I posted awhile ago about restarting my hobby (50by50: Re-start my astronomy hobby (#04)), and some other posts over the last couple of years about trying to figure out proper alignments and use of my Celestron 8SE scope. This past weekend, we were heading to my wife’s family’s cottage near Fenelon Falls and Bobcaygeon, and I was debating whether or not to take the scope. Their property has a lot of trees so Eastern views are out, but if I put my scope next to the lake, I have a pretty good SW view.
I hemmed, I hawed. Then I pulled up the Clear Sky Chart for Fenelon Falls (who knew there was even one for the area?), and the decision was made — every indicator for Saturday night was off the charts. I’m usually doing viewing in the Ottawa area and lucky to get medium predictions for quality (3/5), while the one for Saturday in Fenelon had 4s and even 5s! I wasn’t organized to take all my stuff with me, but how could I not? It delayed our departure by half an hour as I crammed every thing in after finding it all, and we went.
About 5:00 p.m. on Saturday, I started setting up the scope with my solar filter. It was fun to see the sun spots, and Jacob and Andrea saw them too. I confess, though, that sun spots are not the most exciting thing to see. Andrea’s father and aunt took a peek, as did her uncle.
As night fell, I was a bit excited. I was debating using the built-in settings or the wifi adapter that connects to my phone or tablet, all exciting options.
Right up until my Celestron power source died. Not for any other reason than the fact that I wasn’t planning on going, grabbed it and didn’t grab the charger, and there wasn’t much left to power the scope. I ended up putting the mini tank away, popping open the mount and inserting 8 batteries for the night. Not the best of solutions, but it works. Back in business.
Except my phone wasn’t fully charged either — one of the downsides of being in a remote area with dark skies is your little phone may not connect, and if it’s like mine, and trying to repeatedly connect without success, it eventually dies during the day. Tried running my tablet app, couldn’t connect, and then it said my app wasn’t valid. It is, and I reinstalled it later just fine, but wouldn’t work.
So I tried the hand set alignment, and it failed, but I expected that. On to regular star hopping.
Except I was not very enthusiastic. That amazing clear night that was forecast? Total crap. There was haze EVERYWHERE. Maybe drifting from BC, but looked more like heat hazes. Definitely in the west up almost 20-30 degrees and even Saturn and Jupiter were hazy. I showed off Saturn and Jupiter to Andrea and Jacob, and they were far cries from what we had seen even in June. I showed Andrea’s mom and aunt Saturn, but it wasn’t awesome. I did manage to show Arcturus and Antares, even if I couldn’t remember their names at the time, and they loved them because they actually were twinkling.
It quieted down, I was left to my own devices. So I pulled up a planetarium app, found the names for Antares and Arcturus. Looked at them again. And then I started looking for Messier objects, which I almost never have much luck with on my own. Just not organized enough to figure it out, and although I have a Go To scope, that’s kind of cheating.
But I surprised myself. I found M3. While it may be a nice globular cluster that seems super bright when you look at it on pages on the internet, it always looks like a light faint smudgy to me. Still, I found it, on my own, didn’t use my go to function, just star hopped to it. I was a bit “lucky” more than skilled, but hey, it counts. 🙂
I have never got into podcasts, partly perhaps as I don’t have a good setup for it. I don’t listen to a lot of music on a daily basis, either, other than the radio, for the same reason. Yeah, sure, I have a smart phone, an MP3 player, and a tablet, all of it which I can theoretically set up with music and regular podcasts for listening in the car, etc. But I’ve never set all my pieces up to do that easily, which just presents friction to the transaction. I don’t do audiobooks, I rarely watch TED talks, I didn’t put french lessons on my various gadgets to use in for the car. I’ve had plans to get all the music going for some time now, and it is at least organized. But I haven’t decided between Spotify, iTunes, Google Play Music, etc. let alone podcast options.
I do have Media Monkey Gold running pretty well on my desktop now, and it will likely be my media manager for the future. Some quirks to work out still, and one of them was podcasts. MMG has some ones already linked by default, and today I figured out how to go into iTunes, find the link, copy it into MMG, and bob’s your uncle, I seem to be able to do this with any iTunes podcast easily. If it isn’t in iTunes, I’ll figure it out later.
Because, from time to time, I do see reviews of new podcasts that people are super excited by, and I think, “Hmm, sounds interesting.” I particularly like the idea of small size snippets of experts sharing info. Or a small insight into a world that I don’t inhabit myself — a scientist, a doctor, a rapper, an actor, etc.
When I saw the latest review of a new podcast called Sincerely, X, I was a bit skeptical. Oooh, how exciting, people talking about things too difficult to share, and so they are sharing their stories anonymously. Not. More likely to be people sharing made-up stories that they heard from a friend of a friend who knew someone who once talked to someone who was a roadie for a small band, and sharing it all for the titillation factor. Which would normally mean that I would just skip it entirely, just as I skip the chat groups that do the same thing or the various websites with a high Kardashian-factor of TMI and ego.
Except for one thing. This one was by TED Talks. And TED Talks have street cred. Most of their stuff, albeit not all, is pretty damn good. A free, open form of the The Learning Company / Great Courses approach of getting really knowledgeable and engaging people to talk about something important to them. So perhaps, just maybe, the TED talks might have a format that would work. And I love their intro. A safe space to talk about things that you can’t discuss publicly. Substance over style. Intimate inspirations. Ideas over identity. Pretty compelling description.
Episode 1 is, in my view, a poor start. It is called Dr. Burnout, and the idea behind her anonymous talk is that doctors get burned out, they stop seeing patients as people, they go on autopilot, and they stop engaging. Don’t get me wrong, I think the topic could be awesome, and if she put a panel together of five or six doctors talking about their experiences where they “check out” themselves, how they feel about it, what they do about it, how they reengage or not, all of that could be good. But the speaker’s example of this is a man who was very sick, in her hospital, he wanted to leave, and she didn’t try to talk him out of it. Two days later he was dead of an internal bleed after being readmitted to the ICU. This person is showing so many signs in her presentation of post-facto-over-rationalization that it is amazing that she apparently got help from someone (therapist perhaps?) and they didn’t call her on her BS. She says, quite bluntly, that the person died of internal bleeding and if only he had stayed at the hospital, she would have caught it, no problem, he’d still be alive. Really? Would she be able to say that in front of a group of other doctors? Probably not, because everyone would tell her she doesn’t know that, and guess what, lots of things don’t present with irascible patients because the patient’s personality gets in the way of helping them. Sometimes they’re just asshats, sometimes they’re asshats because of fear, and sometimes they’re asshats because of internal pain they can’t artculate around the asshattery. There were at least five times in her talk where my BS meter went on overload, often for her sweeping generalizations. Things she WANTS to believe are true, because they make her talk more impactful if you ASSUME they are universally true.
Here’s my take. She was burned out, sure. She was looking for a change. And she saw a jerk of a patient, felt guilty she didn’t try harder after he died, and now wants to use that guilt to rationalize a large-scale change in her life. She could read Jeffrey Kottler’s “Change” and see a lot of similarities in her reaction, not to the event which is hardly uncommon but in her way of interpreting what it meant. And as with a lot of large-scale change that you aren’t quite secure about, or where the change leads the person to become a large-scale advocate, there is an internal need to make it bigger than she is, a start of a movement to talk about burnout. Selling it to herself as much as selling it to others. If that’s her catalyst, it’s pretty weak.
