The current economic climate is uncertain at best and AEC firm leaders need solid information to plan their strategies for the coming year. Given the uncertain future, what can give your architecture, engineering, construction, or environmental firm an extra edge on the competition, particularly when bidding for contracts?

I’ve been helping teams within the AEC industry prepare for interview presentations for more years than I care to admit. Something I’ll say to the interview team early on is, “If you don’t win this job, it won’t be because you weren’t the best team for the job. The problem is, at this level of competition, every team is the best team for the job!”

Every team has excellent and relevant experience, individuals with outstanding credentials in their area of expertise, and the ability to bring the job in “on time and within budget.” That’s what got you on the short list. But regurgitating that information during the interview presentation is not what’s ultimately going to win you the job.

Formula for success

Based on everything I’ve learned working with my AEC clients over the years, if there is a formula for success in getting the job, it would be this:

Competence + Confidence + Chemistry = Success

Once you make it onto the short list for the interview presentation, the confidence and chemistry pieces are huge. At this stage of the game, competence has already been determined and is assumed. It’s what you all have in common.

So what happens when competence and relevant experience are no longer serving as differentiators? The interview committee looks at other factors on which they end up basing their decision. Often their selection of the winning team is based on one or more of three simple but powerful criteria:

  1. They liked you more
  2. They felt you wanted the job more
  3. They felt you understood them best

They liked you more

There seems to be a direct correlation between likeability and getting what you want in life. This applies to the interview process as well. The team that is better able to genuinely project itself as flexible, responsive, concerned, sincere, empathic and so forth will find it much easier to get others to want to work with it. This is part of the chemistry piece. Ultimately, they like and trust you more.

Your projected level of confidence also plays a part here. The more confident the team appears to be, the more confident the client will be in the team. You have to give it to get it.

They felt you wanted the job more

How can anyone determine how badly you want something or how important it is to you?

Will it be through the words you say? Probably not. It’s more in how you say it. And yet, how often have we heard the project manager or the principal of the firm say things like, “We’re really excited about this project,” using a voice that shows no more emotion than if he or she were ordering a burger with fries to go?

What’s required is a voice of conviction driven by a genuine passion for the work at hand with a steadfast belief that your team is truly the best team for the job. We should hear it in your voice, see it on your face and sense it in your demeanor and movement. It’s the sound and look of genuine conviction that implies a commitment and intention to get the job done better than anyone else.

They felt you understood them best

You can be the best at what you do, but if when you talk to me I feel unacknowledged in the process, I’m not inclined to want to engage with you.

There are verbal and nonverbal components to this. The verbal part involves talking about the project you’re pursuing with a familiarity that makes your listeners feel like you’re already working on it. The team sounds as though it knows as much or more about the project as does the selection committee.

At the nonverbal level, the body language of each team member is open, accessible, attentive, focused and energized.

In effect, what you say and what you look like as you’re saying it is in total alignment. All parts of you are conveying the same message simultaneously. It’s a congruity that suggests a high level of integrity that elicits strong feelings of trust between both parties involved in the process. In the end, the client is left feeling like you really got who they are and what they need.

Why you miss the mark

This all sounds simple enough, and yet the vast majority of interview teams will fall short in at least two out of the three areas mentioned above. Based on my experience and those shared by many of your own marketing directors, here are the top five reasons why interviews tend to miss the mark:

1. Too much time spent adding or changing content instead of maximizing the impact of what you already have.

In so many cases, the content of your presentation is not what will set you apart. Again, at this level of competition, everybody is pretty much saying the same thing. The question becomes, how do you say it better? And please, don’t bring in third parties to the process at the very end of your prep time and then allow them to change what the team has already spent days developing!

2. Your presentation sounds and looks like every other team’s.

In essence, your presentation becomes part of the common denominator versus a differentiator. It’s what I call “white noise.” Noise or sounds we hear so often that they no longer register at a conscious level. Remember, the more predictable the presentation, the less impact it will have.

3. A lack of commitment to prepare as a team.

This is a team presentation. The synergy between you, projected sense of cohesion, consistency in key messaging, and comfort and trust with one another will be a natural outcome of preparing and putting the time in together as a team. No one gets a “hall pass” for this one!

4. An overemphasis on content and never enough on delivery.

Almost everyone in the industry admits that they spend nearly all of their prep time deciding on and changing what they want to say at the expense of time used for practicing the delivery of the presentation. But how do you project confidence or create chemistry when you’re still struggling with learning what it is you want to say?

5. A lack of ongoing presentation skills training and practice with effective coaching and feedback.

Does Tiger Woods wait for opening day of the golf tournament to get some coaching and begin practicing? I don’t think so! You get the point.

So, the next time you get short-listed for an interview, take a long and hard look at where your competitive edge is really going to come from. Build a list, prioritize it, and then invest your prep time accordingly. Be sure to keep in mind that what got you into the game is not necessarily what will win you the game.

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