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Tooling Up: Job Talk Jitters

Recently I had the opportunity to attend an interesting series of presentations on emerging biotechnology companies at a biotech investors’ conference in San Diego. Every year there are several such meetings, held and promoted regionally, that give investors, analysts, and the press an opportunity to learn more about startup firms and their science.

At a conference like this, each company is given an opportunity to make its case. To the attendee, this means listening to a lot of “dog and pony shows” all at one time. For me, a career correspondent, it was akin to sitting through several dozen job talks over the course of 2 days.

By the second day, most of the audience was scattered over the back half of the room; at any given moment, I could spot two or three people who were sleeping. I could just imagine how difficult it was for those behind the podium, trying their best to influence this group of important people while a few were snoring and many more weren’t paying attention. And I knew how critical that influence was to their future livelihoods. The job interview analogy was hard to miss.

The Audience’s Needs Must Come First

At that meeting, I noticed that company presentations fell into two camps. They either focused on some cool science they’ve done or they focused on the products that can come from that work. Generally, the more experienced presenters followed the latter style.

This difference is important if you are planning to give a successful job talk during your next industry interview. No, I’m not going to suggest that you figure out what products can come from your research; in this case you are the product the company is considering investing in. And just like the audience in the room with me at the investor conference, your prospective employers will want to know why they should spend their hard-earned money on you. They’ll be thinking, “How can I solve my problems by hiring this person?”

Despite all that has been written about adapting your presentation to the needs of a prospective employer, many scientists still think their job is to describe how elegant their research is. Sure, that can be a good piece of the job talk. But every competitive applicant the company interviews will have some interesting science on their CV. They wouldn’t have been selected from the pile for an interview invitation if that weren’t the case. And out of that crowd of interesting scientists only one will be hired.

Your audience will not be thinking about your science purely in terms of how unique or elegant it is, or how many publications you’ve gotten out of it. That information is critical to the presentation, but it must be leading up to your presentation’s main focus: showing what this work did for your skills as a problem solver, and using your description of the work as an opportunity to display those skills.

My friend Leo Kim has been a scientist, a scientific manager, vice president of research, CEO of a biotechnology company, and--now--a prominent venture capitalist. When trying to identify scientific talent, Kim looks for a creative spark, and there is nowhere better to find this spark, he says, than in “listening to a young person describe his or her own research work.” It’s not the work itself but the spark that’s on display.

“Anyone can think of a hundred reasons why something will fail. I want that rare individual who can think of the creative one way in which it will succeed,” he says. In addition to the creative spark, Leo says, the ability to be a critical thinker is essential. “The ability to view critically one’s own ideas is perhaps the most important skill to develop, and it must come through in the job talk.” So which is it? Is the creative spark or the ability to be critical of your own work the most important quality? “The truly great scientists can do both,” says Kim, “and I want to hear evidence of that in their presentation,” They go together.

Either way, in contrast to the talks you’ve given to academic crowds, your audience is not there to learn about calcium channels in the luminal membrane of the distal nephron or whatever. It is there to learn more about you.

Why Are Some Scientists Uncomfortable in Promoting Themselves?

I had the opportunity a couple of years ago to do a search for a staff scientist for an early stage startup biotech company. This young firm had just started developing relationships with key scientists in labs around the world, and the guy I found for them looked perfect for the job of developing relationships with academia.

He was asked to give a presentation to the staff and the board of directors, and the talk went fairly well at first. He did a good job describing the science and the work he had done. But when someone asked him why he’d be good in the job he was being considered for, his luck ran out. He hadn’t really considered why they should hire him. He was uncomfortable promoting his own skills and abilities, and this, as one board member mentioned to me later, reflected poorly on the fellow’s leadership ability.

I believe that this fellow failed for the same reason that a good 50% of the presenters at that San Diego conference failed in promoting their companies. That’s right; most of those “expert” industry speakers missed out on those investor dollars available to them in that meeting. They failed to build a bridge from their neat science to the value of that science to their audience. This also points out why giving an industry job talk isn’t as easy as standing up and delivering your research results to the academic community.

It's because salesmanship is not a part of a scientist’s training. Even today, mentors still tell their graduate students that “good science will sell itself.” As my candidate found out, that isn’t true, at least not in industry. Your prowess, like everything else in life, must be sold. Many scientists by their very nature have a hard time greasing the wheels of their science with the emotion and persuasiveness that it takes to get it out in front of the competition in a market already crowded with “elegant” science.

So, as I recover from 2 days of often mind-numbing speeches, I entreat you: don’t continue to trot out your science as if you were presenting a thesis defense. You need to add some fire to your presentation--to sell yourself as well as your science--and remember that it is highly likely that someone will ask you why you’d be a fit for the job at hand. Have an answer ready.

Practical Dos and Don’ts for the Industry Job Talk

  • Do remember the fine points of visual aids. There is just no excuse for poor quality, impossible-to-see-from-the-back-row slides.
  • Don’t start into your subject matter without knowing the audience’s level of understanding of your topic. Oftentimes, company attendees include an engineer or two, perhaps even an H/R person or management member.
  • Do use a spell checker on your PowerPoint slides, even your trusty old favorites.
  • Don’t use goofy cartoon characters on the slides that detract from your professional message.
  • Do have your presentation loaded and ready to go before stepping to the podium. Projecting a Windows boot-up process is not a great way to start your talk!
  • Don’t concentrate only on “me, me, me” when describing your research. Show some team involvement as well and use the occasional “we.”
  • Do show that you are enthused and interested in the work you are discussing, by tone of voice and eye contact with the audience.
  • Don’t run much over 45 minutes with your talk, and leave plenty of time for your Q&A session.
  • Do discuss topic options with your host in advance for his or her thoughts on what would be most interesting to the firm.
  • Don’t use a lot of jargon in your talk, unless you are certain that the audience participants comes from the same area of expertise and will be familiar with the use of the lingo.

Open Yourself Up to the Audience

One final comment. The best presenters at the investor’s conference did not require the shelter of the podium. My favorite speakers did not use their PC for extensive notes. Instead, they spoke in front of the audience, engaging us with their body language and moving across the front of the room while emphasizing certain points. No, you don’t need to stride around like a bantam rooster, but you do need to know your presentation well enough that you don’t have to use the podium as a crutch.

Whether you are a young grad student preparing to give your first job interview seminar or an experienced postdoc presenting your 10th seminar to an industry audience, I am sure you recognize the importance of these presentation skills. It is up to you to move into the lead position in that pack of dogs and ponies you are competing with.

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