I feel like the TED Talks people who helped her think about it really didn’t narrow the focus, and there are likely more people out there with REAL burnout impacts that would be more helpful to hear about than this one. A swing and a miss for me. (1/5)
Episode 2 is called Pepper Spray and is about a woman having a horrible, no good, very bad day, at least in her own perception. She is clearly having the symptoms of a panic attack, which escalates when people treat her poorly in a retail environment. Up until the end of the “snapping event”, including a description of a person who helped de-escalate the situation, the podcast is awesome. When she gets to a part explaining the causes and triggers, and what it means beyond that, the podcast starts to slip. She tries to argue that she is not excusing the behaviour, but yet she tosses out four or five reasons why she isn’t responsible. The “insight” into the experience is great, her “solutions” for others are not (3/5).
Episode 3 is called Ex-Con and is about a prisoner’s experience with other prisoners. The fact that he was a hedge-fund manager, who ended up slipping up with a small change that spiraled into a “deep hole of deception” yet received a sentence of seven years, indicates that there is a lot of context missing. But it doesn’t matter, as it is not his message. His premise is that there are lots of people in jail who represent wasted capital because he saw some people in jail who were brilliant, resourceful, and ingenuous. They all wanted an opportunity, with the view that if they got a shot, they’d make the most of it. Of course, his big theory is muted a bit — without the conscious awareness — because he had a bonding moment with a young black man who asked him how he ended up there, an educated white man with resources, i.e. if the white guy had all the opportunities ended up there, then how accurate is the view that the big “solution” is to give the others an opportunity? Nevertheless he notes that there is an opportunity for “nano-degrees” while in jail and that they should be planning for the day of release from the date of incarceration. It’s not revolutionary, but it is well-articulated. However, there is very little reason for it to be anonymous. If he is the “poster child” for rehab, then why is he anonymous? That isn’t clear, but it’s still a decent interview. (3/5)
Episode 4 is called Sad in Silicon Valley and is about a serial entrepreneur who went to sleep a successful CEO and woke up three days later a mental health patient. Severe depression and anxiety. Separate from his individual challenge, his talk is mostly about the experience of finding and accessing mental health services — psychiatrist vs. pscyhologist, individual or group therapy, etc. $300K and ten years worth of mental health services later, and he still didn’t know what was wrong with himself. He was looking for a cure, and mostly he just saw self-reported symptoms and non-evidence based methods of treatments. For the speaker, better services in mental health face three big barriers — cost, access and privacy — and he thinks Silicon Valley could help provide disruption to the industry using big data and evidence. While he talks about some new ideas with social media, online video chats, apps like Headspace, and e-monitoring of brain states, there is little in the way of concrete proposals to disrupt the industry. Mostly it is just him saying tech should be able to help. A great idea, but with a lot of padding at the end, mostly around pop psych interpretations of addiction to technology and avoiding over-reliance (4/5).
Episode 5 is called Equality Executive and is about how the need for gender equality in industry has been recognized for over 25 years yet without any change in numbers in the actual boardrooms. For the speaker, productivity and profit as a business imperative is clearly represented by the evidence — lots of studies have shown that having women in C-suites leads to more profit. For her, the reasons why it hasn’t happened is three-fold — no metrics or framework to fix it, just good intentions…real change requires real commitment with real consequences for failure to deliver; it’s not HR who will provide the solution, as they want the current culture to remain stable, not create disruption; and failing to address unconscious or invisible bias and assumptions. I’m less confident when it comes to the situation of Millenials, as she argues that they aren’t prepared to fight productively for what they want (like Baby Boomer women supposedly were), so they just leave instead. From an interesting angle, I really like the reason why she doesn’t want to do it publicly but only anonymously — if she does it publicly, she thinks people will think she wants to sell people a solution, i.e. she’s marketing her business, so she de-coupled it in order to keep it pure and not tainted by the idea of commercial self-interest. It’s the only one to date that really needs to be anonymous, or at least has a reason that seems plausible and justifiable. It’s not perfect, a little too much “problem”, not enough clarity around the “how” of the solutions, but it’s pretty well done. (5/5)
Episode 6 is called Rescued by Ritual, and is the one that caught my interest, and justified the investment in figuring out how to access podcasts now rather than later. It is nominally about a woman leaving a violent relationship, the path to healing that she followed, and her doctor now advocating it as a best practice to be followed by others. I am a great believer in rituals to cement change, kind of as described in different terms in Jeffrey Kottler’s book “Change”, so I was interested in the premise of this episode. Unfortunately, the first 12 minutes are not about the ritual but rather about her back story, none of which is particularly different from traditional abuse stories. I confess I was looking for the actual ritual part to be a little more “external” instead of simple internal mindfulness. Essentially she focuses on someone she “loves”, and with that person in mind, focuses on the love she feels for them, directing as much energy as possible into that feeling. This is a bit different, but not terribly so, from the ritual of being mindful of gratitude each day — the old “count your blessings” adage on steroids — except it makes it all encompassing as a thought. Meditating on love, so to speak. Positive, sure, but it didn’t strike me as revolutionary. (2/5)
So I tried the podcast, and I’m glad it was enough of a draw to figure out a good approach to podcasts. I liked the rationale of the Equality Executive, the initial premise of the ex-con rehab story, and the opening story of the pepper spray story. But I don’t feel like I got much from the six podcasts, and it isn’t compelling enough to continue. I’m out.
I’ve written a lot about my experiences learning French, and there are days where I wanted to rip my hair out with some of the aspects.
I knew, from the get-go, that learning a new language is hard as an adult. That much is clear, as is the fact that the process of learning anything is often quite different for an adult learner. And I’ve blogged about my initial diagnostic test that said I would be fine for reading and writing but struggle with oral. I just didn’t have the ear for languages, it was clearly indicated on my test results.
And then I started at Asticou, at a very difficult time in my life emotionally, and with a horrible teacher. Where I struggled. A lot. I felt like the stupidest person on the planet, although it is hard to tell if that was because of the school, my emotional state, the teacher, or just the process of learning as an adult where I went from being competent at my job and getting praise to spending all day, every day, hearing nothing but corrections for my errors. Others were excited, I was demoralized. After 8 months, I was struggling with grief-induced depression, and work beckoned just in time to prevent a complete meltdown. I’ve also blogged about finally getting my B, and feeling relieved. Because I didn’t know if I could even pass the B level test at that point.
Yet seven years later, I found out that I actually had really good retention, was easily a B and that the previous test was hard because I was tested for C! In fact, I was ready to formally prepare for a C. How is that I didn’t know that coming out of Asticou? How could I have been so wrong about my “current ability” or even my “potential capacity”? How could the system have led me, or let me descend, so far into doubt?
I don’t know. But I got my C finally, doing just about everything against the rules for the actual test except one big thing — I managed my stress during the exam so that I only gave short answers to the questions asked. Fast forward another 10 years, and I did some refresher training. Then jump another two years to some internal placement testing, paving the way for some refresher training this past March. Which went horribly, in many ways.
Quatre semaines de réchauffement
I went to one of the popular schools downtown for four weeks of refresher, all that there was room for in the divisional calendar before other needs would pull me back. I figured I needed between 3 and 5 weeks, so the 4 week attempt was a good compromise. I needed to renew my written level B and my oral level C, but I wasn’t that worried about the written. I’d had it before twice, once with little preparation, but I tried really hard to bump it up to a C. Not quite hard enough, still got a B. I’m very consistent on that one. Not so consistent on the oral practice, hence the training.
Week 1 was a bit tough after not using my french much in the last 20 years, honestly. Particularly in the last 9 years working on corporate planning work, all of which happens in English except for occasional bilingual meetings. But I survived the week, even if one of my teachers did not.
