So, preparing the brainstorm session is half the battle. But making the effort into this side of the process will make the other side, ie leading the session, a lot easier. Next week I share 5 easy steps for leading and facilitating a brainstorm session.

 

Presentations for introverts: Part 2

In my previous post, I shared 5 tips on what anyone, and particularly introverts, can do before a presentation to put in place some safety nets. We discussed the importance of getting clarity on the point of the presentation, fact-checking, getting your intro right to start things off on the right foot, rehearsing, and the ‘prepare, pause, repeat’ method. In this post I share a further 5 tips on what you can do to keep your cool during the presentation.

  1. When you mess up

Allow yourself to mess up. Unless you are a political or power figure who needs to deliver a flawless speech, you are a person telling people about something at work that they need to know about. Simple as that. So if you mess up your words, just stop, excuse yourself, dust yourself off and try again. Don’t make a big deal out of it. Would you feel embarrassed if you did that in a one-to-one conversation? Like I said, this is work, with people, who just need information given to them, not a flawless production. Lost your train of thought? Then say that. Don’t pretend you haven’t and bluff your way through it, it will look really obvious. Admit it and make a joke out of it – prepare one if needs be – ‘sorry, I’m that excited about this glamorous subject, my mind’s raced ahead to the next slide! Where was I?’.

If you are stumbling your words or rushing, make yourself aware that you could be afraid of silence. Some people feel they need to fill silent gaps as quickly as possible, making them panic and stumble. Taking time to punctuate your presentation with a suitably timed pause actually looks and sounds better than rushing from one topic or sentence to the next. The silences can be a conscious decision, or a natural pause of concentration. The 2 or 3 seconds of silence (even though it might seem longer to you!) is enough time to compose yourself and gather your thoughts for the next sentence.

  1. Offer experienced people to share their view

I understand the intimidating feeling of presenting to people who are more experienced than you. If they have been given the objective of the presentation and they still felt the need to attend the presentation, then that’s one victory already achieved – they want to hear what you have to say. If you know in advance who these people are, do a bit of a background check into their experience (don’t be creepy about it) and find out what they do. That way if they really do know more about the subject, find a way of letting them offer their thoughts into the presentation. Ask them what their views are or relate a certain point to them.

‘…and this is why the figures look to be so low in the next quarter. Susan, I believe you worked with Finance a lot on this, would you care to share what your thoughts are on this? Is there anything you would like to add that I might not have covered?’

You have given Susan less imaginary power to challenge or embarrassing you by controlling the situation. You’ve practically told her ‘I acknowledge you know a lot about this, I’m not trying to say I know more. Please can we use your knowledge and share your experience with the group’.

Of course, Susan doesn’t actually want to challenge or embarrass you, she’s actually quite lovely.

  1. Visual aids

Now, as I mentioned, I will be writing about putting together a presentation at a later date, but the reason I have included visual aids to help you overcome your nerves is because they’re a great place for eyes to rest. In other words, everyone is looking at something other than you! Be it a PowerPoint slide, a physical handout or infographic, give the group somewhere they can rest their eyes on, taking the focus away from you.

Some, if not most, introverts feel uncomfortable with attention on them, so having a bunch of eyes ‘judging’ you while you’re going through your already nerve-racking presentation adds to our worries! Give them something else to look at.

  1. Check in regularly

Make sure you check that everyone is happy with the presentation at regular points, or in corporate lingo, ‘checking the temperature’. Not to a point where it’s annoying, but maybe after each big topic or every 20 minutes or so. Sometimes your nerves can build up throughout the presentation if you are the only one talking. If no one is saying anything and you just see a sea of faces looking blankly at your presentation, firstly remind yourself this could be just their resting faces as they’re digesting the information; it might not have anything to do with you boring them.

Secondly, by checking in on them, you can gauge how they’re feeling about it. If asking them has snapped them out of a trance and they all confirm they’re happy with the pace, information etc. then you can carry on with a bit more confidence. If they’re struggling to keep up or digest the information, then checking in on them early means not only can the presentation be readjusted or re-explained in another way for the audience to really get the most out of the presentation, but it’s also good to find this out now rather than get through to the end and no one not knowing what the hell’s just happened. This causes embarrassment and will hit your confidence unnecessarily.

  1. Open the presentation to the floor a lot

Not only does this keep your audience engaged or give you 5 minutes to recompose yourself, you get to know a bit more about the people you’re talking to when you make them part of the presentation. Sometimes it could be not knowing someone, or being intimidated by them because you’re not familiar with how they act with colleagues that puts you off presenting to people. By asking for input and open discussion throughout the presentation, you get an understanding of their character and you’re more than likely going to realise they’re not as scary as you imagined.

