Building Oral Presentation Skills Through Interview Practice
The 12th grade English team at my school has historically prioritized oral presentations as one of the most important skills that we want to build throughout the year. The students are so close to adulthood, and they will have to speak in front of others no matter where they go. I have tried whole-class presentations in the past, and I think they are meaningful in that students build public speaking skills as well as audience etiquette. I think those presentations were quite useful. But then I started thinking about how many jobs are remote now, and how the chances of speaking in front of a large in-person crowd are decreasing by the day. Although I still think that students need to learn how to speak in front of large crowds, I wanted to prioritize another style of oral presentation this past year: one-on-one conversations. So, I decided to conduct mock interviews throughout the year, assessing once per quarter.
First Quarter: Baseline
I intentionally didn’t give my students any preparation for their first assessment. I told them that I would provide feedback, but that there wouldn’t be any grade inputted into the gradebook. During times when the class was working individually on an assignment, I would call students one-by-one to meet with me. I asked each of them the exact same question: “What are your strengths and weaknesses?”
I started to notice some trends as I interviewed each student. Right off the bat, I noticed that body language was a huge weakness across the board. I don’t really blame them; they were learning virtually for a year and half, and they didn’t have much need to look anyone in the eye for an extended period of time. I noticed a lot of fidgeting with hands, leg shaking, twiddling with hair, eyes wandering around the room to avoid eye contact, and slumped or overly relaxed posture. Many students spoke way too quietly, rambled far too long without an endpoint, and failed to use specific examples when they spoke about their strengths and weaknesses. Of course, I hadn’t actually taught my students anything yet, so I wasn’t expecting much.
After each interview question, I would debrief with the student and give them feedback on their performance. For the students without much baseline knowledge about interviews, I started with the basics of body language. For the students who had been in interviews before and had more confidence, I gave them more targeted feedback related to their answers. All in all, I knew that my students had much to learn.
Second Quarter: Body Language
For their second round of interviews, I increased the stakes very slightly. Their performance would be graded out of 10 points (basically no real impact on the overall grade based on my gradebook setup). This low point value was intentional. I wanted to provide the added pressure of a grade to simulate the stakes of a real job interview without impacting the grade of students who were still very new to interviews.
I shared some of my overarching takeaways from the first round of interviews with the class, specifically pinpointing the importance of body language. Then, I repeated the process from first quarter by pulling students one-by-one.
When they sat down for their second interview, I first asked them to think of a job that they would theoretically apply to at some point in the future. Many of them chose a part-time summer job at restaurants or camps. Then, I asked them two questions:
“Where do you see yourself in five years?”
After they responded, I asked, “How do you see this position preparing you for where you see yourself in that near-distant future?”
After each interview, I provided feedback again. This time, I informed them that I wasn’t assessing their actual answer at all; I was only assessing body language. I would knock a few points off their grade if they exhibited any of those behaviors I mentioned earlier, but didn’t penalize them even if their answers were terrible.
I definitely saw improvements. A lot of students made a point to sit up straight as soon as they sat down, and many said during their debrief that they were trying to keep their feedback from their first round in mind as they spoke. They were still far from perfect, but I was only looking for progress.
Third Quarter: Preparing Answers
After focusing on body language during second quarter, I wanted to start improving their actual answers. I created an assignment in which they needed to write up responses to the 12 commonly asked questions. For some of the questions, I provided some hints about what I deemed would be a viable answer:
- Tell me a little about yourself and your background.
- What are your greatest strengths?
- What are some of your weaknesses? (Remember: upward trajectory! View this question as an opportunity to discuss areas in which you want to improve)
- Why should this organization hire you rather than other candidates? What sets you apart?
- Why are you applying for this position? (Tip: avoid the money talk, and stick to ideas about gaining experience, building connections, etc.)
- Where do you see yourself in five years, and how will this position prepare you for where you see yourself at that point in your life?
- What motivates you to put forth your greatest effort?
- In what type of work environment are you most satisfied?
- How would a colleague or professional reference describe you?
- What situations are most stressful for you, and how do you cope?
- In your opinion, what are the characteristics of a great leader? Which of those characteristics do you embody?