I suspect she was quite good, actually, very knowledgeable, and had a very firm view of what was necessary to prepare for the test. Except I don’t respond well to “my way or the highway” approaches, and I jettisoned her from my team after a week. If I was there for 12 weeks, or even 8, I might have struggled through to find our groove, but I only had 3 more weeks to go and I couldn’t waste time finding a good way to work with her. The replacement was good, and I passed the next three weeks okay. I didn’t feel as strong as I had previously when I got my C, but I was also really worried about the format of the new test. The new test has a much greater emphasis on comprehension than previous models, and I was worried that I could and would miss some nuances. My speaking is fine, as I don’t have the three most common challenges — flow, willingness to elaborate, or vocabulary. I’m usually okay for structures and adequate for pronunciation (I’ll always sound like an anglo speaker, but that’s not pertinent to the test). But my comprehension is my weakest area, particularly if it is informal conversation or off-work topics or, gasp, fast talkers. And with a bunch of past practice and preparation, recordings were killing me.
I had one near-hysterical experience with one tutor. I listened to a recording in which a woman was leaving for vacation, she was responsible for “complaints” and couldn’t find anyone to look after it while she was gone. Her boss was “volunteering”, sort of willing to do it. It made little sense for protocol, but well, the vocabulary was fine. Except that wasn’t what it was about. She didn’t have plaintes (complaints) that needed managing, she had plantes. Like plants. I didn’t even know the word plante existed in french. But I knew plaintes for complaints. My tutor was much amused; 2 years later, I can see the humour, even if I don’t feel it.
And that continued with a lot of the sample recordings. I would listen, it would go well, and then there would be one where I missed a nuance, or an entire substructure, and I would be completely lost. Hard to build up momentum. I was terrified that with the new structure of listening to recordings, I would be dead in the water. So I wanted to practice that a lot.
Ideally, I would have done my training and did my test immediately afterwards. Nope. My training ended the third week of March, and my test was set for early May and then bumped to July! The current scheduling approach for french exams is HORRIBLE, and lots of people are really stressed just because of the process, not knowing if they’ll get bumped at the last minute for higher priorities, never mind the stress of the test itself for many. I think it is ridiculous and haven’t figured out yet why one of the many unions hasn’t hit them with a series of grievances. When they tried to bump me from May 10 to July 10th (yep, almost four months after my training ended), I said, “Sure, no problem. Just put a litigation hold on all files related to scheduling for the last 18 months.” For those of you not in government, that is code wording that says “I’m about to crawl up your butt with a grievance or lawsuit.” Surprisingly, my test date was moved to May 30th instead, along with a polite question, “Is that okay?”. And no, I wasn’t bluffing.
Bilingual capacity is a mandatory part of my job, I’m a priority for reclassification testing and a separate priority for talent management, plus in the midst at the time of job arrangements that required me to have my test done. Giving me the run around on scheduling violates the collective agreement as well as three separate internal rules for HR that I as a manager have to follow for my own staff, and yes, management has to follow for me too. This is happening to people across government, and the stories are mind-numbingly bad. It almost makes Phoenix look like a well-run pay system. It also seems to be happening more to anglophones seeking french tests, and almost not at all to francophones seeking english tests, something that would of been my first step in a discovery motion to scare the complete crap out of them. I’m sure the reality is that they can meet the lower demand more easily, but the appearance of two different treatments is bad for employers winning grievances. But I digress.
My first attempt
I practiced before the test with my friend Andrew, just an evening out for dinner, as we had a few times previously with a couple of other guys as Andrew was preparing. I enjoyed those evenings, although I don’t know if it was helping me much. I just wasn’t relaxing into fluency enough.
Anyway, I did the test, and it was a good news / bad news situation.
The good news was the recorded part. I had no trouble with the recordings at all…they were professionally clear, surprisingly so for internal government services that often cut corners on IT tools. I was suitably impressed with the clarity. Bopped through it, and the dialogues were way easier than I had been practicing with at the school and on my own (for those of you not aware, there are 2 voicemails to listen to, 2 short dialogues between 2 people, and then later a longer dialogue between 2 people if you make it that far).
The bad news is that my stress was bad. I did not feel confident at all with ten weeks between my training and my test. I felt like I was going in cold. I couldn’t remember any good structures, I got messed up with my mots liens (linking words), and then I had a small near out of body experience.
There is one type of question I struggle with…inversions. So instead of asking “Est-ce que vous pensez…” (what do you think), the form is “Que pensez-vous…”. The problem for me is not every inversion, it’s that the inversion often separates out a beginning condition from a larger hypothesis, and thus the verb is in the conditional form (penseriez-vous). Just an extra roll of the R in the middle, and separated from the clause at the end, and together it is just enough to confuse me as to the intent of the question. And if they make it a harder verb like conseiller instead of penser (what would you advise instead of think), I often get lost in the subordinate clauses later in the question.
Which I did. I think the question was something like “what advice would I give someone managing a project like a corporate planning project”. Except I wasn’t fully certain that was the question. Plus I had a problem of a mental break. I had told her I was a planner, and that I did corporate planning (at the start of the test). Then for a presentation component, I described the steps of a project. So as follow up she was now asking me about a corporate planning project (merging the two). In my answer, I decided, for no apparent reason other than I would do so in a real conversation in English, that I would explain that there was a difference between corporate planning and planning a project. After going down that rabbit hole a few sentences, she even tried to throw me a rope to get back out, to which I basically said, “Don’t worry, I’ll get there, keep your shorts on” (not really, I just mean I acknowledged her attempt — and kept going another two sentences). It wasn’t necessarily fatal, but by the time I got to the end, I’d forgotten the question. I tried to go back to it, but didn’t hit it solidly. If I had been totally clean for the rest, I could have saved it, but of course I wasn’t.
Why did I go down that rabbit hole? The inverted question form. I wasn’t quite sure I understood it, and so I stalled with this other context. Not surprisingly, I only got my B.
Returning to training
The stakes got higher after that. I found a new job (50by50: Start a new job (#03)), and like all management positions, it requires a CBC-level profile for reading-writing-oral. I have exemption for reading, and renewed my B for writing, so I just needed the C in oral. In the interim, they let me start on secondment of four months less a day. Basically up to just past Hallowe’en, at which time, I would turn into a slowly decomposing pumpkin. The ironic part is that the organization box isn’t actually CBC, it is only BBB, which I could already meet. But they are in the process of reclassifying it, and they can’t put me in it at BBB knowing I don’t meet the CBC yet.
So I need a C to keep the job permanently. In March, I was confident after my training. By May 30th, not so confident. And I got a B. I knew I could get the C again, just a question of when.
My new boss agreed to schedule another week of training, and we did it in conjunction with the test. We scheduled the test, it came back as August 25th, and the training was adjusted to start August 18th. The perfect model — practice until the day before and go in hot.
I had five days to prepare. I rightly expected that Day 1 and Day 2 would be warm up for me. I avoided full simulations in those days, I just wanted to practice speaking to get my rhythm going. Day 2 in the afternoon was the day of the eclipse and we even went outside for awhile. It was great.
Day 3 started off well, but my simulation wasn’t great. The afternoon came, and I don’t know if it was the air in the building (terrible circulation there) or something I had for lunch, but I didn’t feel at all well. We knocked off early and I came home and slept.
Day 4, a Wednesday, was PERFECT. I was flying in the morning. I joke, but only partially, that if my test was that morning, I could have had a shot at the exemption. I was bopping back and forth in time, I was nailing the indirect voice, I remembered some of my mots liens, it was heaven. Not as strong in the afternoon, but still good. Progress.
