Podium Coaching Blog

How stories can help you ace a job interview

Posted on 29. Sep, 2014

by Halina St James

If your job involves makings speeches or presentations, you probably know how stories help get your message across. But did you know stories are also a great way of winning a good job in the first place?

At Podium we regularly work with groups of people who are looking to enter, or re-enter, the workforce. After all, the most important presentation you’ll ever make may well be when you set out to sell yourself to an employer.

Telling short, relevant stories is a great way of delivering the key points of your CV in an interesting and memorable way. A well-chosen story will hold the listener’s attention, and will stick in the memory much better than facts and figures.

So what stories should you tell in a job interview? According to Google, the top 10 questions asked in job interviews are:

  1. What is your greatest strength?
  2. What is your greatest weakness?
  3. How do you handle stress and pressure?
  4. Describe a difficult work situation or project and how you overcame it.
  5. How do you evaluate success?
  6. Why are you leaving or have left your job?
  7. Why do you want this job?
  8. Why should we hire you?
  9. What are your goals for the future?
  10. Tell me about yourself.

Pick about three questions to answer. Prepare a story for each question. Make sure the story demonstrates your strengths. Wait for the opportunity and then roll out your story. If the question is not asked, find an opportunity to turn the conversation to the story you want to tell.

Don’t forget to set the scene for your story. Use specifics rather than generalities. “I handle stress by taking deep breaths and going for a walk” is not as effective as this story a client told us:

“I was working as a main data entry clerk. They hired an assistant for me because of the volume of work. But my assistant was making a lot of errors. It was stressing me out because now I had to correct all her mistakes. I decided the right thing to do was to tell my manager the assistant wasn’t working out. My manager agreed with me and happily I got another assistant who was much better. It was stressful to get someone fired, but it had to be done.”

Young people have just as many stories to tell as more experienced workers. If you’ve been in a team, been a member of a club, been on a trip, worked on a project or had a part-time job you have plenty of potential stories.

Pick the stories with care. Make sure they highlight the qualities any would-be employer would focus on: enterprise, imagination, problem-solving, leadership, communications and inter-personal relations.

Polish your stories. Keep them short. Rehearse them. And then look for the chance to slip them into the conversation.

You’ll give yourself a head start over the other candidates.

You can learn more about the value of stories in Halina’s book, TalkitOut: From Fears to Cheers. It’s available as a paperback or e-book in our online store.


You’re a speaker: stop writing essays

Posted on 22. Sep, 2014

‘A speech is not an essay’ is the title of a blog a client thought we’d be interested in. We were… so interested we want to share it with you.

We were hooked from the first line: ‘Reading an essay to an audience can bore them to tears’. It’s something we could have said in one of our presentation skills workshops. In fact, it’s IS something we say – over and over.

A lot of people prepare for an important presentation or speech by sitting at their computer staring at a screen, working in complete silence, judging the content by the way it looks on the page.

That’s such a crazy, hopeless model for building something that has to be spoken aloud, and which has to be processed by the ears of the audience.

Sitting in silence, watching the sentences form on the screen, is how we write an essay. And then you take that essay and try to make it sound conversational. No wonder a lot of people struggle to connect with the audience. It’s like buying a really nice car – and then wondering why it won’t fly like a plane. It wasn’t designed for the purpose you have in mind.

Here’s the link to the blog our client shared with us. It’s from the Harvard Business Review. There’s a lot of great advice in the article. Here are a couple of snippets:

  • Simplify: the spoken word needs to be short, sweet and to the point;
  • Signpost the journey: make sure the audience knows exactly where you are leading them;
  • Stories work better than statistics: audiences love and remember stories;
  • Use pauses and emphasis: performance is key to helping the audience process your content.

Our book TalkitOut: From Fears to Cheers, is packed with advice on how to create a speech or presentation that really captures the way you speak. It’s available as a paperback or e-book from our online store.

(This blog is taken from our latest newsletter. If you’re not already a subscriber, click here to see what you’re missing. The sign-up form is on our website.)


Only voters can change the ‘rules’ of politics

Posted on 20. Sep, 2014

by Neil Everton

At a time of growing public discontent at the behaviour of politicians, it’s nice to meet a man who still believes public service means doing what’s right, rather than taking a course of action just because it enables him to cling to power.

In Graham Steele’s case, doing what he thought was right and in the public interest cost him his job as Finance Minister of Nova Scotia.

His experience has caused him to challenge the ‘cling to power at any cost’ attitude of many current politicians and political parties.

