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I meet a lot of people. I hear a lot of people introduce themselves. I interview a lot of people. Sometimes I want to hear their story; most of the time I don’t.
I’ve realized recently that I’m tired of hearing histories. And I’m tired of telling mine. It’s easy to find out most by a simple search on the web. Or a scan through LinkedIn. Or listening to one of the video interviews I’ve done where someone has said “tell me your story.”
I was thinking about this especially in the context of any interview. I don’t care where you went to school (I never have). I don’t care what your first job was. I don’t care what happened 15 years ago. I care what you did yesterday, and last month, and last quarter, and last year. That’s probably as deep as I want to go in the first five minutes of our interview. Sure – I’ll go back further in specific examples, but I don’t need to spend the first fifteen minutes hearing your story from beginning to today. It lulls me into a false sense of complacency, making me feel like I know you better because I now know your version of your history, when in fact I don’t know you at all.
I’ve learned a lot about interviewing people over the years. I used to be terrible at it. Now I’m pretty good. I don’t enjoy it very much, so I force myself to do a good job. I only interview senior execs and I separate clearly between evaluating people for the role and evaluating them for culture fit with the company. But in both cases I feel like I have to grind through the process. Some of it is my introverted nature; some of it is just not enjoying the interviewing a person thing.
I’ve realized that spending half of an interview listening to someone tell me their story is a total cop out on my part. It lets me shift out of evaluate mode and be passive during the interview process. And, while a lot of people love to listen to themselves tell their story, it’s not doing them any good either since my goal is to make a recommendation as to whether or not they fit in the role and the organization they are interviewing for. I should be more focused on what they have learned over their career and how they apply it today, not the path they took to get to this point, which I can read on a resume or on LinkedIn.
I’m no longer interested in telling my own story. Each time I do it, I realize I am wasting another 15 minutes of my life. By starting with the now, and not worrying about going backward, I can get to the meat of whatever I’m communicating, or want to communicate. I’ll more quickly engage whomever I’m talking to – making the conversation immediately active instead of passive. When I need to reach into the past for a story to support an example, I will.
I’ve decided that going forward I’m telling my history in reverse chronological order whenever asked. I’ll start with what I am doing now. I’ll go backwards as relevant to the particular context. I’ll skip stuff that doesn’t matter, and I’ll stop when it’s time to go on. I expect my introductions will be a lot shorter going forward. And I’ll be less bored with myself. And that is a good thing, at least for me.
As part of our Do More Faster book tour, we’ve been having a pitch session each day called “Pitch More Faster.” During the hour, we hear four pitches that are five minute each and give direct feedback / suggestions on the pitch itself (not the content or the business, but the pitch.)
In my experience, most people suck at the five minute pitch. It’s really hard to do well. There are lots of variants of suckage, including cramming a 30 minute pitch into 5 minutes, doing a 5 minute pitch for the first time (and having no comfort with the material), or talking at 732 word per minute and being impossible to follow.
We’ve done Pitch More Faster in about ten cities now and it’s been really interesting. I think we’ve been helpful and have found that when everyone is in the room (e.g. all four companies that are presenting) the conversation becomes even more impactful and robust as by the fourth presentation everyone is weighing in with feedback.
I’ve noticed one consistent thing in virtually every presentation. It’s what I call the “read vs. listen” problem. Most of the presentations have slides with lots of words on them. Since the presentation is only five minutes long, the stuff being said is important. Most presenters know not to simply read their slides, so they say things that are not necessarily on the slides. And that’s the essence of the problem.
I learned a long time ago (probably junior high school) that I learn by reading, not by listening. In college, I was a “go to the minimum number of lectures that I can get away with but read everything” guy. As an adult, I’d much rather read and write email that talk on the phone. When someone wants to explain something to me, I’d much rather they just email me. And when I want to really understand something, I need to sit quietly and read it (or about it).
Furthermore, when you talk to me, if you don’t keep my attention, or if I don’t purposely focus on you, I drift quickly. If you’ve ever interacted with me, you may have noticed the look in my eyes when I drift. It’s sort of the equivalent of my eyes rolling up into my head. It’s definitely a me problem, not a you problem – it’s just hard for me to process a lot of verbal information for a continuous time.
Now, map this to the five minute pitch context. I can concentrate on you for five minutes. But if there are words on the screen, I go straight to the words and start reading them. And then I can’t hear anything you are saying. If there are a lot of words, I spend all my time on it trying to read everything and absorb it. And I hear nothing.
It turns out there are a lot of people like me. Many of them don’t realize it. When you are presenting, you probably have a mix of “readers” and “listeners” in the audience. In a five minute pitch, you want me to listen the entire time since your goal is to get me to engage and want to spend more time with you. So the words on the slides are a distraction.
I’ve long been a fan of minimalist slides – a few words and/or a picture to use as a guide for whatever is going on. I never completely understood why – now I know. If I close my eyes the next time you are presenting to me, it’s because I’m trying to concentrate, not because I’m falling asleep.