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January 23, 2020

Here are 4 ways AEC firms can turn that project interview into a winning conversation

  • Creating a conversation is key to a successful interview.
    Johnston Training Group


    Has your team ever walked out of a project interview thinking “Nailed it!” only to find out you lost? Often, why you lost remains a mystery, even after a client debrief.

    When Johnston Training Group (JTG) conducts debriefs with selection panels on behalf of our clients, we hear a consistent theme. “The team talked and talked about themselves but didn't really listen — or even ask the right questions,” said one panel member. “They don't get our project and big-picture concerns,” said another.

    That's why creating a conversation is key to a successful interview. But not just any conversation. The back and forth needs to draw out critical information from the panel and demonstrate that your team can respond immediately.

    A panel member we interviewed said, “You don't have to solve the problem on the spot — you just have to show that you understand the issues and the impact on us.”

    At JTG, we drive the teams we prepare for interviews to create interaction whenever possible and to connect everything they say to how it helps the client. Here are four ways we help teams create a winning conversation in project interviews.


    List the topics your team plans (or has been asked) to cover, and include several blank lines at the top. Have the list professionally printed and mounted on a foam core board. Display the board at the beginning of the interview, and explain to the panel that after introductions, the project manager will ask each panel member to choose the topic that is most important to him or her and ask them to briefly explain why. Panel members may also suggest adding a topic to the blank lines.

    After introductions, the PM records each person's initials next to his or her key topic. The PM quickly totals up the votes, and the team starts with the topic that has the highest overall priority for the panel. Topics are expanded or reduced depending on how and why panel members have prioritized them. The PM manages the process smoothly — just like he or she will manage feedback and changing priorities on the project.

    The topic agenda gets the panel talking at the beginning of the interview. It enables your team to understand what the panel cares about most before you dive in. The result is an interview based on the panel's most important needs, concerns and motivations from start to finish. It also brings to light topics a team hadn't planned to cover, so they can address them in the interview rather than hearing about them in the debrief for the first time.

    The topic agenda requires a flexible team that can adjust the order of the content they planned to deliver. The team must be skilled enough to react to unexpected topics the panel members add. Practice is critical. Of course, always stick to the interview directions the panel has provided. If the guidelines have a set order of topics or prohibit asking questions at the beginning of the interview, a topic agenda is not appropriate.


    What's your team's big idea that the panel won't hear from other firms? Make the most of it by giving the panel a small taste, ideally during the introductions. “We've found a way to save $100,000 on materials without compromising quality and are eager to hear your reaction to our plan.”

    Teasing the benefit of a big idea early will set a confident tone and direct the panel's thinking and discussion toward how your team creates solutions and solves problems. When it's time to discuss the details, they will start with a positive view of you and be more likely to engage in an extended discussion — exactly what you want for your big idea (and what panel members have told us wins interviews).


    When panels ask tough questions, team members often ramble until they can decide what to say. “Circling the answer” and rambling leaves panel members confused. A reversal means answering a question with a thoughtful question to get clarification or to narrow your response. Reversals help a team buy time and better understand why the panel is asking the question.

    For example, if a panel member asks a question about communicating with the neighbors around the site, a team member could ask, “Have you run into that problem on previous projects?” You may learn that they have a more specific concern based on a bad experience — one you can tailor your answer to. Getting clarification before answering shows that you will do the same during the project before you spend time and money.

    Reversals work best on panels where an interactive rapport has already been established. Avoid using reversals with more formal panels that are committed to asking each team the same exact questions — no more, no less.


    Team members can present two options and let the panel choose which example to drill down on. Take a question on proposed site laydown areas for a project. After answering the question with a short, high-level overview, a team member would say, “At this point, we would analyze the pros and cons of choosing either the smaller site laydown area that is closer to the project or the larger laydown area that is farther away. Which would you prefer I use as an example?”

    With each reversal, you'll gain information that will enable you to focus your answer on the panel's biggest concerns. Finish your answer strongly: “What else can I share to fully answer your question?” is a confident way to conclude your answer that invites the listener to ask for more info if needed.


    Teams often believe that interviews are all about them. They are only half right. Interviews are about what you can do for the client. If you're doing most of the talking in an interview and waiting to jump in when a panel member is talking, it's a red flag that you may be leading a one-sided conversation.

    Winning conversations draw information out and enable you to deliver your content as a solution to the client's challenges. Instead of the usual “let us tell you how great/passionate/excited we are to work together,” the panel sees that what is important to them is important to you. And that means the client will be the one saying “Nailed it” when they pick you to work with.

    Scott Johnston, Associate DBIA, is a principal at Johnston Training Group, which offers interview coaching, presentation skills and business development training programs for AEC firms.

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