I recently graduated university (UK), and in my final year I had several interviews for jobs as a programmer. One of these interviews consisted of two parts; a standard question-and-answer section with two interviewers (one technical and one business), and a short presentation about a project I had worked on to the same interviewers. At the beginning of the interview, I was asked which part of the interview I'd like to start with. I answered something along the lines of "I'd like to do the presentation first please, as I'm less confident about my presentation skills."

Admittedly, I was a little nervous as it was one of my first professional interviews, but I thought this was an acceptable response. However, one of the interviewers immediately cut in and reprimanded me for underselling myself (this did not help my nerves). I understand the logic in not underselling myself in general, but in this scenario the interviewers were about to see first-hand how good or bad my presentation skills were; overselling wouldn't really have achieved anything.

From my point of view there was only two outcomes from the statement I made and the associated presentation. Either the presentation would go well, and they would assume I had undersold myself in other areas (admittedly showing a lack of confidence perhaps, but also enhancing the things I said I was good at), or the presentation would go badly, and they would at least see I was honest in my assessment of my skills.

Should I not have made the statement, or was my logic flawed? In future, should I just not say anything negative about myself, even if I'm giving an honest assessment that can be easily demonstrated?

N.B. as it happens, I did get a call back for a second interview, although I declined in favour of another offer from a different software company.

  • 6
    @JoeStrazzere it was something like "You shouldn't ever say something like that. Don't undersell yourself in an interview." I appreciate she was trying to help me, but it put me off my stride a little. – CameronD17 Nov 12 '14 at 16:45
  • 26
    @CameronD17 sounds like nice advice she gave you. when you say it put you off your stride - was your next statement had she not stepped in going to be "also i cannot code" followed by "i wouldn't hire me"? – bharal Nov 12 '14 at 17:17
  • 16
    As a hiring manager, I appreciate that kind of candor. I hate it when someone is obviously marketing themselves; insincerity shows. – Pete Becker Nov 12 '14 at 19:28
  • 5
    This is the same thing that leads consultants to undercharge for their services. I received much the same advice many years ago (though not in an interview!) and it has stood me in good stead. – Michael Hampton Nov 13 '14 at 3:03
  • 4
    Don't delude yourself. The interview begins the moment you make contact and ends when the position is offered. – Matthew Leingang Nov 13 '14 at 18:46
up vote 97 down vote accepted

Whenever you are presenting (and there is a significant presenting component in a job interview) avoid all meta talk. That means not saying:

  • I don't have great presentation skills
  • I have amazing presentation skills
  • I don't have enough time now for the demo I had planned
  • This worked on the plane
  • I am right on schedule for this part of the presentation
  • I am nervous
  • This interview is going really well

None of that. It takes people out of the role of hearing the thing you're going to talk about and puts them in the role of observing you present. Train yourself to stop doing that.

In addition, meta talk that is negative about you (I don't have great presentation skills, I'm nervous, I've never done this before and I'm not sure it will work, I'm not good at that) is especially a bad idea in an interview. The understanding on both sides is that you will say good things about yourself.

The interviewer was probably trying to be pleasant and helpful. Indeed, you likely don't know how your presentation skills rate against a large group of your peers. They may not be good enough for you; that doesn't mean they aren't good enough for this employer. (More than once on cooking competition shows I've seen people convinced a particular dish will send them home and then they win the challenge with the dish. Occasionally they apologize for the dish to the utter confusion and consternation of the judges.) Why do that when nobody even asked?

Next time, just give your answer (Presentation first, please.) without the explanation (because I'm horrible at it and want to get it over with.) If someone flat out asks you "how are your presentation skills?" then you can give an honest answer, though "I'd really like to improve them" is better than "not very good."