Day 5, the Thursday, started off okay. I wasn’t hot but I wasn’t bad. Then the afternoon started. And I hit a brick wall. I was struggling with EVERYTHING. I listened to a recording, and I missed 60% of it. We shifted into a small presentation of some topic I’ve done a 100 times in my life, and I couldn’t even conjugate present tense well. I completely locked up.
And then it happened. I started to say something conditional, and instead of “Je pourrais…”, I actually said, “Je could…”. JE COULD? What the f*** was that? I haven’t made an error like that in 19 years. Wow.
My teacher wanted to continue, but I knew better. If I fought through that, by the time I was done, my confidence would be zero. I quit right then and went home. Not the most promising omens before the test the next morning. I hoped a good nights sleep like Tuesday would put me in the realm of Wednesday’s performance, but I was restless that night.
The big day
Friday dawned, and off I went. I parked at work, checked the time of the appointment on my computer (there was some doubt as to whether it was at 10:00 as I told Andrea or 11:00 as I was expecting, but it was indeed 11:00, whew), and walked over to the building. Relaxed in the basement seating area with my hematite stone in my hand. I don’t know why but it relaxes me, as it did for my first successful attempt at the C back in 2005. Went upstairs, registered, waited, and then, the examiner arrived. It was on!
We went in, got set up, and my nerves about the format of the test were gone, since I’d been through it before. I knew what she was going to say before she said it. We tested the volume, everything good to go.
We started with Part 1, which is general questions about where I work, how I got there that morning, my typical day, etc. I confess that I’ve had a small niggling doubt about something, and I decided there was nothing to be lost by hedging my bets. When it came to my title, I said I was an analyst. Not a manager. Sure, I mentioned that I manage a small team from time to time, but nothing that would indicate that I was a full manager, acting director, or even head of an entire division. In government philosophy, the bar is pretty high for management to be fully fluent yet lower for non-management. Does that translate into the rigour of the test? There’s no evidence either way, nor could there be, but nothing to be lost by diminishing my job a bit. And it’s not a lie, I do a lot of analyst duties. I just happen to have a full manager title. In the end, the questions are your basic A and B levels, nothing challenging there, but I didn’t want it to turn into a deep philosophical discussion in Part 4. For this test, Part 1 was easy peasy lemon squeezy.
Part 2 starts with the first two recordings, i.e. voicemails, and I used a mix of indirect style to describe in simple terms what they were about, how they ended, etc. My goal for each piece was to respond directly to the question, and generally forget the rules, structures, everything I memorized. Just talk and have a conversation. Nothing challenging in the voicemails.
The next two recordings were the dialogues, and again, nothing challenging. I understood every single word. No missed nuances.
With Part 3, the presentation, we were into solid B territory, and all three of my options were describing past situations. One of them allowed me to talk about my decision to quit law school. I haven’t practiced that a lot in French, but I have in English, including on this blog, so I wouldn’t search for something to say, just how to say it. I wasn’t as good as Wednesday, but I was flying pretty well. I was natural, I was at ease, I described the steps in the decision, and ended. I was a bit weak on the finale, but the opening and middle were solid.
We moved into the follow-up questions, and I went on hyper alert. Here it comes, the inversion format. “Que conseilleriez-vous…”.
An inverted hypothesis with an option to give advice and express an opinion? I’m on it!
I used the conditional form to start (imparfait of avoir l’occasion, followed by conditional form of proposer) and we were off to the races. I followed up with the switch to present tense, and then, I just talked naturally. I relied on my flow, my (reduced) elaboration and my vocabulary to outshine my pronunciation and grammar structures. Two more follow up questions, a bit repetitive, and then it was time for the tough part.
Part 4, which is well into high B and C territory, started with a dialogue. And I just about lost focus. First of all, I was expecting a recorded intro…nope, she spoke, asked if I was ready, and then the dialogue started direct. Except it wasn’t a dialogue. It was a man speaking very slowly, formally, announcing a change. I thought at first it WAS an intro before I realized it was the so-called dialogue. But he spoke for almost 90 seconds to 2 minutes with nobody else talking. It was a formal speech for a meeting, and then he asked if there were any questions or feedback. So a woman started talking and disagreeing with the change. The normal process for Part 4, and that part was fine.
I listened to the second part again, and I was a bit nervous with one word if I understood everything correctly. They kept saying “unités”. Which I had never heard used before. I assumed it meant units, but didn’t know it had an accent at the end. I just went with it. I used it the way they had. I did the indirect style, wasn’t perfect this time, but the dialogue was quite long. I summarized it like I’m supposed to, not provide a transcript, and we were into the follow-up questions.
The first was the standard “what’s my opinion of that”, easy enough. And again, I threw away my concern with the perfect structure, responded naturally to the direct question, and kept my answer a bit shorter than I would in practice. I got another follow-up, another chance to provide advice or opinion, same deal. And a third which was a weak softball question.
And that was it. We chatted naturally as we exited about our kids being sick, we said goodbye, and the test was over.
After the test, my reaction was immediate. “That was TOO easy!” The easiest test I’ve ever had in my career. I understood everything, I was relaxed, no games, just talking, biding my time until the tough questions came and they never did. The woman doing the test was awesome. She helped me relax, her diction was perfect, pace was good. She asked for a clarification of something I said in Part 4 and it was easy to respond to it and explain what I had meant. It was almost fun.
I panicked about the “unité” word, then started to second-guess my use until co-workers told me it did indeed mean unit. I realized too that I had blanked on another vocabulary word when I was talking about my law school days. I tried to say the people in the cases had been dead for 70 years, and “morte” was not coming to me. I knew there was a word like “deceased” (décédé) and I think I said something close to that (décés) but I know one wrong vocabulary isn’t terminal (no pun intended).
What was interesting to me though is that while I was calm during the test, surprisingly so, when I got back to the office, my energy left my body at an alarming rate of fast talking. I talked to my boss, my team, my old coworkers, random people in the hallway, and over two hours, I had verbal diarrhea to tell them about my experience. But mostly I was asking a question.
“It was easy…what does that mean? WHAT DOES THAT MEAN?”
I posted the same on FB. Then the waiting began.
In the past, you could have your results sometimes the same day. Usually the second day at the latest. Unless you were on the line between A and B or B and C, in which case they wanted someone else to listen to the tape too to verify the result. And back then, it was an actual tape cassette. So it took time to physically set someone up to hear it. Now it’s all electronic. And it took five days for my result to come in. A full five days.
I don’t know why, although maybe I was on the line again. I don’t know. I just know that during the week, I went from a high of “Yay me” to a low of “oh, I must have failed”. Most people go through it, I know, but the post-action self-criticism is a brutal experience. I’ve been checking my BB religiously all week.
Any results? Any RESULTS? ANY RESULTS?????
Today, I took Jacob to Appletree, long wait. And just before we left, I checked once again. SLE Results. Gulp.
I opened the PDF on my BB (which is a really tiny screen), zoomed to the result, and watched as the fuzzy little letter resolved to a C.
So I closed it and did it again to be sure. 🙂
Yep, I renewed my level. I can now deploy and not for nothing, keep the job I’m in. The level of pending complications if I didn’t get it this time is averted, and I’ve been trying not to think about it. Now I don’t have to do so.
My overall reaction to the renewal experience
I had a very strange experience on Tuesday during my practice/training. My tutor asked me if I had seen a video on Youtube called, “Who’s afraid of the big bad C?” Not cancer, it’s the C on the learning exam, and it’s done by the same company that has prepared the tools that the learning school uses internally, MyLearningMyWay.com.
