Down in the dirt

Jun 11, 2018

Sharing something personal about your history is a great way to connect with a selection panel – and, of course, to win work.

Making a strong first impression and connecting with the selection panel are critical to being chosen for a project.

Unfortunately, many introductions at project interviews begin like this:

“Hi, I’m Johnny Appleseed and I’ve been a project manager at ABC Architecture for 12 years. I’ve worked on five schools. I’m excited to be here today!”

When AEC professionals start with a “name, rank, serial number”-type statement, they miss an opportunity to differentiate themselves from the other shortlisted teams right out of the gate. Here are four powerful types of introductions that will make a great first impression at your next interview:

  1. Lessons learned. Everyone talks about years of experience. But interviews are not won based on how long you’ve been in business. Share the lessons learned that apply to today’s project. If our hypothetical PM above used this technique, his intro would be: “In my 12 years as a project manager at ABC Architecture working on five schools, the most important lesson I’ve learned that applies to your project is ______. My name is Johnny Appleseed and I will…” Everything you say should be stated in a way that benefits the client. Starting with something other than your name will grab the panel’s attention. And keep it short – 30 seconds at most.
  2. Get personal. Sharing something personal about your history and how you became the professional you are today is a great way to show the panel you are a real person, not just another “PM excited for the opportunity.” On a recent team we coached, a project estimator started off with: “I grew up in a house of very organized women. My mom and sisters had schedules and labels for everything. They would have labeled our thoughts if they could have! So it’s no surprise that I became a project estimator. I’m Jill Appleseed from ABC Construction…” Why did you become the professional you are today? Did something or someone inspire you? Share this information to connect with the panel members. It might turn out something like this anecdote from Karen Johnston: “One introduction that changed the direction of the interview was from a geotechnical engineer on an eight-person team for a complex project. After the first seven team members listed their expertise and responsibilities on the project, the geotech said, ‘Well, I’m the dirt guy. I’m responsible for everything under the ground … ’ This authentic, humble, and humorous beginning made everybody want to hear more from ‘the dirt guy.’ It relaxed the team and provided a positive answer to the question all panels have in the back of their collective minds: ‘What will these people be like to work with?’ The team won the interview.”
  3. Give a sneak preview. Drop a hint about a benefit you’ll be sharing during the interview to make the selection panel want to hear more. This will make the panel pay attention when it’s time to share your most compelling benefit. “I’m looking forward to our discussion on the phasing part of the project. One of our three options will shave five weeks off of the planned schedule … ” The sneak preview sends all kinds of positive messages: that you know the project up and down; and that you’re thinking about how to save them time and money.
  4. Address client needs. The business reasons behind a project are often never discussed during a project interview. Yet these reasons are top of mind for many of the selection panel members. When the first words out of your mouth are about their big-picture needs, you will make a positive first impression. “This expansion is critical to ensuring that ABC Hospital achieves its strategic goal of becoming the leading cancer care facility in the Pacific Northwest by 2022. I am committed to making that goal a reality. My name is … ”

Start strong. Finish strong. Hone your introduction and practice it until it becomes natural. You don’t have to say it the same way every time, but it can’t sound scripted or read from notes. Speak from the heart and make a powerful statement. Reference your introduction when you describe a key process and during your closing statement to make it stick. You’ll start and finish the interview on the best possible foot – even if you’re just a dirt guy!

Scott Johnston leads the Johnston Training Group programs that enable technical professionals to present powerfully, write purposefully, and facilitate seamlessly. In addition, he leads the JTG Selection Panel research, conducting in-person interviews with selection panel members from numerous public and private organizations. As a principal at JTG, Scott has helped AEC firms at every stage of the process differentiate themselves and win more work – from early proposal creation to the final project interview. He can be reached at

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About Zweig Group

Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.