  • 4
    +1 for "give your answer without the explanation". Interviewers are looking for reasons not to hire you in the flaws you present - don't give them ammunition unless you absolutely must. – Zibbobz Nov 12 '14 at 18:24
  • 20
    This answer is going really well, but I don't have enough time for the comment I had planned. I don't have great comment skills, but my upvote skills are off the charts! – corsiKa Nov 12 '14 at 19:28
  • 4
    I would also add that pointing out that you don't present very well may place a bias in the eyes of the interviewers. You need to present confidence even if you feel none. Unless specifically asked don't provide details about negatives. If asked provide an action plan on how you would like to improve said skills. Focus on the positive. – scrappedcola Nov 12 '14 at 20:50
  • 10
    In total, we spent twice as long listening to her apologies as we spent waiting for the beamer. To this day, I remember her apologies, but have long since forgotten what the talk was about. Do you want to be remembered for your perceived flaws rather than your actual capabilities? If not, you should present rather than tell how you think you are at presenting. – meriton Nov 12 '14 at 21:16
  • 3
    @meriton is a beamer a British-ism for a projector? Because I'm picturing her trying to attach a laptop to either a BMW or a futuristic teleporter... – Digital Chris Nov 13 '14 at 15:23

Never sell yourself short beforehand.

The human mind interprets information very differently depending on the context, so if you start a presentation by saying something like "this will be a bad presentation" (which is pretty much what you did) the audience will believe that it will be a bad presentation, and will look for signs to confirm this belief. So the only thing you're achieving is increasing the risk of making a bad impression

Last year I held a three day course in a subject I consider myself an expert in. This was however the first time I've been responsible for designing and implementing any form of course/training/education. After the course was done, and the participants had given feedback (it went well), I told them it was actually my first time holding this lecture. Their response was "wow really? You did great!". Do you think they would have graded the course equally high if I started by saying "so yeah this is the first time I do this, so be aware that I might make some errors"?

  • Dunning-Kruger effect. You underestimated your competence at something you had good aptitude for, namely teaching the course. – Carson63000 Nov 14 '14 at 0:17
  • "Do you think they would have graded the course equally high" -- quite possibly they would, for the same reason that sports fans are capable of saying, "that rookie had a great season". Making your excuses in advance doesn't generally increase the chances of it happening, though. It very much depends on the audience. Some people truly despise any form of honest self-assessment, and they will immediately dismiss anyone who confesses to being less than perfect at anything. Safe bet of course is to say true, good things about yourself when you can and otherwise keep quiet. – Steve Jessop Nov 14 '14 at 11:00

He did you a favor by pointing this mistake out to you. Interviews are about much more than technical skills. They are assessing how you will fit in with the team, how you perceive your abilites and if your perception matches theirs (as this is a clue to how good your judgement is) and your attitudes.

By undeselling yourself, you show a lack of confidence that is worrisome to interviewers who, after all, don't know you very well. All they have to go on is what you tell them in the interview and what is in your resume. Making a negative impression about your abilities and confidence puts you at a disadvantage right out of the gate. They will be balancing the pluses and minuses from your interview against the pluses and minuses of everyone else they interview. Don't needlessly give tham a minus to put against you.

Can showing a small lack of confidence work against you in the decision process? Yes sometimes things come down to only minor differences between two people and only one job. So a minor issue like a small underselling can be the difference. And the less confidence you show, they more emphasis the interviewers will put on it in evaluating you. I can remember one guy we interviewed who, on paper, was one of the most qualified. But through the whole interview, he literally could not say anything good about himself. If you don't think you are good, well, then neither will we.

It is their job to evaluate you in the interview, not yours. Your job is to sell them on why you are a good hire and to evaluate whether you want to work at that place for those people.

  • 3
    +1 When they don't know you from Adam and you are the only source of info on you, try - REALLY try - not to say anything that adds up or summarizes to "I SUCK" :) The reason you are interviewing with them is that they don't think you suck. Don't do anything to make their trust that you don't suck into a mistake that they made about you. – Vietnhi Phuvan Nov 12 '14 at 16:42
  • 2
    +1 indeed ~ you're at the interview selling yourself, so why start by saying what you are not good at? sounds like helpful advice from the interviewer. – bharal Nov 12 '14 at 17:12

"I'd like to do the presentation first please, as I'm less confident about my presentation skills."

