Present and correct

Hugh Pearman comes to the conclusion that the best way to impress at presentations is just to be yourself, show enthusiasm and, of course, to have some good ideas.

Presentations. They’re job interviews, pit-of-the-stomach occasions. I’ve been involved with many and I’ve been on the receiving end of many more and I have come to one conclusion: don’t polish up your act too much. Stay rough and ready.

Of course, there are limits. There was the time when I was helping a client to select a graphic designer. One – a slightly wayward famous name – we were particularly keen to interview. The job was to be a big one, its implementation stretching over several years. We wanted an approach that was personal, even eccentric. We got that all right.

The said designer, out of the country on the day of the interviews, made no attempt to fix another date. Instead he sent, at the last moment, an architect chum to speak on his behalf. The architect was a good one – something of a name himself – but he knew sod all about graphics. As he could tell us nothing about what his friend’s approach might be, instead he spent the entire interview asking about fees. Both are now effectively blacklisted by the organisation in question. I still admire them both but hell, what can you do?

With another client, it was a matter of high-value product design. Come the interviews, one over-commercial design outfit said: “We can do anything, look at all these relevant slides, just tell us what you want, we’ll run it up in a trice.” Not much original input there.

Another relied very heavily on the fact that his large firm had designed one very good-looking and well-known product. Boosted by the fame of this, he did not condescend to engage with the brief that we had set and managed to give the impression that we were small fry who would scarcely register as a blip on his clientometer. Next!

The final presentation that day was given by a pair of designers dressed in funereal black. They shuffled in, grunted, spent a long time struggling with their projector. One sat silent, the other hopelessly flashed up slides that he admitted were of the wrong sort of work. Soon he tailed off. Did they wish to say anything else, we politely inquired? The silent one then stirred himself. Only to say, he began tentatively, that the way he saw this project was…

He was brilliant. He had thought about the nature of the client, how the object would help to shape and change its public image. He knew as if by instinct what we were after (most of it background stuff not mentioned in the pragmatic brief). He had some outline ideas – maybe this, maybe that, but anyway, let’s talk. He was genuinely enthusiastic. On the basis of this speech – unaided by props of any kind – he and his partner got the job. They shuffled out again, mumbling.

I’ve had some pretty scary panel interviews myself down the years, and when the tables are turned I remember how much like court-martials they can seem. In a time when I foolishly allowed myself to become a school governor I interviewed teachers for jobs: people who could face down a classroom of 30 teenage delinquents, but who froze with terror at our kindly smiles on the interview panel. These were usually the best candidates for the job.

The same rules applied when it came to interviewing arts curators for a Lottery-funded project. The nervous, stumbling ones generally had better portfolios and ideas than the over-confident types whose pitches were long on presentation and short on content.

Interviewing several young firms of architects recently for a biggish housing project, we got all shades of presentational gaucheness. This we expected and, indeed, wanted: far preferable to the blandness of the seasoned professional presenter with his/her briefcase full of recycled ideas.

The eventual winners – in a paid competition – had the least flashy artwork and a puzzlingly oblique slide show. But like our black-suited product designer friends, our chosen plaid-shirted architects were alive and responsive to the place and the people they would be working for. We thought we could see a dash of inspiration there. We reckoned we would get on with them. And that is about the best you can probably hope for.

I’ll be seeing the preliminary results from the latest of these various selection processes soon. I’m acutely aware that if the chosen ones fail, then so do I. For all their seeming power at interview, clients are horribly vulnerable thereafter, and so are their advisors.

Hey, everyone: just don’t cock up, OK? For me?

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