A very excited college senior came to me and said, “Dr. Meade, I have the opportunity of a lifetime, will you please help me?” She went on to tell me she was a finalist for a very prestigious internship with a major magazine in New York. They were flying her out at the end of the month where she and three other finalists would each make a 3-5 minute presentation. The prompt was, “Tell us about yourself.” Her dream internship hung on the outcome of her three-minute speech. That was a lot of pressure. There wasn’t a lot of information out there on how to succeed at such as speech, so I pulled resources from career centers, from persuasion theory, and from models of good speech practice and created a template for her. It worked– she got the internship! Since that time, more students have come with similar speech tasks, and each time we have applied this template with great success.
There are many ways employers determine which person is the right candidate for a particular position. You are likely familiar with the cover letters, resumes, and interviews, however, the concept of giving a speech as part of an interview may be new to you.
Let me share a few examples of what this speech “looks like.”
Example from a Student
E-MAIL FROM A STUDENT:
I learned a ton last semester and I have my first chance to put your teachings to work in a real-world situation. I recently interviewed with a company (XXX Oil Services) and what do you know I got called back for another interview! They are flying me out to Houston, and they will hold interviews over two days. Part of the requirements for the interview process is that I give a 5-7 minute speech. Here is a little sample of the e-mail they have sent me, and I have attached a short PowerPoint© guideline they have sent as well:
As part of the interview process, you are required to do a 5 – 7 minute presentation about your life accomplishments. Please review the attached PowerPoint for details and bring your presentation on a flash drive to your interview.
Please prepare a presentation (5-7 minutes) in which you
Summarize the accomplishments of your life so far,
Explain what your goals are and
Demonstrate that you are the ideal candidate for XXX Services
Example from a Human Resource Manager Regarding an Oral Resume
We give candidates 30 minutes to prepare for the exercise, but we have already informed the candidates that they should put together an oral resume presentation ahead of time. That is to say, a few weeks prior to the assessment center I meet with the candidates and tell them that they will have this exercise. They should put together a presentation of about 8 minutes in length that presents their qualifications for the job. I typically emphasize that a simple listing of every course they’ve ever taken or every certification they hold is not very effective. Instead, they should focus on how both their educational and experiential backgrounds have contributed to who they are, how they perform in their current position, and how they will perform in their promoted position. During the 30 minute preparation period, candidates are given the instructions that tell them they will have 8 minutes for their initial presentation on their resume (this time varies depending on the overall length of the exercise and maybe as long as 15 minutes), and the remaining 12 minutes (or longer depending on the overall length of the exercise) will be devoted to answering the interview questions which are presented to them on the next page. Typically, for a 12-minute answer period, we would provide them 4 interview questions. We inform them both during the candidate orientations and the instructions that the assessors will be asking follow-up questions. I believe this is an essential aspect of a good oral resume and a good assessment center. I encourage follow-up questions from the assessors. So often it is not the initial response that is revealing but rather the candidate’s rationale behind the decision that is so important in evaluating the candidate.
Example from a Career Services Specialist
I interviewed Renee Clay Director for Career Services and Students Programs, Walton Career Services and she said companies are asking students to give speeches at follow-up interviews. She said she has even encountered situations where they ask applicants to give a ten-minute speech on a topic of their choice.
What does this look like in the “Real World”?
- Companies are using career speech by asking applicants to give a speech with the prompt: Why are you a good fit for this company?
- Religious groups (Mostly, Christian Churches) are using career speeches by asking the applicants to give a speech with the prompt: What is your ministry philosophy?
- Educational groups are asking future teaches to give a career speech with the prompt: Show us a lesson plan and talk us through the pedagogy.
- Not for Profits are using this career speech by asking applicants to give a speech with a prompt: Tell us how your ideals align with our mission statement.
- Internships are using career speeches by asking applicants to give a career speech with prompts such as the following: What do you hope to get out of this internship?