So we watched the video, which is open to anyone to watch.
The video provoked two completely different reactions in me, hence the weird experience.
On the one hand, I saw a whole bunch of things I disagreed with for the advice. Basically things like saying focusing on grammar or mots liens or structures was an indication you were still only a B. That those weren’t things to worry about. Except of course those are things people DO often need to worry about, because they both aid in communication if used right and hinder communication if used wrong. If I had watched that video around the time of my first test in 2005, I would have disagreed with almost EVERYTHING. Even back in March, I would have dismissed it as philosophy over real preparation.
But now I had the other reaction too. The emphasis she argues is on communications of ideas, not the structures etc. And I had some evidence of this. My wife got her B a number of years ago, and has been clearly capable of higher levels with training and practice. She has a great ear for comprehension, something I am very jealous of her having. She had to renew this year too, and a B was guaranteed, no problem. Easy peasy. But she prepared a bit more for this one. She looked at some of my materials from my training, she looked at some of the online stuff, she practiced some of the areas and she learned what the structural elements were in the test. And she went in, responded directly to the questions, badda bing badda bang, she got a C! A full letter upgrade with no additional training. She just communicated with the tools she had already learned. Freaking awesome, she is.
And that’s what was on my mind going into the test. Making sure I played to my strengths (flow, elaboration but not too much, vocabulary) and not fussing as much about my weaknesses (linking words, comprehension). Not because I totally agreed with the video, but that I realized that I could communicate my ideas, and if the structure wasn’t perfect, worrying about it wouldn’t help. If I had something in my toolbox that I knew well enough to use, I would use it; if I didn’t, I wouldn’t. I was as ready as I could be with what I had in my toolbox.
I also had a small hidden weapon in my confidence. During the week of practice, one of my tutors and I had a conversation about HR processes, how the government works, and basically everything related to my HR guide for the upfront part of finding a job. I did it all from memory, an almost 2 hour conversation where we just discussed how it worked. In short, the exact same conversation that I have had with lots of people over the years in English. But I was doing it in detail in French. And she understood me just fine.
I am exaggerating slightly, but this was the most “real” demonstration of my ability in my career. A real conversation, 2 hours, unstructured, questions, answers, clarifications, explanations, examples. All of it. Exactly as I would do and have done in English. All in French. Was I perfect? Hell no.
But I communicated. And that’s what I tried to harness for the exam. And I did.
It’s almost like getting the C was just a bonus.
(Oh, who am I kidding? I GOT MY FREAKING C AGAIN. Booyah! If that isn’t worth an entry on my 50 by 50 list, nothing is! Besides telling my wife and my boss the results, I also sent a message to a friend at work who had a funny story of her nephew getting a hole-in-one in mini-golf and I used his mixed French/English phrase as my subject line — “J’ai got it!”).
I’m curious in part by what comes next. Sure, the obvious, I get to deploy from my old job and accept the new one completely. Plus I get my bilingual bonus back. All good.
Yet there is something else in my need for the renewal that has been blocking me on other things. I want to do some new astronomy stuff. I want to learn to fly a drone. I have some learning courses I’m interested in. Maybe some photography work. But ALL of them were ones that I felt needed to wait until my french was renewed. Not that I was spending 24/7 doing french, but just that I couldn’t afford to divert any of my mental energy into a large new project until that one was done. Now that it’s done, I’m curious to see where my desire to grow takes me. On with the journey!
I have pretty eclectic tastes when it comes to reading, although my fiction choices usually are mystery stories if I have a choice. However, for non-fiction, I am willing to consider a lot of different topics. One book that caught my eye was “100 Diagrams That Changed The World” by Scott Christianson.
The description was appealing — an idea or an idea represented by a picture, that the mere conception of it changed our understanding forever. Some of my interest is pedantic…I’ve often searched for ways to explain things simply to get the best explanation possible down in a format that can be grasped immediately by almost anyone. Some of my interest is more philosophical — how did the person come up with the idea, how was it they perceived something others didn’t?
Yet that’s not quite what the book is about. It is more “here’s an important image/drawing/graphic from an important part of history”. So cave drawings i.e. petroglyphs are amazing, but not quite what I’m looking for, nor is the Celtic triple spiral image that is dominant in Celtic culture.
I was gobsmacked though by a description of “Marshall Island Stick Navigation Charts” (pg. 19). According to the text, “as many as 4000 years ago, some human beings left Asia and voyaged in canoes over the vast Pacific Ocean to the islands of Micronesia”, and once there, they created primitive cartographic aides to help them navigate the new area.
Palm leaves, shells, and coconut fibre allowed them to map winds, variable water colours and the location of atolls. Pretty freaking cool. Learning about that was alone worth the price of the book, and I’m only on page 19. As I go, I’m going to point to some interesting other diagrams (in whatever form).
I’ve been reading Jeffrey Kottler’s “Change” and am now onto Chapter 3, “When Lives are Transformed.” It seems a bit odd to be three chapters in and just starting to talk about the “big” changes as opposed to change in general, but this chapter starts to hone in on the “quantum” or “transcendant” type of change where it rises to the level of true transformation – perhaps where you radically change not only how you see yourself, but also how you see the world.
It is perhaps cheating, but I like Kottler’s description itself:
…an emphasis on relatively significant and permanent modifications that have been internalized, resulting not only in altered beliefs and priorities, but also in new, more effective behaviour, as well as continued growth that may even take place at a cellular level in the brain.
Pretty heady stuff. But for me it is simpler – a significantly different way of thinking and behaving that is sustainable over time. It doesn’t have to be “permanent” in the sense that there won’t be backsliding, nor does it have to be fully internalized to the point of instinct. You may still have to consciously override your internal voices to say, “No, that’s not what I’m going to do today.” Alcoholics in a 12-step process are not saying they’ll never drink again; they’re saying they won’t drink today, day by day, and the days hopefully add up to never again. But it still requires the daily commitment to a change in behaviour.
While part of the chapter talks about people who have created new religious movements or new ways of global thinking as a result of formative events – unplanned, sudden, brief, vivid and intense, positive and long-lasting i.e. intense but positive traumas – the real benefit for me is a small section talking about maintaining momentum to change temporary change into long-term change.
For Kottler, there are often several conditions that must be met for the change to be sustainable:
The benefits/functions of the old way of doing things must have been disrupted and no longer “working” for the individual;
The choice to act like the old you has to be greatly reduced ineffectiveness or has a higher cost now i.e. again you need to find another way;
The underlying causes/triggers for the old behaviour are addressed through other means; and,
There was some meaning attached to the changes that permit the person to find some greater purpose to his or her life.
It’s a good list, but I think it can be simpler. You have to disrupt / cut the ties to the past way of doing things…the triggers have to be mitigated, the benefits have to be recognized as costs. And there needs to be a narrative for the person – a story to tell themselves – that clearly recognizes the old choices are not practical anymore and that they are making the change for a better version of their self for the future. A “change” story.
Kottler emphasizes this at the end of the chapter. While negative motivators (avoiding pain and other costs) and positive motivators (awareness, insight) help move you forward, it also helps to find ways to cement your change in identity as you redefine yourself in terms of the new behaviour. There is a lot of power to saying “I am x” and having the empowered choice to decide what X is. That could be “drunk” in the past and “recovering alcoholic” now. It could be less painful ones – shy, nervous, awkward. But those labels are one dimensional and reinforcing of your old behaviour. If you tell yourself that you’re awkward, you will avoid social situations, for instance. If you only tell yourself you’re overweight, you won’t see yourself as capable of doing a lot of things. And unless you see yourself in the “new” light too, you can’t sustain the momentum once you do make some changes.