Quite frankly, I don't see anything wrong with what you said - it seems to be an attempt to be honest about your abilities while showing your reasoning for your choice selection. I certainly wouldn't have "cut you off" immediately. I would probably have even made a small allowance for you to warm up before I really started evaluating you.

However, if you had turned out to be an amazing presenter then this would almost certainly have smacked of underselling in an attempt to lower expectations.

Ultimately, you will come across many different people in your career - even interviewers will be different - and they will all react and behave differently. The best advice I can give is to be yourself at each interview - you might not get selected for every position you interview at, but at least you know you're being hired for how well you fit as well as your abilities.

  • or even worse, it could be seen as false modesty... – jwenting Nov 13 '14 at 7:23
  • @HorusKol "you might not get selected for every position you interview at" ...at one point in my career, I took great pride at a 100% offer rate for every one of my interviews (8 at the time) ...after #8, I had the epiphany that I was batting 1.000 because I wasn't charging enough. To a fresh grad, "batting 1.000" is a confirmation of good career choices, but once you start to move out of entry level, you should never be batting 1.000 – K. Alan Bates Nov 14 '14 at 19:59
  • I've not had the same hit rate for interviews, but I'd like to think my hit rate for satisfying jobs has been 1 – HorusKol Nov 15 '14 at 6:05

In future, should I just not say anything negative about myself, even if I'm giving an honest assessment that can be easily demonstrated?

Personally, I don't think you should undersell yourself when it comes to soft skills, such as presenting or public speaking in general. Most people who are new graduates are not good at that, and companies want to see you have a positive attitude about improving. Confidence is more about the ability to handle uncertainty, than the ability to handle certainty.

As far as hard skills are concerned. Don't lie about that. If you aren't comfortable with a language, just tell them you may not be productive right away, but are willing to learn and become productive. This is a display of confidence. Don't ever say you aren't confident, because that says a lot of deeper things about you than just what you know.

Basically, have a positive attitude and tackle any challenges that come your way in an interview. If you aren't comfortable or confident in your interview, the company won't expect you to have confidence doing your job, either. In addition, you had to do the presentation portion regardless, so there was no point in even mentioning a lack of confidence.

When you have to do something, you do it. Keep any editorials or running commentary about your lack of confidence as an ongoing conversation between the only two people who are directly affected by your lack of confidence: you and yourself.

Your lack of confidence is no one else's business. Any failure on your part to perform as a result of your lack of confidence obviously affects others. However, the only thing they would care about is your failure to perform. If they have any sense, they'll know much better than try to be your psychiatrist i.e. practice psychiatry on you without a medical license.

Next time. Just get it done. If you lack confidence, be assured that you don't need to tell everyone because your body language will speak volumes for you. Regardless of your level of confidence, just get it done. Everybody cares that you get it done. Nobody aside from you cares about how you feel while you are getting it done. Focus on what they care about. If you screw up, learn enough not to repeat it the next time around.

As a side note, I have learned since my twenties to say that I screwed up with such a level of cool that they were convinced - or actually, they convinced themselves - that they HAD to have me on their team :)

For one, because these skills are important in a job.

Most obviously, if it was for a sales role, the client shouldn't think they're now somehow stuck with some bad presentation and going to receive all the wrong information or have something missed out. Your interviewers probably thought the same - "well where's the mistake in this material then?" Were they right? Should they have been only guarding themselves against your mistakes for the duration of the presentation?

Or for a teaching position.

Or for an engineering position where you might occasionally have to give a presentation.

And since interviewing components are proxies for real life...

Well, maybe your poor presentation means you just can't teach. Or explain. Or communicate.

There's very few positions left you'd be good at, by now.

Your Answer

 
discard

By clicking "Post Your Answer", you acknowledge that you have read our updated terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy, and that your continued use of the website is subject to these policies.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.