How to fly by the seat of your pants (and make it look good)

There is a skill that some people like to pretend is not a skill. A skill that is rarely spoken about, but is crucial to you succeeding at assessment days and on vacation schemes.

It is the ability to fly by the seat of your pants….and make it look like everything is under control. In short; it’s being able to look confident when you are anything but confident. You will be asked questions in interviews that you do not know the answer to. You will probably have to give presentations on cases you don’t understand, without enough time to prepare.  And in these situations, I’d say that about 70% of your success depends upon your ability to look confident.

It is difficult to prove, but I have a sneaking suspicion that graduate recruiters ask certain questions just to stump you. And I don’t think it’s just for kicks either. They want to know that they can put you in a room with a client who is asking really awkward questions, and you’re not going to crumple. And the only way they can tell if you’ll function well under that sort of pressure is by….putting you under that pressure.

wtf
When you tell yourself the next interview question will be easier…and it’s not. 

So I want to talk about how to perform well in these situations, but I just need to clear one thing up right away. Being confident in the way you are speaking and presenting yourself is not the same as bullsh*tting. And by that, I mean making stuff up when you don’t know the answer. Or sounding sure of something you suspect may be factually inaccurate. Or suggesting you know about things that you don’t.

Chris White, the founder of Aspiring Solicitors, said that integrity is important- in fact, it’s all that you have as a solicitor. And I believe this to be true. No client will want to work with you if they don’t trust you. No firm will want to hire you if you make stuff up. So don’t risk your reputation by bullsh*tting in an interview. Be honest about the limitations of your knowledge, and try to use the information you do have to answer the questions as best you can. Besides, there’s a very good chance that the Partner interviewing you will know the topic inside out, and will be able to tell the minute you start making stuff up.

So, the point of this post is to give you tips on how to look confident when you’re bricking it. Because that way you can come up with decent (and factually accurate) answers and present them in a way that looks good. It is definitely not to help you lie well!

Without further ado, here are my tips:

Posture

polar bear posture

Ideally, you want to look like polar bear #1.

Standing up straight, with your shoulders back, looking forward with your head up. This is surprisingly difficult to do because we are a civilisation of slouchers.

Also, be aware of what your feet are doing. If you’re standing to give a presentation, try to have your feet kind of shoulder width apart. It’s so easy to cross your legs or sway from one foot to the other, but it can make you look uncomfortable. And you want to look like you would happily give this presentation ALL day. (For more tips on giving excellent presentations, you should check out Talk Like TED: The 9 Public Speaking Secrets of the World’s Top Minds.* It’s one of my favourite books on the topic).

If you are sat down at an interview, try not to slip your shoes on and off. This is more an issue for women I think. I once got my heel caught on the leg of table, and had to dislodge it with my foot while maintaining eye contact with the interviewer and talking sensibly about the firm’s ten year business plan. Not easy.

Smile

One of my LinkedIn connections drew my attention to a psychological study which suggests that looking warm and assertive in interviews is more important than overcoming nervous ticks.

It is a little out of date, and I feel it could be clearer on what is meant by assertive behaviour. However, what I took from the study is that it is really important to smile in an interview. Smile, be chatty and forthcoming, and generally act as though you are having a good time.

I’ve said it before, but your goal in an interview is to be likeable. You can have the best commercial awareness in the world, but you’re not going to get a training contract if the graduate recruitment team don’t like you. They need to hire people that the firm’s clients will like working with. People who will be able to attract new clients in the future. So don’t underestimate the power of coming across as friendly and upbeat.

Eye contact

Sometimes interviews will be a bit like an interrogation with a good-cop and a bad-cop. You’ll have one interviewer who smiles at you and nods encouragingly, and another interviewer whose glare bores into the side of your head. Unfortunately, you need to make eye contact with both of them in almost equal measure. This is because you need a good write-up from both interviewers, and you don’t want one to feel ignored.

Moreover, when the decision is being made, it might be bad-cop standing in your corner and good-cop voting to reject you. There’s really no way to tell what they’re actually thinking. So don’t get put off. Also, bad-cop might not even be meaning to glare at you. It might just be his/her face.

tiger stare
I’m sure he doesn’t mean to look at me like that…it’s um…probably just his face?

If you struggle with eye contact (maybe you have Asperger’s or just find it distracting) then try looking at the tip of the person’s ear, or the space between their eyebrows. To them, it’ll look like eye contact.

Speed

When I’m in an interview and I’m nervous, for reasons beyond my understanding, I forget that I need to breathe out. You know. Breathing out – that thing I do once every two seconds and have done my whole life. It completely slips my mind. So I end up inflating like a balloon and wondering why I feel so lightheaded. The issue is usually resolved after a couple of minutes, but only after I’ve consciously slowed down the speed at which I’m talking.

If you speak really quickly, as people are inclined to do when the adrenaline is pumping, then you are going to encounter respiratory issues. And trust me, looking like you’re about to faint does not convince anyone that you’re in control. And as everybody speaks quicker when they’re panicking (and seriously considering their fight or flight options), it highlights your nervousness to the interviewer.