For me, using my “goals” as a catalyst for change, part of my story is telling myself that “I am someone who can make changes in my life.” I can write, I can spend time with my son, I can learn a new hobby, etc. An act of empowerment built into the simple act of setting goals that starts with the belief that I can achieve those goals.
It works for me, not sure it will resonate with everyone. Does it resonate with you? What is your “I am …” statement?
So I mentioned previously that I was reading “Change” by Jeffrey Kottler (Jeffrey Kottler’s “Change” – Chapter 1), and the book is pretty dang good. Every chapter has these elements where I just go “wow”. While Chapter 1 dealt with defining change, and the general process to cement change, Chapter 2 talked about some of the challenges and obstacles that prevent change, compromising our efforts.
For Kottler, he believes that there is often one or more catalysts for change — natural life transitions (age, events), something is broken and needs fixing (but more importantly, that people recognize that it is broken and needs fixing — kind of like personal buy-in to the process), simple boredom trying to get out of a rut, achieving some specific reward, or more often when studying change, a personal crisis. Others he mentions later in the chapter include narratives (like a book or a story that inspires you), brush with mortality, facing a self-deceiving lie, changes in lifestyle, or simply solitude and the time to reflect. But even with those catalysts, Kottler argues that you may not move into the process of change:
Not being excited about change;
Willingness without knowledge of how;
Willingness but negativity (too much work);
Action highs (it feels good to change);
Maintenance / embedding; and,
Completion (it’s part of you now).
So why don’t people change? Kottler argues that there are hidden benefits to the existing situation that stop you from changing. The “aggressive” personality who destroys relationships with their anger management issues but also likes being able to draw upon the strength and to hide behind it. Or they are just feeling too overwhelmed with the basics to try for anything better. But those benefits come at a cost, and in Kottler’s view, you only get those catalysts when you’re aware that the “hidden benefits” that resist change are less than the obvious costs of staying as you are now.
For me, the aggression example is pretty apt. I know I have a really bad temper, and it destroys everything around it. I used to kind of like giving it free rein, as it made me strong. Stone-cold if I needed to be. But when I went through my five years of “tadpole” status to figure out who I wanted to be, one of the things I chose to half-jettison was my temper. Technically, you can’t jettison it, which is why I said “half-jettison”. It’s still there, it’s still part of me, but I never let it out of its box. Not around people I care about, and generally never at all. Because I know what my triggers look like. I know that I can’t be having drama with loved ones, not like when I was growing up. If people are into drama, they are no longer part of my life. I just don’t allow it into my zone. And if a situation starts heading that way, I exit. I walk away. I know what buttons are part of me, and I know what triggers them. But mostly I know what happens if I let them get pushed too much to the point where my response is no longer a choice. My temper is a fight or flight mechanism, and when I can’t take flight, I will fight. And for me, that’s a scorched earth approach. I want the fight over quick, and the enemy destroyed with no chance of recovery. I will pick, instantly, the most hateful thing I can say, stick the knife in and twist it. Powerful words. Downright deadly, truth be told. But not who I want to be. I don’t want to say those things. Not now, not ever. I don’t want to say them, I don’t want to be responsible for them being said, I don’t want the devastation that they may cause. That’s not an exaggeration.
One time I was involved with someone, it was a confusing situation, and I needed to end it. I was hurt, I was confused, and I was angry. And she was wondering why I wasn’t more upset as we ended things. Looking back, I know that to handle the confusion, I had slipped past my point of no return and was in stone cold mode. And in that moment, I knew what I would / could say, but shouldn’t, and I said it anyway. Simply to hurt her. “Because you don’t mean that much to me.”
Not said in anger, not shouted, not in your face. That’s not how I roll when I’m in cold mode. I just deliver it like a matter-of-fact, totally believable, truth bomb designed to obliterate the person’s soul. It didn’t in this case, thankfully, perhaps because she didn’t really believe me, nor want to, but with the right person, it could have been devastating.
You are likely not convinced, and I don’t like to give too many personal examples that involve other people, not my place to tell their story. So let me give you a different example. Let’s assume I was outside myself, and I was targeting me. The easy target for me is my weight, but that would be too simplistic. A level up from that might be targeting my ego, but again, not really a heavy blow. Professionalism, abilities, whatever — none of those are going to be devastating. No, to be truly devastating, you have to target a vulnerability, an existing weakness that they are already worried about. For me, like most parents, I worry that I’m not a good enough father. That I don’t do enough with him, that I am not engaged enough. So if I was angry with me, that would be my target. A carefully delivered jab to suggest that Jacob would be better off with a better father. An insidious worm that feeds on existing doubt. Not delivered as an attack, but as if it was a nagging worry of mine about me. Attacks are defended, worries and cautions are hard to deflect. And so it would slip by the defenses and land heavily on my psyche. That’s what my temper gives me. A ruthless power that does not discriminate once launched.
I love the strength that came with that power, but all power corrupts, and you can’t wield that power without corruption. I love knowing I have it if needed, I hate knowing I have it at all. So I make sure I never wield it. Ever. I run every time now. It’s who I was before I was a tadpole, and it is who I used to be. Not who I choose to be now. But it was a bitch to defeat and control.
Because as I jettisoned the controls, I had to focus on new techniques to resolve things. I had to also accept that I could choose to leave and lose something — an argument, a fight — even though I knew I could stay and win. And I even choose to leave EARLY, long before the triggers happen, just to be safe. So I lose even more. In other cases, I simply had to cut certain people out of my life, because I couldn’t allow myself to continue to lose in those situations to them — they would just keep coming and sucking the life out of me, destroying what I’m trying to create. The only way to win that game is not to play.
But there were a wealth of things that were stopping me from changing, and it took me almost four years of psyche-bashing and rebuilding to get myself back together, to see a different path forward.
For Kottler, he argues heavily that much of the unwillingness to change is supported by rationalization — I’ll do it later, I can’t stick with it, maybe I don’t need to change it all — and it can be mitigated with greater awareness. He points out though that this won’t work for everyone, particularly those with personality types or even disorders that make them self-sabotaging or non-reflective emotionally. Hard to use self-awareness to help yourself if you’re not self-aware or the message you get isn’t accurate. Obviously, too, severe trauma will mess up your abilities to process, just as it affects all aspects of your life. Coping skills, and improvements to those skills, can help make you “more prepared” to accept the process of change, and Kottler has a long sub-section (pages 34-36) listing ways to help with coping. Things like:
Clearly identifying your values and goals;
Taking care of unfinished business first, so it doesn’t intrude;
Practicing and rehearsing, perhaps in smaller steps or trial runs;
Monitoring internal conditions that might trigger relapse (hunger, stress, etc.)
Figuring out ways to mentally bounce back when (not if!) a relapse happens along the journey; and,
Asking for help when you need it.
My favorite idea from the chapter though talks about false hopes and resolutions that fail (p 37). Basically that you are going to fail. It will happen. You will slip, you will backslide, you will relapse. And you’ll need to restart. With the corollary that not only is it difficult to “start” change, but also equally hard to maintain momentum. Think of all the people who start fitness goals on January 1st and the goal is dead before the month is out. One truth bomb that jumped out at me was:
People tend to overestimate their abilities and underestimate the amount of time and energy it takes to complete a task, especially one that is complex, intractable, and long-standing…It turns out that a number of myths are perpetuated by the self-help industry, that all it takes to change your life is good intentions, positive thinking, self-affirmations, grandiose expectations, and force of will. But as it turns out, it is precisely these illusions and myths that lead people to overestimate what is realistic and possible, dooming them to disappointment and discouragement.