This Speech Is Important
This may be one of the most important speeches you have to give. Most of you will spend four to six years in college and this is the speech that can make all that studying finally pay off. Resist the temptation to under prepare for this speech. Don’t put it off and don’t let the fear of failure or fear of success stop you from giving the best speech possible. You should put more work into this speech than the papers and tests you did in college. “Procrastination is the fear of success,” according to motivational speaker Denis Waitley. “People procrastinate because they are afraid of the success that they know will result if they move ahead now. Because success is heavy, carries a responsibility with it, it is much easier to procrastinate and live on the ‘someday I’ll’ philosophy.”
Let’s get started on building the speech.
Step One: Learn Everything You Can About the Company.
All good speeches begin with knowing your audience. Start with the job posting and write down the specific things they are looking for. What are the specific skills, what values are represented, what can you learn about the company from what they say about themselves in the job posting? Go to the company’s mission and values statement and add it to your research. If it is a larger company, look at the individual division and research its mission and purpose. If you are a college student, check with your career services office and see what information they know about the company. Many career service groups keep databases on major companies and what they look for in candidates, who they know are alums, and many even have lists of the most frequently asked items in their interviews.
If possible, find out who will be listening to your speech. Lauren Rivera, Associate Professor of Management and Organization conducted 120 interviews of hiring professionals and found interviewers are looking for people who are similar to themselves. She suggests there are three reasons for this: (1) interviewers believe the person will be the best fit, (2) interviewers look for people who define merit the same way that they do because it validates their own self-image, and (3) interviewers get excited about candidates that share their same passions. The more you know about those doing the interview, the more you can make connections.
You have three goals at this point:
- Research the company so you can make direct references to it in your speech.
- Familiarize yourself with the core competencies they are looking for so that you can match them to your skillset.
- Learn enough about the company and interviewees so you can find similarities.
Step Two: Brainstorm What You Have to Offer
They liked your resume, they interviewed you, and now they are inviting you back to see if you are a good fit for the company. At this point, it does not benefit you to stand and reread your resume to them. You are qualified or they would not ask you back for another interview. They want to know you will pull your weight in the company, but they also want to know if you are someone they would want to spend time with at the office and after work. Now, they are trying to decide if they LIKE. You should pass the Airport, Holiday Party, and Convention Tests.
- Would the interviewer want to be stranded in an airport in a snowstorm with you?
- Would the interviewer want to introduce their family to you at the holiday party?
- Would they want to have dinner with you at the three-day business convention?
Your goal is to be MEMORABLE, LIKABLE, and to DEMONSTRATE you have characteristics they NEED. In order to do that, you need to take a good, hard look at what you have to offer and I’m not talking about your previous jobs or even your GPA.
1. Take Personality, Leadership, and Career Assessment Tests
I suggest taking a version of the Myers-Briggs, Jung Typology. http://www.humanmetrics.com/personality. * Use the results to highlight some strengths you might not have thought of in your brainstorming. Once you get your results, cut and paste them into a document and highlight everything that applies to you that might be of value to the employer. For example, when I look up my type it says that I am creative and I like to come up with original solutions. Yes, that fits.
Let’s work with that for now. If I am trying to think of attributes that stand out about me, my creativity and ingenuity might be something that I want to highlight. I would check that attribute against what the company looks for and if it were something that the position would require, then I might decide to develop that. I will write that on my list of possible things to focus on–CREATIVITY and INGENUITY.
Take a variety of tests that you have access to. Consider taking a leadership test and a personality test. If you are a college student, your career center likely has paid for those tests so you can take them. If you have access to Strengths Quest©, Enneagram©, or the Myers-Briggs© Test, take them. . Use whatever test you can access to complete a worksheet of your strengths.
2. Ask Your Friends, Family, and Coworkers.
Find those who know you and ask them a series of questions. Resist the temptation to disagree or defend when they share, just listen, and write the responses.
What could I bring to ___ company?
Why would someone hire someone like me?
What would set me apart from other candidates?
What do you think is my strongest attribute?
3. Figure Out What Gets You Up in the Morning
A career advisor for the Walton College of Business asks students, “What gets you up in the morning?” and “What is your why?” Think about what really drives you and make it part of the story you tell.