In a book looking back on 15 years in politics, Mr Steele warns: Being in politics makes you dumber, and the longer you’re in politics the dumber you get.” He says even the most well-meaning, idealistic newcomers to politics are soon taught what he calls The Rules of the Game.

Rule One is simple: get yourself re-elected. The drive to be re-elected drives everything a politician does, he writes.

Rule Two: spend as little time as possible at the Legislature. There are no voters there.

Rule Three: perception is reality. Since people vote based on what they believe to be true, it doesn’t matter what is actually true.

Rule Four: keep it simple. Focus on what is most likely to sink in with a distracted electorate: slogans, scandals, personalities, pictures, image.

After running through a few more equally dispiriting rules about keeping in the spotlight, avoiding blame and not leaving a paper trail, Mr Steele arrives at Rule Ten. And Rule Ten says “deny that these are the Rules of the Game.”

Graham Steele resigned over a pay deal for health care workers. The deal would buy-off the nurses and avoid a high-profile strike by traditional supporters of the NDP government. But he believed it was wrong. It would lead to more high-wage settlements in the public sector, without tackling the fundamental problems facing health care. It would have been expedient, but it was wrong.

Author Graham Steele chats with Podium's Halina St James at the book launch

Author Graham Steele chats with Podium’s Halina St James at the book launch

Graham Steele launched his book at Province House in Halifax. Just up a flight of stairs from the book signing was the room where another Nova Scotia politician made a stand for ‘climbing above the muddy pool of politics’. That man was Joseph Howe, a journalist, writer, politician and shaper of modern Canada.

Joseph Howe said his public life was governed by three questions:

  • What is right?
  • What is just?
  • What is for the public good?

One hundred and fifty years later, Graham Steele is urging the public, the voters, to hold politicians to a higher standard than they seem to settle for.

He writes: “For the public good, something different has to be done. Otherwise we’ll just keep watching the same bad movie, over and over.

“Our politics are in a bad way because politicians succeed by following the Rules of the Game, and the Rules of the Game are incompatible with good government.

“It is not our politicians who will lead the change. The only person who can change our politics is the engaged citizen.”

What I Learned About Politics: Inside the Rise and Collapse of Nova Scotia’s NDP Government, is published by Nimbus Publishing.


Don’t be a Droner, Screamer or Mumbler

Posted on 18. Sep, 2014

by Halina St James

The other day I tuned in to listen to a radio interview about changes in health care. It’s a topic that really interests me. But could I tell you what this particular health expert had to say? No way. I tried to pay attention, but I found myself drifting in and out of the discussion.

Why? Because the interviewee was a Droner. All her answers were delivered in the same monotone. No pauses, no emphasis, no energy. Just a uniformity of speaking that would put anyone to sleep.

In my presentation skills training sessions, I find that people tend to be Droners for one of two reasons:

1 – they are so nervous, so eager to stay ‘on-message’, that they lock themselves in a verbal straight-jacket. They are so focused on the message, they forget that the way the words are delivered is often more effective in communicating with the audience.

2 – they see themselves as serious people, talking about serious topics – so they set out to deliver their important information as neutrally as possible. For them, presentation tools like pauses, emphasis, emotion and enthusiasm are for storytellers… not serious people. Once again, they squander the very tools that help speakers connect with audiences.

The opposite of the Droners are the Screamers. These speakers fall into the Chicken Little category. For them, everything is so important it must be expressed as stridently as possible. They get the same result as the Droners: people tune them out.

Finally, there’s the Mumbler. The Mumbler mangles his words, often trailing off so you don’t know what’s being said. Again he achieves the same effect as the Droner or Screamer – people stop listening.

Don’t be a Droner, Screamer or Mumbler. Invest in presentation skills and public speaking training. Do your audience a big favour. Check out my TalkitOut technique. Or look at some of the free tools on my Resources Page. You’ll get your message across much more effectively – and you’ll feel much less nervous.

After all your message is important. You deserve to be heard.


Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse

Posted on 18. Aug, 2014

by Halina St James

The more you rehearse, the better you’ll be. Rehearse out loud. Rehearse in front of your colleagues, family, friends or the bathroom mirror. Video yourself. Rehearsing makes you confident and comfortable.

Think of any presenter you admire for their cool, commanding presence on stage. You can guarantee that the more relaxed they are on stage, the harder they work away from the spotlight.

The late Steve Jobs was a great illustration of this truth. His style – and the work that went into creating that style – was summarised by author Alan Deutschman:

“Jobs was the best showman in American business and he worked hard at his art, preparing maniacally for weeks before an appearance. He spent countless hours rehearsing the succinct lines he would throw off as if they were improvisations.”

