Nervousness vs. Confidence in Case Interviews

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Here's wishing you a very Happy New Year! I have purchased the LOMS program, and I must thank you, for the videos have been immensely useful.

I had a query and needed your help on that. I have been practising case interviews for over two months now, however, I always get a little tensed when I am doing the cases.

I actually made it to the final round with a top consulting firm, but was told that I came across as a little nervous, and was rejected.

Please advise on how I could overcome the apparent nervousness and come across as calm during the other interviews.


My Reply:

I've been thinking about how to reply to this question for several days now... and actually deleted my original reply to re-write it.

This seems like it would be a fairly straightforward question to answer, but after giving it much thought and even speaking to a few others about it, I've concluded the answer is a bit complicated.

Here's why.

First, let me explain why the nervousness thing is a legitimate criteria for the interview.

I've mentioned the other day that consulting is very much a relationships business.  As opposed to an analysis business.

At its core, consulting is also a business about clients buying certainty when faced with an uncertain situation.

So a big company is facing a $200 million decision. The executive in charge is uncertain as to what to do.  In short, he doesn't trust his own judgment, doesn't trust that enough data is currently at hand to make an informed decision, or doesn't trust his team's judgment.

So the client is willing to pay $1 - $2 million to a top firm to reduce that uncertainty.

The thing with certainty is that it is as much an emotion as it is a factual assessment.  In fact, it's probably more of an emotion than a factual assessment.

So the issue comes when a new associate is presenting a part of the team's recommendation to the client, but the associate seems nervous, tentative, and highly uncertain about what he/she just said.

So maybe the words the Associate uses are, "We recommend you enter this market and invest the full $200 million.", but the body language and voice inflection convey uncertainty.... then the client starts wondering if you really believe what you say.

Then they start looking at the invoice they received.  Keep in mind, for an Associate that makes $200,000 per year, the consulting firm is charging the client $600,000+ a year for your time.

So the client starts wondering, "Why am I paying $50,000 per month for this Associate, when they are just as uncertain as I am?"

So from the consulting firm's standpoint, for consulting roles that are client-facing, nervousness waters down the impact the firm can have.

So this is why confidence in cases and in consulting is important.

Now let's move on to answering the question of how to reduce nervousness.

This is an interesting question, because the only way to reduce nervousness is to understand what causes nervousness.

And it is this aspect of the question that had me wondering about this question for a few days.

What causes nervousness?

It's an interesting question, no?

If I were to create an issue tree to structure my answer this question, here is how I would structure it.

Level 1: Outward Appearance of Nervousness

Level 2: 1) Technical Stuff 2) Mental Stuff 3) Physical Stuff

(and if I were looking to be "MECE" - I would add 4) "Other" Stuff)

Let me elaborate on each of the 3 "drivers" (consultants love that term) of nervousness.

1) The first one is technical competence. Do you know how to do cases? Are you actually good at it?

One of the most useful classes I ever took at Stanford was a one-unit class on public speaking. I took it because I was one unit short of graduating and needed a class to fill that requirement.

It was a great class. I remember virtually everything I learned in that class and have used it constantly.

In fact, I still remember my Teaching Assistant, whose name is Bijoy Goswami.

Here is rule #1 to getting rid of nervousness in public speaking (which I think is almost one and the same as getting rid of nervousness in an interview).

Rule #1: Know your material.

When you know your stuff, there is absolutely no legitimate reason to be nervous.

(As opposed to if you knew nothing about your topic, you are basically giving a speech (or delivering a case interview), where the premise of your content is fabricated... so it feels like you're "lying" or faking, which tends to make people nervous.

There is an easy solution to fix this, which is to prepare a lot.

Go through my Case Interview Secrets free videos, Look Over My Shoulder® recordings, practice with a friend... and do all three a lot and you will know this stuff extremely well.

2) The second driver of nervousness is what I call mental "stuff". Basically it has nothing to do with your actual skills, actual performance, or actual situation. It has everything to do with your perceptions.

Within this particular branch of this issue, I would add the following:

Level 2: Mental Stuff a) Misperception of What's at Stake b) Misperception of Relative Capability c) Unaccustomed to Being Evaluated

2a) Misperception of What's at Stake:

People tend to get extremely nervous the more they feel they "have" to do well on an interview. In sports, particularly in American sports, the term is "choking" under pressure.

The example of this is the most talented athlete who is attending the last Olympics of their lifetime... someone who has won medals, but never won Gold.... and they choke and don't do well.

Basically this cause of nervousness comes from caring too much about the outcome at an emotional level. It is the perception that: "If I do not pass this interview, my career is over."

One of my on-going fascinations is the psychology of performance.

In my research, there is an optimal amount of stress to get one to perform well.

Care too little, and you don't try hard enough. Care too much, and the burden is overwhelming. Care a lot (but not too much), it allows you to channel that slightly nervous energy into performance.

