Wednesday23 July 2014

Dear Matthew: 'How do I prepare for an interview?'

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BD’s new agony uncle gives advice to a rejected interviewee who found her assessors’ notes in the loo, and explains how to prepare for a formal interview

Q: I am a partner in a practice that was recently invited to interview for a project. Despite the huge amount of energy I put into the pitch, we didn’t win.

I often suspect that assessors don’t look at the quality of the design and I now know this is true because after the interview, I was in the toilet and noticed one of the panellists had left her score sheets on the bench outside the cubicles. “Impressive, charismatic” was written in one box (which later turned out to be the one selected), while next to my practice was “boring presentation”.

As there was only one woman on the panel I knew the notes were those of the future building manager, a former nurse.

I am upset to lose the commission to a much poorer scheme. What is the point of trying, if selection is purely on someone’s charm? I am also surprised because I thought I was good at presentation.

Matthew Turner

A: If it is any consolation, at least you can be thankful you are not an actor. Imagine, doing your best in an audition only to be rejected because someone thinks your eyes are too far apart or you don’t have the right look. However disappointing this may be, your impressive nosiness might reveal some precious feedback you can turn to your favour.

In your situation, I am not saying this is the case, but it is worth considering whether your “boring” presentation was merely hard to understand. Architects tend to think they are good presenters, because of the crit system in our education. But that doesn’t prepare us for presenting to non-architects. You may know your stuff, and be an excellent designer and project manager, but unless you communicate both empathetically and well in interview, it is wasted.

Sitting on selection panels myself, I have been shocked at how even very experienced practices can effectively deselect their own schemes because the architects presenting feel more comfortable speaking in their terms, rather than addressing the needs of their audiences. Informing a selection panel how clever your plan is will rarely be what others consider the most important issue; a client will assume you can make the plan work. Even in these days of design advisers on panels, you need to talk to the client’s interests, not yours.

If you present in a techy way, many non-architects will clutch at straws, such as going for the style of presentation alone, hence preferring someone “charismatic”.

I suggest gaining a second opinion on this: get some non-architect guinea pigs in a room, re-run your presentation and ask for honest feedback on your presentation content and style.


I have just been called to interview for a job, in much bigger organisation than I am used to. It is a step away from architecture, but still related.

The interviews for my two previous jobs were little more than a quick chat in the pub over my portfolio with the boss. They have said there will be a panel of five people. How should I approach this?


The world of formal interviews is different.

In small practices, the direct relationship between the boss and the employee means getting on is pretty crucial. With larger organisations, interview processes are frequently codified in an attempt to avoid favouritism and discrimination.

The portfolio is a magnificent crutch in interviews — something to talk about and a visual aid. Without it, being articulate becomes much more important. So it is crucial to prepare.

The good news is it is easy to work out what you will be asked. The key is in the job description. It is likely you will have answered an advert that described “tasks” of the job (“deliver monthly reports to the manager”) as well as required “competencies” (“demonstrable ability to build relationships”). Usually, set questions are asked to every candidate, with no variation.

The idea is every candidate has the equal opportunity to demonstrate the two things interviewers want to know: your experience and competencies.

So, in preparation, you need to rehearse answers with real examples to every single competency and required experience you can identify in the job description.

Experience tends to be the easier to prepare, but the trick is to match the experience to the question. Competencies are the subtext of all formal interviews, and it is what interviewers are scoring. Don’t just state you can do it; you need to prepare anecdotes demonstrating the competency (“I solved a neighbour dispute by proposing an alteration to the design that benefited the neighbour”).

Don’t worry about the number of people in the room; they will each ask a couple of questions. Just make sure you make eye contact with them all.

Your preparation is best carried out with a friend thinking up and asking questions, and you talking out loud.

Of course, chemistry still plays a part in formal interviews, so overlay your anecdotes with some humanity. Interviews aren’t there to catch you out, just an opportunity for you to shine, and the best way to do that is to be thoroughly prepared.

Do you have a question? Email Matthew at dearmatthew@ubm.com


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