Step Three: Match Your Strengths to What the Company Needs
Now comes the deep thinking. Look at some of the words that came out from your personality tests and from the words that your friends used to describe you. Look at what special qualities you have to offer. How can you match those with what the company is looking for? How do they relate to the core competencies that the company needs? Try to find three strengths about you that will be valuable to the company.
Most speech prompts (and interview questions) can be answered with “these are my three strengths.”
Question: Tell me about yourself.
Answer: These are the strengths that set me apart.
Question: Why should I give you the job over someone else?
Answer: These are the strengths that set me apart.
Question: Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
Answer: These are the strengths that set me apart and where they will take me.
Question: Why do you think you are a good fit for the company?
Answer: These are the strengths that make me a good fit.
Question: What is your leadership style?
Answer: These are the strengths that make me this type of leader.
Most of the time, you can develop your career speech by highlighting your three main strengths. It is worth mentioning that when colleges poll employers and ask them what they are looking for, they list problem-solving skills and the ability to work as a team at the top of the list. If these would be considered valuable where you are interviewing, you should talk about those.
Figure 1: Attributes Employers Seek on a Candidate’s Resume
|ATTRIBUTE||% OF RESPONDENTS|
|Ability to work in a team||86.3%|
|Strong work ethic||80.4%|
|Communication skills (written)||77.5%|
|Communication skills (verbal)||69.6%|
|Interpersonal skills (relates well to others)||62.7%|
|Strategic planning skills||45.1%|
|Fluency in a foreign language||2.9%|
Source: Job Outlook 2020, National Association of Colleges and Employers
Step Four: Develop Your Strengths into a Narrative
Let’s face it. Most of the time, the answers people give whether in an interview or speech are boring, they lack substance, and they sound like a form letter. “I am a people person who demonstrates good customer service. I believe in hard work and ….bla, bla, bla.” Meaningless words bounce off the ears. Nothing memorable.
If you want to be remembered, tell a story. First, start with your attribute. I had a student who said he was hard-working. He was worried because he didn’t have any “real” work experience they might not think of him as hard-working. Once we brainstormed, he realized that he spent every summer on his grandpa’s cattle farm. He was out mending fences before the sun rose and many days he would work until dark. He said, “Cows don’t care what day of the week it is.” He told a story about how his grandfather taught him to work hard and how it was a family legacy to take pride in the work that was done–hard work was a badge of honor. By the time he was done with his story, I would have hired him for just about anything. By storytelling, he convinced me that he would give it his all. He didn’t tell me he was a hard worker, he proved he was a hard worker. His story was detailed enough that we could see him in our mind’s eye. He told a story we could remember. The added benefit of storytelling is that stories make us feel something. When your story is done, the audience doesn’t just know something about you, they feel something about you.
Anytime you apply for a position, think about the people tasked with listening to interviews all day long. Get into their heads. The fact they need to hire someone means work is not getting done. Maybe, they are having to do extra work until you are hired. Maybe this is a new position, and they are hoping to make changes in the company once they get someone hired. The fact they are hiring often means they have a lot going on and they are eager to get it going, but they also may be feeling cautious because they need to find the right person. In addition, to meeting with you, they have to do their own job, answer their own emails, deal with customers or coworkers, and figure out what to make for dinner. They may even have to coach the soccer team or volunteer at the food bank. You get it– they are busy. They are busy, they may be stressed so do them a favor and make it easy for them to listen. Be interesting. Do not waste their time.
Imagine when you are writing this speech, that in addition to listening to you, they must listen to at least three other speeches. Imagine after hearing all these speeches that they are going to do their job, go home and do their home time, listen to the news on the way to work, and then come back 24 hours later to make their decision. After time and all those distractions, will they remember you and your strengths? If you only said, “I’m hardworking,” then probably not. If you told a story proving you are hardworking, they will remember your story; they will remember you, and they might even tell someone about this incredible presentation they heard.
