Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Getting In On the Ground Floor: The Elevator Pitch

In our professional communication class, the order of the day was "the elevator pitch." Each student would have an opportunity to pitch their proposal to an "authority figure" (played by a classmate) in one to two minutes. The exercise jogged my memory.

In 1980 I postponed completion of my graduate program and moved to Lisbon, Portugal. I was initially hosted by the locally renowned surgeon, Dr. Antonio Pinto Teixeira and his lovely wife Luisa. They assisted me as I got my wings in the local scene. Through one of their contacts, I met another American who eventually invited me to share a leafy residence amidst the fruit orchards of Ameixoeira, a sleepy village in the hills on the northern edge of Lisbon. 

It was in the Ameixoeira house that I had my first work, tutoring a couple young engineers in conversational English and business communication for the multinational carmaker, General Motors. That was quite the idyllic teaching situation, sitting in the garden at a picnic table under a massive plum tree, discussing topics in readings taken from The International Herald TribuneScientific American and other sources.  

The fellows I tutored would typically arrive in a GM company car on two mornings a week, and sit with me for an hour and a half or so, then return to their jobs at the GM headquarters, twenty minutes away. Through them I learned that there were over a dozen such tutroials taking placing in various places throughout Lisbon, on the same regular basis as my own lessons. Even now I remember that at some point I had actually remarked to the guys that it seemed a bit wasteful on the part of GM, sending its staff members out for English lessons when an in-house program could address the same needs more efficiently. Little did I know then that I'd soon have a chance to make the same pitch to the head of GM.

That opportunity presented itself during a social gathering at the Pinto Teixeira residence. Typical of Portuguese parties, the wine was flowing freely. I'd had a few drinks and was feeling quite confident when someone alerted me to the fact that another guest, the rather gruff-looking, burly man in a tight fitting suit, was the managing director of General Motors. 

While I'm not sure now when the thought occurred to me to approach the GM boss, I do know that I was unenlightened to the nuances of an act that I would later discover was called "the elevator pitch." Still, I knew how to articulate a problem clearly and concisely, and I realized that stressing the main benefit of the problem solution that I could offer for GM could also benefit me.

Some of the details of that long past interaction elude me today, but the gist was this: I walked up to the man and introduced myself as an American recently arrived in Lisbon. The guy seemed disinterested, busy with his wine, until I elaborated: I was tutoring GM employees in a program set up by the American School. The program itself, while effective for giving the young staff members a chance to enhance their English, was inefficient in that it was taking them away from their jobs for too long; it couldn't be cost effective because it was sending those workers out across Lisbon, in separate directions, in individual cars. Setting up an in-house program would accomplish the same goals at a more reasonable price.

The criticism pricked the boss's interest. He wanted to hear more: "Come out to my office next week," he said, " and we can talk about this."

Talk about it we did, and soon thereafter, and for the next few years, I was the sole language and communication skills trainer for GM de Portugal, working both at corporate headquarters and at the factory an hour north of Lisbon. That was a very rewarding way for me to support myself during my Portugal years, and it was the start of my interest in professional communication.

Some of you have also had experiences pitching ideas, whether in class, an elevator, a cocktail party or elsewhere. Feel free to share your experiences here.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Mock Interviews

What sort of jobs have I interviewed for? Here's a partial list:

U.S. National Security Agency country/regional analyst
People Airlines (now defunct) flight attendant
retail store assistant manager

Those are jobs that I applied for, got interviewed for, and was not hired for. (Thank god!) During my university studies, I never even heard of a course such as the one I now teach, a communication skills course in which a segment is dedicated to assisting/familiarizing students with resume and application letter writing, and then with preparing for and performing at a job interview. If I'd had such a course in college, who knows where I would be today....

Where was I during the last couple tutorials two week ago? In class facilitating mock interviews. In each tutorial group there were four teams. Each team of three or four students read and evaluated the application materials that another team's individual members had prepared, peer reviewed and revised in advance. The evaluating team, much like a hiring committee or HR group, first read the materials then would rank those individuals from the other team based on the quality of the materials in relation to a specific job, internship or graduate program application. After that, they began the interview process.

The interview process entailed setting up the classroom (and an adjacent room, and even some common space outside the class) in office-like quadrants, with one team per designated area behind a table. In their respective stations, each team created their first set of interview questions, set for the peer they'd ranked #1. During a point in the question preparation process, each team then lost one of its members, that being the person who was ranked as having the best set of materials. She or he, along with the top ranked person from each of the other teams, was directed into the corridor, there to wait until being called upon by the peer team for an interview of approximately 15-20 minutes.

Back in the classroom, each team crafted its questions, and each individual adopted a particular stance, whether as a friendly and smiling HR person, impatient and brusque interrogator or something in between.  No matter what the demeanor of each interviewer was set to be, all sessions had a principle interviewer and a note-taker, the person whose main task was to reflect on the verbal and nonverbal behavior of the applicant. When the first round of interviews finished, the process was repeated in a second round, then in a third, and then in a fourth. In this way, every student had an opportunity to be an interviewer multiple times, and to be interviewed once.

After all the rounds were completed, a debriefing session was held where students were encouraged to share something about their experience.

This is another opportunity for such a debriefing. How do students view the process and these interviews?

That's exactly what this blog post is all about.

Students, please add your thoughts. Innocent bystanders, please see the commentary below.