I remember one friend in school who I was giving a practice case. The person had convinced themselves that 15 years of work would be meaningless unless they passed this next interview... and the stress was so bad, that in the middle of the practice interview, I asked the person "What is 2 + 2?"

The person could not answer it.

If this is an issue, the key to making it a non-issue is to write out on a piece of paper 50 reasons why not passing a particular interview is not a big deal.

So an example: "If I don't pass this interview, I don't care because:

1) "I have another interview with another firm next week. 2) I can try again next year. 3) I can apply to boutique firms. 4) I can...."

Force yourself to write down literally 50 reasons and you'll objectively find that while getting rejected is not great, it certainly is nowhere close to the end of the world.

You must mentally get to a place where you don't care about the outcome.  You focus on doing your best.... and you truly, genuinely get yourself to a mental place where you do not care.

Now this is an extreme position. I don't recommend it for everyone.

But, if you have a tendency to care way too much to the point of hurting your own performance, I suggest using this approach to counterbalance your natural tendency.

2b) Misperception of Relative Capability:

This cause of nervousness comes from misjudging your performance / credentials vs. other candidates (but those interviewing now and those featured in the recruiting website/brochures).

I suffered from this problem and probably still do.  I routinely underestimate how good I am at something (anything) and routinely over-estimate how good everyone else is.

One little secret... the people they feature in the recruiting brochures and websites are the firm's most impressive people... not necessarily the average person.

So if you're comparing yourself against the one person at XYZ firm who has an MBA from Harvard, an M.D. from Stanford, and a J.D. from Yale... and won an Olympic Gold Medal too.... well, let me be the first to tell you... they are not all like that!

That being said, there usually are a few who are absurdly impressive.

So it's important to not misweigh the data points you see and extrapolate incorrectly to the rest of the population. I forget the statistical term for this kind of bias, but be aware that it happens a lot.

2c) Unaccustomed to Being Evaluated:

One of the other reasons people can be nervous is because they are unaccustomed to being judged and evaluated by others in a face-to-face setting.

This is a completely different skill from being smart.

I once interviewed someone who had a PhD in Physics (or might have been Electrical Engineering) from IIT -- India Institute of Technology.

This is the MIT of India, is extremely competitive to get into (the joke is if you get rejected from IIT you go to MIT), and as I understand it, admissions is by exam only.

Well the guy I interviewed had tested #1 in the entire country of India!  So clearly very smart, and probably much smarter than me (but then again, maybe I'm falling for the misperception of relative capability bias I was talking about earlier).

But, in the interview, he was sweating profusely. He was just dripping in sweat. He actually did not do very well on my case (too theoretical, not at all practical) and he was terribly nervous.

Part of the reason why he was nervous was, I suspect, due to the fact that he was unaccustomed to having to be in an evaluative situation in-person.

I've been thinking a lot about this whole nervousness thing the past few days.

I found the question, and how often I get asked the question, surprising, but I couldn't figure out why I found it surprising.

After some further reflection, here's why I think I had this reaction.

When I did case interviews as a candidate, I was not that nervous. A big part of the reason was that I was very well prepared, using the approach that I've shared in Case Interview Secrets and Look Over My Shoulder®.

But, upon further reflection, I realized in hindsight that was not the only reason.

To explain why, let me share a story.

I realized that many of my non-academic pursuits in high school had a big impact on my personal confidence in these case interviews.

In addition to my school work, the extra-curricular things I did at school forced me to get good at interacting with people in a variety of ways.

During my senior year, I was President of my high school student body, and as President, I usually gave a very short speech to the entire high school once a week -- usually just announcing some school event of some sort.

I had a similar role in my junior (3rd) year as well. In total, by the time I turned 17 years old, I had given close to 50 speeches in front of several hundred people.

The first 20 times, I was extremely nervous. Keep in mind, all I had to do was get on stage, and say "The school car wash is this Saturday at 11:00 AM. Please come."

This is not exactly a very difficult thing to say. And I knew most of the people in the audience. And most people liked me... so it was a friendly audience.

And despite all this, I was very nervous -- the first 20 times.  By the 50th time, I was still nervous (a little), but it went away within a second of talking.

What I realized was that by doing the public speaking so many times, so early in my career, I got very accustomed to being in a position where I perceived people to be judging me... and I got good at managing my nervousness.

I can't say back then that I stopped being nervous, but I definitely got very good at keeping it in check.

At this point in my career, I've given maybe 250 speeches or presentations... and now there's zero nervousness.  For me, public speaking is like brushing my teeth... it just happens automatically.. (and by the way, I also got very good at this at McKinsey).

(On a side note, I was also captain of my high school American football team, and my team won the California State Championship the year I was captain...

I got good at managing big egos of a bunch of guys who were extremely violent when unhappy... including one future Heisman Trophy winner (the award given to the #1 player in college, American football)... and in comparison managing a difficult client is very easy - at least clients aren't violent.)

