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To ace your job talk, you need to know your audience

I’ve seen it a dozen times or more. The best candidate for one of the jobs that I am filling walks away with a polite “thanks” instead of a job offer. Another prospect gets the job because of an outstanding presentation at their invited job talk. These talks are important! You need to make a winning presentation that will help you stand out. And you’ll find that, just as with any other aspect of your job search, the way that talks work at companies is often completely different from what you’ve experienced in academia.

The suggestions that follow have very little to do with the science that you present in your job talk. It’s expected that you will do well on that side of the equation. After all, you’ve been through graduate school and have presented your science many times in the past. However, when it comes to giving a standout job talk, there’s a lot more than science to consider.

Why companies ask you to give a job talk

You’ve received your interview agenda. Lo and behold, first thing that day—after a brief meeting with human resources—you’re delivering a presentation. That’s an indicator right there that your talk is important!

But it’s not an audience with the same expectations that your peer group in the lab would have. A cell biologist delivering a talk at an academic meeting would likely be presenting only to other cell biologists. That same person presenting a job talk to a company, on the other hand, could be speaking to a regulatory staffer, an engineer or two, and maybe even a business developer—in addition to the cell biologists.

Some of these more unusual attendees will be there because they are technically engaged with the cell bio lab at the firm, perhaps scaling up the scientists’ work in the case of the engineers or writing technical documents in the regulatory person’s case. Others will be there not because they have a direct technical connection to the research, but because the hiring manager has asked a few important voices in the company to attend and provide feedback. Sometimes, an official hiring committee with members from various departments will be present in the conference room.

The company has a mixed audience attending the presentation because you will be expected to work well with people of many different backgrounds. Some academics fail in this regard. They go into a job talk and deliver the old standby presentation, using the same material as if it were just another part of their Ph.D. studies. That’s a deal killer!

The question you need to ask yourself is this: What would a Ph.D. chemical engineer, or a regulatory affairs officer, or a representative from the business team have to say about your hardcore cell biology talk? It’s not about the science—it’s about you. It’s about the critical thinking skills you exhibited in your work, and it’s also about how you sound and how you carry yourself as you speak and handle the Q&A. There are decisions being made in the background about your “believability,” as one of my favorite books, Bert Decker’s You’ve Got to Be Believed to Be Heard, describes it.

It’s best practice to ask your host or the human resources contact person what departments and disciplines will be represented in the audience for your talk. Depending upon how much information you get, you might be able to look up individuals and find out about their scientific backgrounds and interests.

Knowing the audience makeup in advance—or at the very least knowing that there will be people from varied disciplines in the room—will allow you to take steps to ensure that the audience is following along. Pause every now and again and look at your audience members. If they look confused, consider how you can adjust your approach or whether you should open the floor to questions to get everyone back on board. Think about the words you are saying and the way you look and sound when you deliver those words. It’s that whole package that sends signals about your believability, and your value as a prospective colleague.

The question your audience members are asking themselves—subconsciously perhaps—is, “Would I enjoy working with this person?”

Key ingredients of your job talk

If there’s any one element of a successful job talk that stands out, it’s whether the presenter comes across as a problem solver. Your entire thesis work was one big problem, with your work illuminating some aspect of a scientific niche. And along the way, you came across a great number of hurdles. You need to talk about those hurdles and how you got over or around them. Don’t just talk about the results. Even though you might think they’re the most interesting part of your work, they’re probably not relevant to a potential employer.

Instead, it’s important for you to make sure the audience members understand the issues you were tackling and what your approaches were to solving those problems. Make those hurdles clear, and then show them the critical thinking skills you brought to the table in order to work up a solution. Let your focus on creative solutions impress them with an unspoken point: that you would be an effective part of their problem-solving squad if they were to hire you.

Another must-have element of your job talk is the passion that you demonstrate for your subject matter, as I was reminded when a client recently debriefed me on two good job talks. About the first, the client said, “He delivered a steady, workmanlike talk; kept to the requested time; and answered questions well. But it really didn’t stand out to our chemists who felt that his niche was a bit too far afield to translate well to what we do here.” The second review, on the other hand, went something like this: “Her presentation was well done, and she seemed to have a good handle on the steps it takes to deliver results. She was very passionate about her work. It was clear that when she’s on the trail of something that interests her, she can produce. We’d like to bring her in to meet the executive leadership.”

Both talks started and ended in the requested 40 minutes, with 20 minutes of solid Q&A. No stumbles, and they both had good presentation skills. Both candidates’ fields of expertise were somewhat arcane to the company’s interests. What was different?

Perhaps it was a smile, better eye contact with the audience, or a bit more enthusiasm about describing problems and solutions. Those little differences brought the message home. As a result, the job talk that day was the single most important element of that candidate’s successful interview.

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