Moreover, if you speak quickly when giving a presentation, you make it much harder for yourself. Say you need to talk for five minutes about a case study you’ve just seen. If you speak at 100mph, you are going to rattle through your best points in the first minute or so, and end up filling the rest of your time with rubbish. Whereas, if you speak at a nice steady pace from the get-go, you can spend most of your time on your best points, and only touch upon your weaker points fleetingly at the end if you have time.

pink car
Got that need for speed? Well you better have a lot to say!

The final (and perhaps most compelling) reason you should speak slowly, is because it gives your brain a chance to catch up with your mouth. Almost everyone has a word or a noise that they use as a sort of brain-buffer. So mine is ‘ok?’ or ‘ya know?’ Some people put ‘um’ between every word, or say ‘like’ out of context. This is because our brains need a split second to catch up with what our mouths are saying, and to decide what we’re going to say next. If you speak slowly, you reduce the need for these distracting ‘ums’ and ‘likes’s. You’re also less likely to lead yourself astray as you have more time to plan where you’re going next.

Pause

There is power in silence. It lets the audience absorb what you’ve just said. It also gives you a chance to remember to breathe out. But when people are nervous or panicking, they want to fill all the gaps. They can’t stand the idea of no one speaking.

So the next time you give a presentation, make yourself pause. The audience will wait for you. It will give you a chance to collect your thoughts. And by pausing, you show that you are absolutely in control of the situation. And you know it.

The same goes for interviews. You are allowed to say, ‘hmm…that’s a good question, do you mind if I take a moment to think about it?’ And then DO take a moment to think about it. This is so much better than jumping in and realising halfway through that you’re on the wrong track, or you could have given a much better example. Even if you sit in silence for what feels like a decade, it’s probably only been 20 seconds. A minute, maximum.

Delay Sentences

Anyone who’s been successful in an interview or regularly gives presentations knows the power of delay sentences. Sometimes you’re asked a question, and your mind just goes completely blank. If you’re in an interview, that’s the moment you take a nice long swig from your glass of water. If you’re giving a presentation and don’t have such props, you need go-to phrases that will buy you a split-second or so. Just long enough to get your brain in gear.

For example, ‘hmm that’s a really good question…’ or ‘while I’ve not done extensive research on that specific topic, from looking at the case study documents my initial thoughts are…’ or ‘I think that is a really important point to consider because…’ Naturally, they don’t all work in all scenarios, but you should aim to have a few phrases to hand that can buy you some time. And learn to say them with confidence.

rabbit
You’re aiming to avoid this look

PUT THE PEN DOWN

This post is based on a workshop I ran at a BAME In The City event at KCL. I spoke to the room about the points I’ve just made, and then I asked them to give impromptu presentations to one another. As I walked round, I confiscated the pens and books people held in their hands when they were presenting. Had I not given them back, I would now have an adequate supply to fill a large stationary cupboard.

It is nice to have something to cling on to. I am a pen clicker. I sympathise. But fiddling with pens and wafting books around distracts the viewer’s attention from you and what you’re saying. I am also a button-fiddler. I’m literally doing it right now. But faffing with clothing, hair, hands, jewellery…it all makes you look uncomfortable and tense. So be hyperaware of what your hands are doing and try to keep them as still as possible (except for making gestures, of course).

Don’t be put off by anyone else

I was a panellist at a LYLG event recently. And I usually love public speaking, but truth be told I was actually quite nervous. There were only two other panellists. The chair was Chris Stoakes, author of Know the City, a book I love.* There were over 100 people attending the event. And the microphones they gave us were simply enormous. (Like, almost comically large). So I felt…on edge.

Anyway, the event went really well. Fast-forward an hour, and I’m ‘networking’ in the pub and a couple of people said they admire how confident I am. Well. I nearly choked on my wine. I had faked it better than I thought.

So, the moral of this story: if you see someone who looks amazingly confident at an assessment centre, they probably aren’t. And even if they are genuinely confident through-and-through, that doesn’t mean they’re better than you. It doesn’t mean they deserve to be confident. Donald Trump is confident and would you give him a job? No. So don’t let the performance of others put you off your game.

smug trump
Don’t be distracted by The Donald 

As a sort of conclusion, I just want to say that confidence is a funny thing. The more you act it, the more you feel it. And from my experience, genuine confidence in interviews comes from being well-prepared, appreciating your strengths and knowing you can recover from any awkward situation. I’ve talked before about me falling backwards into law-firm blinds. And while I can’t recommend this experience, it did mean that from then on, I trusted my ability to bounce back after a…blip. And if you know how to fake confidence, you can look good while dying from embarrassment on the inside. And this will buy you some time to get things back on track. Hopefully.

 

 

* These are books that I have read and love, hence why I’m recommending them to you guys. If you decide to buy them after following these links, Amazon will give me the financial equivalent of a pat on the head. But to be honest, you could probably just borrow them from the library for free. Which is what I’d do.

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