So what does this mean for you?

If you have months or maybe a year or more of time to prepare for your interview, I think it is useful to find more opportunities to work on your interpersonal skills.

Public speaking is certainly one way to do this (and once you get a job in consulting, you'll be doing a lot of this anyways... so its a good skill to learn) in addition to the case interview preparation I have covered elsewhere.

Joining a toastmasters group is one medium term way to improve your public speaking skills. Taking a course that has lots of practice opportunities in front of a real audience is another one.

I hear good things about the Dale Carnegie program, in terms of improving inter-personal skills, though I am not familiar with the details of the program myself.

If you only have a few weeks to prepare, it is not possible to get enough public speaking practice fast enough to be a good use of your time. So your best bet is to just stick to the other tips I've outlined in this email.

3) The final factor that contributes to nervousness is "physical stuff" -- your physical environment. The physiological signs of nervousness include:

* rapid, shallow breathing * high pitched voice * talking very quickly (often not stopping to take a breath) * tightness in the chest * starting a new sentence before finishing the last sentence * using an abrupt speech pattern... "I think X, wait no... it's Y... no wait, I mean it's Z."

These are the things the interviewer sees and hears that conveys to the interviewer that the candidate seems nervous.

So it is possible to manage these outward signs of nervousness, even if you still feel nervous inside.

This final approach is to forget about trying to not be nervous... let's just focus on not appearing nervous instead.

Let me start first with breathing. When you are nervous, you need more oxygen to feed your body and brain.

If you are physically out of shape from a cardiovascular perspective, your demand for oxygen will exceed your body's ability to provide it, without an accelerated breathing pattern. You will get short of breath faster.

Sadly, these days I am not in as good a physical shape as I was when I was younger. I notice this when I am late for speech and have to run up stairs or from the parking lot to be on time. Once I get into the meeting and am out of breath, I feel ridiculously nervous.

I am short of breath.

I can't finish a sentence without interrupting it with a breath.

I'm very abrupt in my speech, because my brain is racing ahead on my planned remarks, but my ability is lagging behind.

And while all this is happening, I'm fully aware that I am coming across nervous... but I can't help it!

To experience this yourself, try running around the block until you are physically exhausted, and then have someone give you math problems out loud... you will be panting, (pause for breath) and short of (pause for breath) breath, and will appear (pause for breath) nervous.

So making changes to your physical environment can artificially create or remove outward signs of nervousness.

For example, if you wear clothing with a tight waist band, it will constrict your diaphram and reduce the amount of oxygen intake per breath.. which, when nervous, necessitates you breathing more often -- which can at times come across as nervousness.

So wear comfortable clothing.

If you are in a seated position and leaning forward, or are slouched forward (which you shouldn't do in an interview because it doesn't look authoritative), it also constrains your oxygen intake.  So sit up straight.

(By the way, your diaphram is able to take in the most oxygen via deep breaths when you are standing.)

For men, having a dress shirt where the neck is either appropriately sized or even slightly larger gives your neck more room to breath.  Try doing an interview with an old dress shirt 1/2 size smaller in the neck, and you will appear nervous.

The final tip is to take slow deep breaths right before and even during an interview (not super deep, but nice deeper, fuller breaths)... more oxygen per breath this way.

This has a nice benefit of forcing a slower pace of speech.

For the other symptoms, the best way to manage them is to 1) be aware of them; 2) monitor yourself; and 3) self correct.

In particular this tip applies to:  * high pitched voice * talking very quickly * abrupt speech patterns

You need to get accustomed to watching yourself as you interact with others (in a case or other nervousness-generating activity like public speaking)... and then consciously fix the mistake.

For example, the one public speaking bad habit I have is I sometimes talk really fast.  When I'm really passionate about something, I tend to speak even faster.

My habit is to speak as quickly as a I think.. which is a bad idea.

When I find myself falling into this habit, I force myself to Slow down and be more conscious in what I say and how I say it.

I strongly recommend you do this too.  Slow down.

It will get a high pitched voice under control.

If you slow down, your speech will slow down automatically.. and slow down the time between when you think of an idea and when you say it out loud.

Add an extra step to say the complete thought in your head first... before you say it out loud. This skill is one of the key skills you use on-the-job everyday -- more for diplomacy with clients reasons than for nervousness ones.

Here's a very useful skill. If you have access to a practice partner, do a practice case while audio or video recording yourself... and then go back to review the recording to see where you sounded off.

I did this with my public speaking work years ago.

When I saw a video tape analysis of myself, I noticed all kinds of bad habits. I suddenly became very aware of all of them, and was then able to self monitor and self correct those habits.

More recently, I resurrected the same video recording analysis tool when I was preparing to give live national television interviews -- which I do from time as an expert commentator on certain business topics.

So overall, focus on the technical stuff, the mental stuff, and the physical stuff, and you should be more than able to get your nervousness down to a low level.

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