When building this story, it can be one big story that hits on the three strengths that you want them to remember, or it can be three stories–one for each strength. I once had a student who took the three main ideas from the company’s mission statement and told one story of how she exemplified each of those. It was very direct and very audience-centered, and she used that speech to start a new career with her dream company right out of college.
If you are successful, any person listening should be able to repeat your main strengths and repeat your story. Most importantly, they should feel you are competent and motivated.
Step Five: Start Writing and Write it Bird by Bird
It is hard to write about yourself and you are going to have to summons the courage to do it well. Writer Anne Lamont writes about this struggle.
Every writer you know writes really terrible first drafts, but they keep their butt in the chair. That’s the secret of life. That’s probably the main difference between you and them. They just do it. They do it by prearrangement with themselves. They do it as a debt of honor. They tell stories that come through them one day at a time, little by little. When my older brother was in fourth grade, he had a term paper on birds due the next day, and he hadn’t started. So my dad sat down with him with an Audubon book, paper, pencils, and brads — for those of you who have gotten a little less young and remember brads — and he said to my brother, “Just take it bird by bird, buddy. Just read about pelicans and then write about pelicans in your own voice. And then find out about chickadees, and tell us about them in your own voice. And then geese.” So, the two most important things about writing are bird by bird and really god-awful first drafts. If you don’t know where to start, remember that every single thing that happened to you is yours, and you get to tell it.
You too should write your really terrible first draft and you should tell a story in your own voice. With all your research in front of you, you should start writing bird by bird, story by story.
Step Six: Begin Strong
The very first sentence of your speech should be powerful. You should pluck that sentence out and you should test it on a trusted mentor. Each word in that sentence should be intentional. Soon after that strong first sentence should be your name. You want them to link the strength of those words with your name. You should memorize your opening so you can deliver it with strength.
I didn’t choose teaching, teaching chose me. When I came home from kindergarten, I set up school in the back yard and taught the neighborhood kids their ABC’s. I guess you could say, I’ve always been a teacher. Good morning, my name is Frankie Lane, and I want to tell you why I am a good fit for the teaching position. As a teacher, I am enthusiastic, innovative, and encouraging and I would like to demonstrate those attributes to you today.
The regional manager flew into Northwest Arkansas to meet with me. He flew in so he could ask me face to face how my sales strategy resulted in 12% increase in computer sales. He brought with him a team that was ready to listen. My name is Bob Smith, and I would like to share with you what three things I shared with them that day.
If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, and become more, you are a leader. John Quincy Adams. I believe this quote summarize my leadership philosophy that I want to share with you today. Good morning my name is Frankie Lane, and I would like to tell you how this quote defines my leadership style and why I am a good fit for Amazing Example Company.
Not only should that first sentence be written to have an impact, but it should also be delivered well. Memorize your opening. Know it so well that you could recite it easily. Practice it in the car, practice it in the shower, practice it while talking to your pet. Resist the temptation to start with “ok so” or “um.” You have been working up to this speech all your adult life, you spent hours studying for tests, writing papers, and completing assignments so you could get to this moment. You owe it to yourself to put in the work and to make this speech work for you.
Step Seven: Refer to the Company Throughout
Remember, this is not really a speech about you, it is a speech about them and what they need. Because of this, it is important to talk about the company throughout your speech. “As I was researching your company, I came across a headline that said you were developing one of the largest interactive art displays in the area. As a consumer of outdoor art, I…” or “Your organization’s commitment to the environment is inspiring. I became active in environmental issues as part of a collegewide initiative…” A career services specialist suggests, “Don’t tell me who you are, tell me why you matter to me.”
A common mistake is when speakers act as if they are informing the audience instead of talking to an audience that is familiar. Let me explain. I had a student say, Walmart’s mission statement is “to save people money so they can live better.” This sounds like the speaker is informing the audience of something they should already know. Instead, they should say “as you already know…” or “we can agree on a key component of the mission statement.”