Make sure to not stick with the same person or selected few; try and get everyone involved so that you get the maximum group contribution. Edging quiet people to share their views also helps if there is someone dominating the discussions.

Giving presentations is scary to begin with. But admitting that alone will really help you, and bring yourself to terms that this is the way it is, and not necessarily a sign of danger or something that you shouldn’t be doing. Remind yourself this is a professional environment and no one will boo you off stage or think any less of you if you trip over your words. Remember to breath, take your time, and in time, you’ll become better and better.

 

Presentations for introverts: Part 1

“I have to give a presentation to a group of around 20 people but I’m really scared of public speaking. What’s more, there are a couple of people in the group more experienced than me who probably know a lot more about the stuff I’m going to talk about anyway. As an introvert, I haven’t got a lot of confidence with having all eyes on me and I’m just dreading making a mess of it. I know I need to develop this skill to grow professionally, so any advice would be much appreciated!”

I hear that. As an introvert myself  I can’t tell you that the nerves will go away anytime soon. Believe me when I say though that it does get easier with practice though, as with probably every other challenging task in existence. So it’s great that you acknowledge this is something you need to do. To get ahead in your career, it’s an important thing to learn, whether you’re comfortable with it or not, and approaching it head on rips off the proverbial plaster. I’m much more confident with them now and once the momentum picks up, it’s really (nerdily) enjoyable!

My approach is having a number of safety nets in place before and throughout the presentation in 10 simple steps. The first 5 talk about what you can do before the presentation. I will then talk about the other 5 in the next post, where I explain what you can do during the presentation. These are tips on delivering a presentation – I will write another post later about how to put one together.

  1. What’s the point…

…of the presentation? To avoid wasted effort and time, clarify what the presentation needs to be about. To use a corporate word for it, what is its ‘objective’? What does the audience need to take away from the presentation? Who are the audience? And if this has been commissioned by someone else like your line manager, confirm the point with them so that you’re both on the same page before work starts. This saves you embarrassment if you’re pulled up in mid-presentation that you’ve got the wrong end of the stick.

  1. Fact check

Always routinely fact check your presentation. Even if you are pretty sure a certain fact is correct, double check this from a reliable source. Odds are the one fact you didn’t check will be brought up by someone who will challenge you. Scary right? Check your facts.

  1. Get your intro right

While conquering my fear of public speaking, I find that the best way to start a presentation is a really good and well-rehearsed introduction. Starting off on a trip or stumble (verbally of course, although physically is just as humiliating) will really knock your confidence and you run the risk of this setting the tone for the rest of the presentation. Only a risk though, not a guarantee.

Knowing exactly what you’re going to say at the beginning and how you’re going to say it will really get you on the right foot and build confidence-momentum. This will involve writing down the tiny detail, even an ice breaker, of what you’re going to say to hush people to attention. Practise what you’re going to say, you need this in your ammo. For example:

Right everyone? Excuse me, everyone? [you need to choose specific wording otherwise you won’t feel comfortable using a hushing expression on the spot without knowing what the words sound like in the air]. I think it’s time we all crack on with this if we’re going to make the best of our time so if we could just settle, we can begin.

‘Right, thank you everyone. My name is Bob, and today I will be talking about X so that by the end of the presentation, we will get a really clear understanding of what we need to do next, while also opening the floor for any comments’.

  1. Rehearse

Go through the presentation a number of times and make sure the flow is right. You don’t want to write an entire script down that you read off, which sounds like a safe option, but it’s really awkward hearing it. And once you start and you realise people know what you’re doing, it’s incredibly hard (and more awkward) to break out of it mid-presentation.

  1. Prepare, pause, repeat.

Preparing for a presentation might sound like an obvious step, and rightly so as without preparing for the presentation, you feel less in control, and that’s where the fear kicks in. What you need to be cautious about though is preparing too much. That might sound a little odd, but you can actually prepare so much that you play out the same presentation over and over again so rigidly but in your head. Come the day you present, it’s more likely not going to turn out the way you planned, and frankly, you can never be 100% sure how it will go. Preparing too much gives you a false sense of security.

Instead, give my ‘prepare, pause, repeat’ method a go. What I do it prepare a lot for a presentation then ‘pause’, or just put it away out of my mind and not think about it for a day or two. Then I prepare again, be it a rehearsal or quick fact-check, and then I put it away out of my mind again. This stops you preparing so much that you overwhelm yourself with such a rigid perception of how it will go while also giving you the opportunity to not be so heavily involved that you can’t spot grammatical errors or inaccuracies.

So these are 5 things you can do to put some safety nets in place before the presentation. In my next post I will share 5 further tips in what you can do during the presentation.