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June 17, 2021

Meet ‘Tentative Ted' and other AEC pros going about project interviews the wrong way

  • Is your team's language undercutting their expertise during interviews?
    Johnston Training Group


    Technical professionals striving for clear, strong communication often unknowingly use words and phrases that don't convey confidence about their actions. When selection panels hear tentative, passive or reactive language, it raises questions about the confidence of teams being able to do what they say.

    “Having facilitated three interview processes in the last few months, I've seen the spectrum of responses from interview teams,” said Steve Murakami, vice president at OAC. “These include everything from outrageous claims that risk is simply mitigated on their projects and problems do not arise to passive answers that leave the panels wondering who is going to be on point when issues eventually arise.”

    Ironically, the characteristics that make technical professionals so good at what they do — careful, thoughtful, objective — can also undercut them. They don't want to promise 100% certainty when it's really 99%. But it is important for team members to be definitive and explain the process that results in achieving their promises without sowing the seeds of doubt.

    Let's take a look at some fictional characters from recent interviews and how they solved their language problems. Do any of these folks sound familiar?


    Ted is a brilliant engineer — detailed, precise and humble. His work speaks for itself, and he never overpromises. But his tentative language creates uncertainty without him realizing it. He frequently use sentences such as: “We think we can stay on budget” and “We're going to try to keep on schedule.”

    Ted also has one word he uses repeatedly without realizing it: kinda. He's been saying it for years without realizing that kinda sends a message he is “kinda” not sure about what he is saying — a red flag for panels that prioritize accuracy.

    To help Ted fix his tentative-itis, we first recorded him during several interview prep sessions. When he used tentative language, we stopped and asked Ted to describe the reason he felt unsure. We then rephrased his content so his description was both accurate and direct.

    “We will stay on budget using our value engineering process…”

    Substituting “will” for “try to” or “think we can” is an easy way to fix tentative language. However, you must explain the reasoning or process in memorable steps and phases — and practice with a voice recording to avoid falling back into bad habits.

    Today, when Ted speaks during interviews, he doesn't kinda try to do something, he just does it.


    Passive voice is often thought of as a writing problem, but it creeps into how people speak as well. Patrice's problem is connecting that she is responsible for the action taking place.

    Patrice: “It's important that safety regulations are followed….”

    Yes, it is important. Who will make it happen? Patrice, that's who.

    “I will ensure that all safety regulations are followed by working with the facilities manager to…”

    Starting sentences with “it” (when speaking or writing) indicates passive voice. Move that noun before the verb and get active.


    Reactive language means speaking more about how you react to challenges rather than how you prevent them. Project manager Riley talked a lot about how great she was at putting out (metaphorical) fires on multiple projects. The longer she spoke, the more panels wondered why all the fires were coming up!

    To go from a Reactive Riley to a Proactive Paula, switch the focus from what you do after something happens to what you do in advance to prevent crises from happening.

    Now Riley says: “I take three actions before every project to reduce and eliminate unexpected change orders…”

    You will still often need to talk about how you handle challenges, but preface the information with what you did in advance (and how it worked out well after).

    Another reactive statement to avoid: “We need to….” Again, use will: “We will do….”

    “We're in a volatile market, coming out of a pandemic, and projects are coming back online,” said Murakami. “Owners have much to be guarded about and we are looking to our professionally community to deliver our projects. We want their experience explained within the context of our work, our project. If you make it to the interview, the firm is qualified to do the work. Now is the time to show the panel the strengths and personalities of the people behind the brochure. Too often, qualified teams don't get the job because of unassertive answers that leave doubt and uncertainty about how issues and risk will be resolved or mitigated.”


    Changing lifelong speaking habits is hard, and it doesn't happen overnight. JTG Interview Skills training helps technical professionals identify and fix the speaking habits that undercut them in interviews. Through practice, playback and recommendations on how to convey ideas strongly, Ted, Patrice, Riley and many AEC technical professionals they represent can share their expertise effectively in front of selection panels — and win more projects. No “kindas” about it!

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

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