“Just do it” is a nice slogan for Nike, but if you could “just do it”, you would have already done it. In my view, smaller, more attainable goals to start and a strong focus on restarting after a relapse are keys to remaining resilient in the face of the momentum challenge. I’ll close with another truth bomb.
There is no sense going after goals or making changes if, once you reach them, they don’t make much of a difference in the way you feel about yourself, your life, and where you are headed.
I love the quote but I think there is a missing nuance. I have some “goals” on my list, but they won’t do that change…they are more maintenance items to prevent backsliding on previous changes that I want to keep embedded in my life now. Not a big nuance, but one that is important for me to keep mindful of in my goal-setting.
PolyWogg’s (Completely Informal and Totally Unofficial) Guide to Competing for Jobs in the Canadian Federal Government
When I started this chapter, I said there were five types of interviews. While that is true, it is also true that each of the five are variations on a theme — or, alternatively, across a spectrum. The formal competition interview is at the most extreme end of the spectrum, and requires the most preparation.
Normally, a “full” interview is when you are doing a full competition to get a job at a level higher than you currently are now or perhaps at the beginning of your career in order to get into the public service. Since you are not at level, the competition has to test you on all the elements in the poster to show you that you are capable of meeting each of the criteria.
As outlined previously, most of the “experience” and “eligibility” elements were tested during the upfront application process. Some of the knowledge was likely tested through a written exam, and some of the personal suitability elements will be tested through reference checks. This means that the interview is primarily about testing your abilities, as well as some personal suitability factors and potentially some knowledge.
But before you prepare for the content, you need to think about what you are about to do. They are going to ask you questions and then you’re going to answer, that’s obvious. And they’ll mark your answer, which is also obvious.
While the goal is always to make the interview seem like a comfortable conversation, remember that you are being marked for what you say. It is very formal. You can’t assume someone already knows something — if you don’t cover it, they don’t hear it to mark it. Take for example a situation where you have been giving briefings for some time. And you know that one of the most important things in briefings is to tailor your presentation to the audience. So you’re fully prepared to highlight that in your interview.
Then you get in there and realize one of the interviewers is an old boss from another division. One that trained you on how to do presentations, including to always tailor presentations. So you relax. They know you. They know your history. And so, if you are like most people having a conversation with someone you know, you may tend not to stay the obvious things that you both know to be true. You may even feel a little silly to say to an old boss, “Well, I believe the most important thing is to tailor a presentation to your audience.” Because he or she already knows that you know it. Which means, like many candidates in interviews with people they know, you may forget to mention something obvious. But if you don’t say it during the interview, you don’t get any marks for it. You are marked ONLY for what you say during that time.
And most important of all? It’s going to seem like a monologue. They ask you a question, and when you start talking, they shut up. They take notes on everything you say until you tell them (or it’s clear) that you’re done answering the question. It will NOT seem like a conversation, and the people doing the interview may not even make eye contact because they’ll be busy taking notes. It is very unnerving for some people. You need to know they aren’t being rude, they’re just taking notes. And they are NOT allowed to prompt you very much. If you miss a small element, they might prompt you to elaborate on something. But here’s the thing…if they prompt YOU, they have to ensure they prompt everyone. Or the process won’t be fair. So, rather than risk unfairness, they will NOT prompt you if you miss something, even if it’s obvious.
However, they do sometimes ask you if you have anything to add. That is NOT a prompt for you to actually keep talking or that you must have missed something..it’s more often than not just them making sure you are done with that answer and they can move to the next question.
So think about that…formal questions, formal answers, and you doing a lot of talking, likely with little interactions with the members of the board. Assuming a standard interview, your answer to an individual question will last somewhere between 5 and 8 minutes. Which means you are going to talk for on average 6 minutes without them saying anything. Can you do that without practice, in an organized fashion, without repeating yourself?
Most people cannot do it. They talk in circles. They get nervous. They repeat themselves. They start digressing. They repeat themselves again. And all the time the markers are listening to your answer and awarding points.
There are only three strategies to manage this challenge:
Practice…you can practice talking about an area (see below) on your own or with a friend, you can participate in multiple competitions so you get experience in doing it, or you might even try joining something like ToastMasters;
Prepare…you will see lots of explanation below on how to prepare your answers in advance so that you’re not trying to think on your feet; and,
Structure your answer.
If structure is king for a written exam, it is queen for an interview.
You want to give an answer that is logical, easy to follow, detailed, well-developed, and answers all the elements that are needed for that question to get full marks. The markers need to take notes, and they’ll award your score based on the notes they take. If they have trouble following you, any trouble at all, you lose marks. It is that simple. So you need to always be clear with your answer — where you’re going, what you’re saying, when you’re done.
For example, if you start your answer by saying you have four parts, three phases, five elements, or even eight, they know that you are now going to tell them 3, 4, 5 or 8 things. And they are structuring their notes accordingly. They’re probably even organizing them already with numbers in order for 1, 2, and 3. You have already given them a logical, easy to follow structure. That’s half your marks right there. Now all you have to do is populate your answer. (To be frank, if you are going beyond 4 or 5 things in ANY answer, you’re likely too far into the weeds, but you get the picture.)
But fear not, intrepid candidate. Candidates have been given a small advantage since about 2004/2005. Since then, candidates are usually invited to arrive about 30 minutes ahead of the interview. What happens in that thirty minutes? They’ll put you in a room, take away your notes and any cell phones, etc., and they’ll let you look at the questions for 30 minutes. And let you outline your answers a bit, take some basic notes to guide your answers. Everyone thinks this is all about helping the candidate, but it is mainly to help the markers.
Before the candidates were given this type of 30 minute preparation/review period, they would just get the questions cold in the interview room. Spontaneous, everyone said. Deadly, the markers said. Why? Because people would do the same three things when the question was asked.
Stall. Say things like, “That’s a very good question, thank you for asking. I think that is one of the most important questions you could have asked me. I’m really glad you asked me. In fact, I would have been surprised if you didn’t ask me that extremely interesting question. I think it is the core of the job, that question there.” Were they really that bad? Not all of them, but some were. They were just talking to fill space while they thought of what their answer would be.
Pause. Some would also punctuate their answers with “er” and “um” as they stopped talking to think about what they wanted to say next.
Repeat. This would be kind of like them saying, “Thank you for that question. I think the three most important things are A, B and C. So, yes indeed, A is important. B is important too. And so is C. Yes, C is very important. Linked of course to A, which is also important. But B is in the mix too. Yes indeed, C, B, and A are important. Did I mention B enough?” I exaggerate of course, but sometimes marking “spontaneous” answers seems a lot like that. They aren’t saying anything, they’re just repeating everything they already said. It still happens for another reason with the current process, but I’ll deal with that element later.
For now, rest assured, a good structure to each answer not only helps you as a candidate but also reduces the pain for interviewers of watching a candidate flounder simply because they didn’t have a good answer on the spot when they were in an artificial environment, under the spotlight, and nervous.
Let me digress to tell you about my interview with Foreign Affairs and how I found out about the importance of structure. It was under the old style, questions were not seen in advance, you just went in “cold” to the room.
I was given a scenario question where I was the Public Affairs Officer in Bonn, Germany, Rick Hansen was coming to town, I needed to organize an event, and I had no budget for it…what would I do? I started with the simple stall as I desperately tried to think of what to actually do. So I started with, “Well, I think the first thing I would do is check our files for similar events in the files to see if we had previous situations like this and how we handled them.” A nice conservative start, I thought. Except there was a woman on the board whose body language was EXTREMELY overt and easy to read. I actually saw her roll her eyes, so I knew it wasn’t the answer that they wanted.
