This is the third of a four-post "series" where I will write about my experience during IMD's Assessment Day. Here is a link to the previous entries:
Assessment day, part II - The 1-on-1 interview
Assessment Day, part I - Getting to Lausanne
The impromptu presentation
When I was preparing for my assessment day, the impromptu presentation was by far the most difficult part to find any guidance or information on. I'll try to hash out my experience pretty thoroughly. Hopefully this will prove to be helpful for future candidates.
There are actually two parts to the impromptu presentation, the individual part and the group part.
- The candidates are given 30 to 35 minutes to prepare. I believe this changes depending on how long the topic/prompt is. A long one that requires more reading will gain you an extra 5 minutes of preparation time.
- We presented to the admissions officers as well as all the other candidates. Everyone presents on the same topic. Interestingly, it is up to the candidates to decide who goes first. In my assessment day we just went with the order the presentations were stacked.
- We were given just scrap paper and a pen for notes and calculations. We were not allowed to talk or use our phones except for keeping track of time. The admissions officers gave us a notice when we had 5 minutes left to prepare.
- There is no PowerPoint. They gave each of us five transparencies, and markers/felt-tip pens of different colors. You can't erase the transparencies so if you make a mistake, you either have to cross it out or use a new transparency.
- Candidates prepare their presentations in the same room and at the same time (except for those that have their 1-on-1 interviews). In my case, me and one other candidate had our interviews first, while everyone else prepared their presentation. After that he and I prepared our presentations when others went in for their interviews.
- You are given 5 minutes to present, and you will be given a signal when there is one minute remaining. Although they may let you say one more concluding sentence if your time is up, the 5-minute limit is pretty strict.
- After everyone is done with their individual presentations, we were asked to repeat the exercise as a group.
- They gave us 20 minutes to discuss the same topic, in light of everyone's opinions and arguments from their individual presentations, and prepare a "joint" presentation reflecting the group's view. It was left up to us to decide who would be the presenter.
- It's amazing how many new ideas came to light in the group discussion after everyone heard each other's presentations. Without fail, every single one of the candidates had at least one argument that no one else had thought of.
- This is the first time in the assessment day that the candidates are asked to work as a group, so everyone is eager to demonstrate their leadership and collaboration. However, 20 minutes is a very short time for seven people to come to agreement, so it's important to be able to know when to jump in with your ideas, and when to just listen.
- After we presented we had brief discussion with the admissions officers. They asked us questions about how we got to our decisions, how well we considered the alternatives and how strongly we could back up our arguments.
A big question mark for me going in was the topic. I truly had no idea what to expect. Would they ask me to take a stand on something related to current events? Would I be given a mini case-study? For me it turned out to be the latter.
Without going into too much detail, here's the gist of what I got - I was asked to be the CEO of a certain company, and was presented with three possible targets for acquisition. I was given a little detail about each of the three potential targets, and also a simple "financials" sheet with information about income, margins etc for each company. Obviously, the idea was to explain which one I would choose, and why.
In the end it was very cool to see how each candidate approached the problem differently, which led to different recommendations across the board. The most impressive thing is that everyone had very solid reasoning behind their choices. A very cool example of IMD's diversity of experiences and ideas, right in front of our eyes!
I'm sure IMD has a wide range of topics they use for the impromptu presentation, but I imagine any of the topics will have these characteristics:
- Will give you multiple options and no obvious "correct" answer
- Will require you to evaluate pros & cons of each option
- Will expect you to make a recommendation/take a position
- Will allow you to demonstrate your business mindset
- Will give you an opportunity to analyze numbers/data to support your conclusion
Preparing for the Impromptu Presentation
Although you won't be able to simulate the exact atmosphere of the presentation, there is definitely a lot you can do to prepare. Here are some suggestions:
- Practice the "preparation"
Even if you can't find a previously used topic anywhere, take a question/issue/decision that has no clear answer, and use it to simulate the presentation preparation. Should marijuana be legalized? Should Yahoo allow their workers to work from home? Should stadiums serve alcohol during the World Cup? (Credit to Ashley for this one, she actually gave this to me as a practice topic!).
Set a timer and spend that half hour preparing a presentation, just like you would do at IMD. My approach was to spend the first 15 minutes brainstorming the topic, making notes on what the choices are, and the pros and cons of each, ultimately deciding on my opinion/recommendation. Then the next 10 minutes I would spend actually planning and writing out the slides (I found it helpful to create "draft" slides before writing out the final ones). And then spend the last 5 minutes going over the presentation in my head.
Bonus points if you have a patient wife willing to listen to your presentation and give you feedback afterwards!
- Read "Case in Point" by Marc Cosentino
Once again this book proved to be very helpful. It touches on a lot of different business situations/problems, and walks you through how to think and what factors to consider to come up with a solution. Want to grow a business? Consider the economy, the customers, the competition, organic vs mergers & acquisitions etc. Want to increase profitability? Break down between costs and revenues, consider internal and external factors, fixed vs variable etc.
A lot of it seemed like common sense, and I certainly didn't memorize all the frameworks, but reading it definitely helped me solidify my approach and gave me a little extra confidence.
- Practice your public speaking
Take advantage of any chance you have to speak in front of strangers, especially if you don't do so often. Find excuses to give presentations at work, or look for a local Toastmasters club. Definitely recruit your family and friends to listen and give you feedback. You can also record yourself and watch it later (painful and awkward as it sounds!) Anything to give you that extra confidence on the big day.
- Practice your timing
I had a really hard time figuring out how long 5 minutes actually is. In my first practice presentation I went way over the time limit. Then after that I was so worried about taking too long that I started making them way too short and not going into enough depth. Eventually I got a better sense of timing and was able to worry less about the time and more about the content.
In my opinion this is one of those things that can be an unwanted distraction on the big day, especially if you get the "1 minute left" signal and still have 3 slides to go through. So I found it very helpful to get it down beforehand.
- Get a hold of some transparencies and a projector if you can
Ashley's mom is actually a 5th grade teacher, and in her classroom she has a projector. Being awesome as she is, Ashley called her mom as soon as she found out I would be using transparencies. She arranged for us to come to her classroom and practice one Saturday. That turned out to be awesome! For example, I figured out ahead of time which way the transparencies work better (I recommend portrait rather than landscape); I learned that I don't actually have to write REALLY BIG; and I learned the hard way that markers can make a mess on your hands and your clothes (better my regular clothes than my nice suit!).
Because I had that opportunity to practice with transparencies, during assessment day I was pretty comfortable with all the materials and all the apparatus. Another unwanted distraction I thankfully didn't need to worry about!