Step Eight: Practice Your Speech
You have researched the company and decided on how to present yourself. Make yourself brief notecards outlining your presentation and begin practicing. You need to practice your speech enough that you could say most of it without notes. Memorize the opening and the closing because those can be the most difficult parts and tend to be the places where the audience is most likely to build impressions of you. If you are required to use presentation slides, be sure to practice with your slides, and perfect the timing. ( For more help on slides refer to the chapter: Making Presentation Slides)
In addition to practicing by yourself, you should practice your speech in front of a trusted professional and ask them for honest and detailed feedback. You should also record your speech and watch it as if you were the hiring team. Oftentimes when I practice, I will draw a smiley face on a piece of paper and put a name under it President of the company, and then another with a smiley face and a name, future co-worker. It reminds me that I’m not delivering to a wall but to people. When you practice, tape your smiley audience around the room and speak to them directly, “The director of development will be happy to know that I have successfully…”
For more: Refer to the Chapter on Delivery Advice: Do Not Imagine the Audience Naked! Managing Eye Contact, Movement, and Gestures
Step Nine: End Strong
The very last sentence is where you “seal the deal.” Most of the time, this sentence will not come easily. I once read a book where the writer talked about sitting on the floor rocking back and forth wondering why she even bothered and why nothing good was coming to mind. Maybe writing the closing, is not quite that hard for you, but it will be for the rest of us. We will feel self-doubt and inadequacy and will even question why we are bothering in the first place. If that happens to you, walk away and do something you love, and remember your “Why.” Why are you pushing yourself? Remember how hard you worked to get here. Remember what gets you up in the morning. After you walked off the self-doubt, come back and write that perfect ending. Look at the last three words and make sure they are words with power.
Example from a Career Speech
A job isn’t just a job. It’s who you are. I’m Kelsey Gomez, and today, I’m not going to tell you why I think I’m best suited for this job—I know I am. Instead, I’m here to prove to you that this isn’t just a job to me, it’s a position that I feel best brings out what I was born to do in life. Company’s Name is working to make America a better place to be a child and raise a family. To do this, a person needs to have passion, strong communication skills, enthusiasm to learn and gain experience, and the flexibility to thrive in a dynamic, fast-paced environment—and here’s how I possess all of these qualities.
She told 3 stories to prove her attributes
My whole life, I never dreamed of success—I worked for it. I did this by helping others, educating myself, and handling everything that came my way with poise and determination. A job isn’t just a job, it’s who you are. And, who I am is a passionate, flexible, and driven person who yearns to make a difference in people’s lives. The best way to predict the future is to create it. And I believe, if you hire me, Company’s Name and I can create something worthwhile.
Step Ten: Present the Total Package
Your speech begins the moment they see you. Your “speech” begins whether you are speaking or not. I once worked for a firm that would have candidates wait in a waiting room before the interview. The administrative assistant would offer them water while they waited. Little did the job candidates know that the assistant was taking notes on their behavior in the waiting room. Were they polite when offered a drink? Were they poised while in the waiting room? Were they prepared? Another strategy I have witnessed firsthand is a business that had applicants write something, if they had to borrow a pen, they clearly weren’t prepared. I’ve even heard of interviewers who watched the applicant pull up to see if the person’s car is clean. It does little good to say you pay attention to details and drive up in a dirty car.
Potential employers begin sizing you up immediately. Are you dressed properly? Are your shoes clean? Are you sitting attentively? Are you preoccupied with your phone in the waiting room? Are you walking with confidence? Are you picking your nails? Are you listening respectfully? Everything they see you do or say is part of the interview.
In nonverbal communication terms, trappings are those artifacts that enact stereotypes–a stethoscope around the neck means the person is a doctor or nurse, a briefcase means the person is a business professional. It will benefit you to consider trappings and what yours say about you. Think about the difference between a sports watch and a fancy watch and the message it sends. Depending on the job, one may be preferred. For example, I had a student who researched the group she was interviewing with and realized that high fashion handbags seemed to be important. She borrowed a friends’ name-brand bag and then was delighted when someone in the group commented about it in the interview meeting. She wrote me a message afterward that said, “They hired me over other candidates who had higher GPA’s and more experience and I think it is because I researched them so well that I knew what they were looking for. I really think my bag helped close the deal.”