- What questions do you have for me? (Tip: never say “none” in response to this question. You should have least one question prepared to ask your interviewer)
Here are some of the tips I shared with them along with the questions:
- Use specific examples whenever possible. These examples help your answers come to life and make you a more memorable candidate.
- Give detailed answers, but don’t ramble. You want quality, not quantity. Don’t respond to a question with just a word or two, but don’t yammer on and on forever. Answer the question directly, provide some detail, and make sure you know how your answer is going to end.
- Put your best foot forward. Although you should be truthful in your answers, you also want to convince the interviewer that you would be a good fit for their organization. Therefore, stay positive. Don’t speak poorly of yourself (or others, even if a past work experience was less than ideal).
After the assignment was due, I started pulling students for their third interview. I only asked questions that were from the prep guide, so the students who completed the assignment had answers prepared.
This time, I assessed both their body language and their answers. I also increased the point value on the assignment from 10 points to 20. Again, I saw some pretty decent progress. By this point in the year, the students had mostly pinpointed their strengths and weaknesses in the interview setting. Most had become more accustomed to formal one-on-one conversations, and they were able to shift into “interview mode.” Most students had pretty decent answers to my questions, but many were still forgetting to use specific examples. I kept harping on the importance of these stories, ones that would make them stand out among the crowd. “You’ll be competing against so many others,” I told them. “The more stories you tell, the more likely they are to remember you.”
Fourth Quarter: The Real Deal
For their final assessment, I tried to simulate a real job interview to the best of my ability. First, they had to find an actual job that they would apply to. Some chose part-time summer work or internships; others chose career-type jobs that they saw themselves applying to after college. Then, I assigned a cover letter and a resume as graded assignments. I gave them samples of each, then instructed them to write their own. Some of them protested that they didn’t have any experience to include on their resume. I told them to fabricate it or use experience from clubs or extracurricular activities. The whole goal of these two assignments was to give them an opportunity to create a template that they could use in the future when they did accrue real work experiences. I couldn’t care less of they hadn’t actually worked at Subway from August 2020 to February 2021.
If they submitted both a cover letter and a resume, they were eligible for their fourth round interview. I refused to interview anyone who hadn’t submitted both. Additionally, they had to sign up for their own interview. In the previous three quarters, I had called out students into the hallway myself. For the fourth and final round, I put the onus on them to schedule a time that worked on their end. I created a SignUpGenius that listed timeslots for each class period (five per). Since there were approximately twice as many timeslots as students in the class, there was no excuse for not signing up.
I threw in a few final twists: I increased the interview grade to 40 points, a pretty significant jump. I also told them that their attire would be part of their grade; I expected them to dress business casual at the least. Finally, I would conduct a different interview for each person based on the job to which they applied and the contents of their cover letter and their resume. No longer would they be able to ask their friends about what I asked to prepare ahead of time. They would truly go in cold. Although some of my questions would come from their prep guide, there would be several that came completely out of nowhere.
There was one question that each person would receive, which was “Do you have any questions for me?” I told them that they were required to ask at least one question, no matter what. I said that asking questions not only expresses further interest in the position, but can also protect applicants from red-flag answers. If the interviewer says something in response to a question that signals an unhealthy work environment, they should consider looking elsewhere for work.
On their interview day, I would call them out in the hall by name but pretend that I had never met them before. I even intentionally butchered some name pronunciations to throw them off. Then, I asked each of them about the experiences from their resume, complete with follow-up questions. I bounced around the prep guide, asking each person a different series of questions. I also threw some theoretical situations out and asked how they would react. For more corporate-type jobs, I would ask about collaboration and problem-solving. For those who applied to customer-service jobs, I asked about handling difficult customers and, my personal favorite, “What is your philosophy on the idea that ‘the customer is always right?’”
I had a lot of fun in the interviews, especially at the end when they asked their question(s). Inevitably, I was forced to think of some elaborate response to a litany of questions from a variety of fields. I waxed poetic about Chipotle’s strong workplace culture, assured applicants that Apple would definitely help supplement tuition for graduate-level coursework, and prattled on about the need for people to cover weekend shifts at Target. I had no idea if anything I said in response to their questions was true, but coming up with those answers on the spot was a wonderful mental exercise.