Rehearse out loud as if the audience is there listening to you now. The more you hear yourself, the more comfortable you’ll be when you actually deliver.


Ace your introductions with stories and sincerity

Posted on 14. Aug, 2014

by Halina St James

A trip to France for a friend’s wedding was a great chance to eat, drink, make merry – and reflect on the sometimes-difficult communications issue of making introductions.

Some people, a lucky few from my observations, are able to strike up an immediate and easy relationship with complete strangers. Others struggle to figure out what to say and how to say it effectively when entering a new social circle.

The wedding gave me a chance to watch successful introductions made in both group and one-to-one settings. Let’s start with the group introductions. On the eve of the wedding, while most of the men took themselves off to a jazz festival in a neighbouring town, the women chose to have a wonderful dinner in the garden of a restaurant close to the bride’s home.

After everyone had ordered, the bride suggested we introduce ourselves, since we were an international bunch and most were meeting for the first time. It could have been a quick and predictable run round the table getting names and countries that we would have forgotten before the food arrived.

Instead, something wonderful happened. Without prompting, everyone launched into a story of how they met the bride. The stories cemented our new relationships in a way that basic facts and figures never could. We remembered the stories – and the names of the storytellers.

Stories are powerful tools for communicators. Stories help form lasting relationships personally and professionally. They make concepts and facts concrete and memorable. They can be told anywhere, anytime. They don’t have to be long. Just make sure they are relevant and make a point.

As we always tell people in our presentation skills and media skills workshops, facts tell – but stories sell.

The other great example of how to make effective introductions came in a one-on-one setting. Guests at the wedding were from France, Italy, Canada, the US, the UK and a few other places as well. In the run-up to the ceremony there were a few events to help turn strangers into friends. There was the usual spread of meet-and-greet styles – from confident and outgoing via reserved and formal to diffident and shy.

Ruggero delights the bride with his ice-breaking shirt

Ruggero delights the bride with his ice-breaking shirt

But the prize for most effectively breaking the ice has to go to Ruggero, from Sicily.

Like everyone, he smiled and shook your hand. But Ruggero seemed to look into your eyes a little deeper; he held your hand a beat longer. He spoke clearly. He repeated his first name, saying it was an unusual Italian name that people often mistook for Roger.

Most importantly of all, he exuded a sincere interest in his new acquaintances. A lot of people can work a room in a mechanical way. To do it in a way that really connects with people demands a lot more effort.

Ruggero had a prop to help him open conversations. He would open his jacket to reveal a monogram of the bride and groom’s names and date of their wedding on his shirt. It was a great ice breaker. The bride and groom loved it. We all loved it. In fact we all loved Ruggero.


Can accountants be entertaining speakers? You bet they can

Posted on 15. Jul, 2014
Halina shares tips on presentation skills with civil servants in Richmond, Virginia

Halina shares tips on presentation skills with state government officials in Richmond, Virginia

by Halina St James

In our public speaking training programs we tell people to simplify their language, talk as they speak, tell more stories, and avoid cluttering slides with masses of text.

So what happens when a client says things like:

“I’m expected to use big words, so I impress my audience.”

“I’m an accountant. We don’t have stories.”

“We’re encouraged to put everything on the slides.”

I can’t tell you how many times we at Podium Coaching hear things like that in the course of a year. Our basic response is something like:

“Do you want people to understand you, and support you?”

“Do you want people to remember your message , and spread the word to others?”

“Do you want people to believe you?”

“Do you want to feel good about your speaking skills, knowing that you words will come easily and you will be seen to be authentic?”

These thoughts are prompted by a wonderful trip I just made to the United States, to work with a client in Richmond, Virginia.

Halina (right) with participants in one of her presentation skills workshops in Virginia.

Halina (right) with participants in one of her presentation skills workshops in Virginia

In one workshop I worked with a Director of the Budgetary Division from one of the state government departments. Her reports to state officials were complex and full of numbers. Her slide shows reflected this density.

Here’s an example of how she proposed to open a presentation:

“This year the consensus medicaid forecast projects a surplus of $74 million GF in fiscal year 14 for the bill and a need of $675 million GF in the fiscal year 15 and 16 biennium.”

We worked on simplifying her language by using simple words and simple sentences. Because the audience needed to follow and comprehend, we wanted to deliver information in bite-sized chunks… one thought per sentence. The numbers are important. So I asked her to use only one set of numbers per sentence.

The result was great a opening:

“Ladies and gentlemen. The number you are waiting for is… (pause) $675 million. (Pause) This is the official forecast projection. (Pause) It’s the general fund need for the medicaid program (pause) for fiscal year 15 and 16. (Pause) I’m going to explain to you how we came up with this number.”