It is worth noting that many career specialists suggest not carrying a bag–in this situation it was an intentional decision based on her research.
Dress the part. Research the standard dress for the organization. Be cautious, however, because they may wear athleisure wear to work each day, but they expect job candidates to wear a suit for interviews. As a college student, you have a big advantage because you likely have a career center that keeps records of the clothing suggestions for interviewing and many will even have places that will loan you professional clothing items for interviews. Pay close attention to your shoes–they are very important. If at all possible, buy new shoes. Yes, it may be an expensive item, but so was your education. Time and time again human resources directors and career specialists tell me that the way that people know whether you pay attention to important details is to look at their shoes.
In American business, you should shake hands with the interviewer and key members of the group. Several things go into a good handshake. First is the condition of your hand. You should have neatly manicured nails and clean hands. If you are prone to have sweaty hands, it is a good idea to keep a napkin in your pocket to wipe the sweat off your hand before you shake.
Next, have a firm but not overly aggressive grip. When you reach for someone’s hand, you should open your hand wide enough that the web of skin between your pointer finger and thumb is aiming for the web of their hand. Hands should be so neither person’s hand is on top. Pump your hand two to three times. When you shake hands, look them in the eye and try to say the person’s name and something nice. “Mr. Jackson, I am so glad to have the opportunity to talk with you today. ”
When you shake hands with someone that it gives them a positive feeling (if it is an appropriate handshake). When you attach that handshake with their name, you activate even more positive feelings. Research even suggests that other people in the room who see you give a nice handshake will get positive feelings about you. Before an interview, it is a good idea to practice your handshake with friends.
Finally, handshakes vary by culture, so if you are interviewing in a different culture, you should research greeting traditions.
Career speeches are always about you being the best version of yourself. I never have more self-doubt than when I’m doing a job search. I usually have to remind myself that I am smart enough and good enough to apply for this job.
I want you to know, you are good enough. You have worked hard to get here, you are ready. I give you permission to be powerful and confident–it’s time to shine.
MIT Professor, Patrick Winston talks about the basics of public speaking and then gives his students advice on how to give a research talk or job talk. If you are headed to a conference or if you are showing your research at a conference, watch this talk for some great advice.
- A career speech is not the place you recite your resume, but rather it is where you prove your strengths.
- Telling a story helps your audience remember you.
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Clay, R. Director for Career Services and Students Programs, Walton Career Services. (2020). Personal Interview.
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Renee Clay Director for Career Services and Students Programs, Walton Career Services. Personal Interview. November 22, 2020.
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Interviewing Skills. Walton College of Business Website. https://walton.uark.edu/career/students/interviewing.php
Lamont, Anne, Twelve truths I learned from life and writing. TED Talk Feb 12, 2019. [Video]. YouTube. https://www.dailygood.org/story/2187/12-truths-i-learned-from-life-and-writing-anne-lamott/
National Association of College and Employers. (2020). The top attributes employers want to see on resumes. https://www.naceweb.org/about-us/press/2020/the-top-attributes-employers-want-to-see-on-resumes/
Rivera, L. (2013). Hirable like me. https://insight.kellogg.northwestern.edu/article/hirable_like_me
Winston, P. (2019). How to speak by Patrick Winston. [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Unzc731iCUY
* (I could write an entire chapter on how a test can never tell you who you are, and I could debate the validity of most of these tests, but that won’t be necessary, because the way that I have you use it, it will be valuable. I don’t want the tests to tell you who you are or who you can be. I want you to look at the results of these tests and look at what you think fits. )
- Man carrying a briefcase © Marten Bjork is licensed under a CC BY (Attribution) license
- tom-rogerson–PYkAUIVi_M-unsplash © Tom Rogerson
- Professional in front of a whiteboard © ThisisEngineering RAEng is licensed under a CC BY (Attribution) license
- Two women professionally dressed © Christina is licensed under a CC BY (Attribution) license