I was really proud of my students at the end of the year. Every single student was improved from first quarter. Some were definitely more advanced than others, but everyone made progress. I could tell they were becoming more confident by the lack of fidgeting, increased volume, and clear answers with good examples. I was just so proud of them as they each took their seat with perfect posture and listened intently for the first question. They really looked like young adults!
Considerations for Next Year
Although the project was mostly successful, I think that there could be improvements.
- I should have done more modeling throughout the year. I could have done some mock interviews in front of the class in which I was the interviewee and shown the class what I was expecting.
- I should have had students take notes as I gave them feedback. With months between assessments, some forgot what I had told them previously.
- I should have given them more opportunities to practice their written answers out loud and given more directed feedback about what they wrote.
- Some students forgot about their timeslot, so they weren’t prepared or didn’t come to class at all. I wasn’t sure about the best approach to this problem. I allowed students with excused absences to reschedule, but I didn’t know exactly what to do with those who came unprepared. On one hand, I wanted to communicate the importance of staying organized and remembering commitments. In that vein, I think that insisting that these unprepared students interview on their designated day anyway would be valuable. On the other hand, I don’t know how much they would learn about good interviews if they just stumbled through one unprepared. I think I’m leaning towards the first approach. At least that way, they can fail in an environment that isn’t quite “real.”
- The whole premise of this assignment requires a lot of time in which students are working individually so that I have time to conduct individual interviews out into the hallway. I need to be able to trust that the students in the room are able to behave themselves with me out in the hallway, and there will also be a lot of stagnant class time in which the students who are in that one-on-one setting are receiving individualized feedback and education while everyone else isn’t learning much. I want to spend more class time doing dynamic activities next year, so I need to make sure that I would have enough class time to meet with every student four times.
- Chronologically, it made sense for the culminating assessment to be in fourth quarter. However, anyone who has taught 12th graders before knows that April and May of senior year are basically lost months. Some students were checked out completely and barely came to school. Others were satisfied with their grade, so they stopped doing work. There were some students who never did their fourth quarter interview because they were fine with keeping the grade as incomplete. I wanted all of the students to undergo this meaningful fourth round, but I also wanted to keep the onus on them to sign up for their own interview. I’m not sure yet how I’ll approach this problem next year.
- I know students will absolutely hate this idea, but I think it’d be so much fun. During grad school, my professor would put each of us in the “hot seat” in front of the entire class to answer an interview question. Then, the class would provide feedback to the person in the hot seat. I have a feeling that only the confident students who don’t need much feedback on their skills would be the ones to volunteer, though. Then again, the students might like seeing one of their peers perform well in a high-stakes setting. I hate forcing students to do anything, especially in front of an entire class. I am also not a huge fan of offering extra credit. Maybe I can incentivize volunteers with candy.
In many ways, I was disappointed with my performance as an English teacher during the 2021–2022 school year. The main reason why my English teaching fell by the wayside was due to my commitment as a yearbook adviser, which I will write about extensively later. To be clear: I absolutely loved yearbook, and I wouldn’t take the experience back for the world. Unfortunately, all of my brain space and creative juices went towards yearbook, leaving little for English. I want my English classes to be interactive and memorable, full of interesting and collaborative activities. Most of my classes this year involved me introducing the task at hand, explaining how to do it, and then giving the class time to work on the assignment. There’s nothing drastically terrible about that approach, and my students seemed to enjoy my class based on their end-of-year feedback. Still, I know I can do better.
The one part of my curriculum that I was really proud of was these interviews. I really liked the real-world connection. A few students said that they used the interview prep from class in actual job interviews. I suspect that many will at least use the structure of their cover letter and resume again. Unlike many assignments that seem more like tasks in the gradebook, I think these interviews were valuable beyond just As and Bs.
My favorite part of these interviews were the moments after the interview. For a few minutes, I was able to talk to each of my students individually to ask about their extracurricular activities, other classes, jobs, friends, and general well-being. Oftentimes, some students sort of fade into the masses. With this interview assignment, I was able to build a connection with every single student.
I look forward to seeing how this activity grows over the years. I plan on implementing it into my curriculum again, and I would welcome feedback and ideas for improvement.