We loaded this with strategic pauses, to help the audience follow her thinking and understand the content.

We re-worked her content using the TalkitOut Technique. Then we worked on her slides. When we teach presentation skills, we encourage people to create their slides after they’ve talked out the content. (Rather than creating the slides first, and writing a script that duplicates everything on the screen).

In my client’s budget slides, we removed all but the critical information the audience needed to get. She used the reveal button to strategically deliver information to the audiences. (To ensure the audience got all the relevant information, she provided a summary on paper).

The result? An informed audience, and a delighted presenter.


BBC script tip will work for you

Posted on 14. Jul, 2014

by Neil Everton

The death of a former BBC News colleague reminded me of a piece of advice as relevant to speakers today as it was to TV journalists when it was delivered 50 years ago.

The colleague who died was Peter Woon, a man credited with changing the way the BBC reported the news. But that was later. When he was first hired his new boss, Tom Maltby, shared one piece of advice with Peter and all recruits to the newsroom:

“I never want to see you typing a script. You must dictate it so it will sound like the spoken, not the written, word when you deliver it.”

And that is why TalkitOut is at the heart of our presentation skills training. The words have to come out of your mouth before you commit them to paper.

If you write in silence, and judge your words only by how they look on the page, it’s hard to capture your true speaking voice. Your sentences tend to be longer, the structure more complex, and you lose the conversational quality your audience expects of you.

Say the words out loud before you write them. You’ll be amazed how it changes your speaking style, your fluency and your confidence.


Lessons for speakers from Brazil’s soccer nightmare

Posted on 09. Jul, 2014

Screen Shot 2014-07-09 at 10.12.57 AM

by Halina St James

Don’t you feel sad for the Brazilian footballers? With the expectations of the nation on their shoulders, they crumbled to a devastating 7 – 1 defeat to the ruthlessly efficient Germans in their FIFA World Cup semi-final.

The Germans scored four goals in a dizzying six-minute spell in the middle of the first half, to put the game out of reach of the Brazilians. Brazil’s game-plan unravelled early. Their confidence deserted them. And they still had sixty minutes to play.

Why is a blog about communications talking about soccer? Because what happened to Brazil can happen to any speaker.

As a speaker or presenter, what do you do when you hit a problem early? You’ve spent hours planning and rehearsing. But when you are on the podium, things go wrong. A story doesn’t resonate as you had hoped. Or a joke falls flat. Or you stumble and lose you way. You sense you are losing the audience.

If you speak a lot, you’re likely to have experienced that sinking feeling at least once. So what can you do to turn the tide?

The Brazilians made a couple of substitutions (like a speaker modifying a presentation), they kept going, and they were rewarded with a last-minute goal of their own.

If you are a speaker and you run into a snag, you need to stay focused on your content. As we tell people in our presentation skills training, slow down. Breathe. Don’t think of anything else except the next line.

Don’t start second-guessing or doubting yourself. Maintain eye contact with the audience. Don’t bury your eyes in your notes. Stand tall.

When it’s over, analyze what happened, why it happened and what you can do to make sure it will never happen again.

I’m sure the Brazilian team is doing that right now.


Wave to a stranger on Canada Day

Posted on 30. Jun, 2014

Halina St James

by Halina St James

I remember, as a young girl, going for boat rides with my parents. We always waved to passing boats. They always waved back.

I often wondered why we would acknowledge perfect strangers on a lake when we wouldn’t in a city street or shopping mall. Perhaps it was the enormity of the lake and the frailty of our boats that made us reach out to each other. Or simply the knowledge of a shared pleasure.

Fast forward to today. I’m blessed to live in Nova Scotia, a Canadian province surrounded by ocean and awash with lakes. When I go out on a boat, I still wave to perfect strangers. And they still wave back.

But there’s something special about Nova Scotia. You don’t have to be out in a boat to get a wave from a stranger. If you are out for a walk, you’ll most likely get a friendly wave from passing motorists.

Admittedly most of my walking is on the lanes around my home. So you could argue that the waves are an indication of shared pleasure in a certain neighbourhood.

But here in Nova Scotia this delight in reaching out to strangers extends far beyond shared interests or simple neighbourliness. This is the province where a man stood on the overpass of a busy highway day after day and waved to passing motorists… for 40 years.

I was startled the first time I saw him. After that I started to look forward to seeing him. The province named the overpass for him – the Freddie Wilson Overpass.

As human beings, we instinctively want to communicate with each other. So, on this Canada Day, no matter where you live in this beautiful country, reach out. Smile or wave at a stranger. Happy Canada Day.