I zigged sideways and started again. “Now let’s assume that I check the files, and I find nothing. No ideas at all, and I’m starting from scratch.” The woman almost dropped her pen. She smiled, looked up at me, clearly now interested. I had taken the question out of the comfort zone, and she was now ready to hear what I would really say.
Confession time. I might have zigged out of that first stalling hole, but I had NOTHING. No idea whatsoever. So I reached into my bag of magic tricks and said, “Let’s look at the question a little more closely. I have to have an event, and I can’t pay for it. But that can be nuanced three ways, and it gives me some ideas. First, one interpretation is that I can’t be the one to pay for the event, but perhaps I could find a sponsor. Perhaps there’s a disability association in Germany who would like to honour Rick’s work. Second, another interpretation is that I can’t pay for the event, but perhaps there’s an event we’ve already paid for where we could add Rick in some capacity. Perhaps there’s an event celebrating Canadian-German relations, and our special guest for the evening could be Rick Hansen! Third, if I go with the basic interpretation, i.e. that I can’t pay for it, and I can’t find a sponsor or another event, then it would have to be some sort of free event — which likely means something outside. Perhaps I could talk to the City of Bonn, try to recreate Man In Motion through the streets of Bonn, and get them to give Rick a key to the city.”
I confess, at the time, I thought that was the STUPIDEST answer I had ever given to a question. You might be thinking it’s actually not a bad answer, but I was already working for the department on contract and I knew lots of creative public affairs officers who would have laughed those options out of the room. So I knew the content was actually kind of weak, but I had nothing else to offer. Yet the woman with the expressive body language kind of nodded her head, and we moved on.
I didn’t make the pool, and when I went for an informal afterwards to get feedback on my performance, we came to that question and I cringed. I figured I might have got 3 or 4 out of 10. I was gobsmacked to find out my score had been 10/10.
I was pretty candid with the HR person giving the feedback and bluntly asked, “How is that possible?”. He looked over the notes and he told me that he remembered my answer as the ONLY one in more than 500 interviews that he had been part of where the candidate had actually had any sort of logical structure to their answer. He admitted that other people had more creative solutions, some had really grandiose plans, some were really impressive even. But it was like watching some sort of wild brainstorming exercise, thoughts all over the place. The interviewers often had trouble taking notes because they had no idea where one partial idea ended and the next partial or full idea started.
I had a good structure and somewhat average content, and I got 10/10.
Others had a bad structure and great content, yet failed the question.
Such results aren’t often as startling now that people get questions in advance for 30 minutes, since they can use that time to create at least a basic structure, but structure still reigns. Repeatedly in interviews where I had weak content, I made up for it with a near-perfect structure. And received high marks because of it. And from the other side of the table, well-structured answers look downright awesome. As an interviewer, I sometimes feel like someone gave a great answer, yet afterwards when I look at only the content in my notes, it isn’t always as good as I first thought. But my first impression was that they had given a solid answer, easily passing the mark for that question. And I have never first thought someone passed and then subsequently failed them on secondary review. I might have lowered their mark from an 8 to a 7, but never below the line. And since marks are usually a consensus of the board, that isn’t just me being an easy marker…the other members of the board thought they were clear passes too, but in the final review, we might downgrade them to a more appropriate grade. Still a “pass”, but with some of the shine removed from a great structure. And some boards don’t even do that secondary review, they just go with their first impression.
Structure is queen, all hail structure.
However, once you understand those upfront elements, you need to prepare for four things in the interview preparations — knowledge, abilities, personal suitability, and what I call “extra” modules.
For the knowledge, it is exactly like the preparations previously described for a written exam. You’ll read the Departmental Plan (formerly Report on Plans and Priorities) to find out what is going on in the department. You may read recent statements by the Minister, particularly if they did any overview speeches with Chamber of Commerces. You’ll also need to refresh your memory of any of the special content / background documents you reviewed. However, there is a difference between the written and the interview. While the goal of the written was to have really detailed knowledge ready to “dump” into written answers, you are going to be using the info in the interview to populate some “extra” aspects of your answers. So you might get a question in the written exam where you have to explain the mandate and current priorities of the Department in detail in a memo, but in the interview, it is more like you will be asked to respond to a scenario of a new priority and how to handle it, and in your answer, you MIGHT want to drop in a reference to how this new priority fits within the existing priorities. You may not be getting a lot of points for “knowledge” in this part, but if you can throw it in, your answers are just automatically richer in content, and your overall score will go up. You’re just making your answers that much more concrete than without the knowledge. But if that is all you need, i.e. context, you’re more trying to drop in big headings in the interview, not the detailed sub-knowledge of each priority.
I do have one very large caveat to this comparison. I am basically saying that the written requires heavy knowledge content, almost an info dump, and the interview doesn’t, more the headings to help populate your answer a bit, make it richer. In the first instance, knowledge is the main course; in the interview, it is more like a mere spice to enhance flavour. However, this assumes that your competition had a written component that was separate from your interview. In other words, it assumes that by the time you get to the interview, you have already been tested on knowledge…but if you WERE NOT tested previously on knowledge, all bets are off in the interview. In that case, you WILL need to know all the detailed content.
When I applied to CIDA’s post-secondary recruitment, there was no written exam, and the first three questions of the interview were basically data dumps by the candidates to show the interviewers we had read all the priorities and could regurgitate them back in some form. And yes, that is as deadly as it sounds for both the candidates and the markers. Listening to the same answers over and over and over. It was even worse though because we didn’t get the questions in advance, it was just “enter and answer”. The first question I got was to outline CIDA’s six priorities. No indication of depth of answer required, no indication of what was to come. So I started answering. And I spent about 3-4 minutes on each of the six priorities to explain them in detail. Regurgitating what I had memorized. A complete brain dump. After my 15-20 minute answer, seriously, I stopped. I had no idea if that was too much or too short. They then said, “Okay, Question 2 is to take one of the six priorities and explain it in detail. You’ve already answered that, let’s go on to Question 3.” Oops. And Q3 wasn’t too far off some of the stuff I had already said too…I almost answered all three with my first answer.
Which is one of the reasons you get the questions in advance to review, so you can balance your answers better, but this type of answer is what I mean by the content required if you don’t have a written exam. If you have a written, that’s the spot for the detail; if you don’t have a written, the knowledge detail will be required in the interview.
For abilities and personal suitability, the possible questions seem endless. For example, if I’m running a competition and I’m marking initiative, and I ask you about a time where you demonstrated initiative, you might think that because everyone will have a different example, it’s impossible to figure out the question in advance. At first glance, lots of people think that way — because everyone has different answers, the question must be impossible to predict.
But it isn’t. It’s the same question. I’m marking X so I ask you to tell me of a time when you did X. And when five candidates answer that question, I am going to hear five different answers. But my marking grid, which I have to create in advance, has what I think is a generic answer that will allow me to mark everyone’s answer. For example:
Did something that wasn’t assigned to them i.e. they initiated the activity;
It wasn’t something they were expected to do as part of their job i.e. it was above and beyond or separate from their current responsibilities;
It took some effort to do i.e. they had to figure out a way to do something or to do it better, something that wasn’t obvious, preferably something with options, and they had to make a choice / can’t be something really simple or obvious;
There has to be a better result because it was done i.e. not just doing something different but actually improving something / so what; and/or,
It challenged the status quo or was innovative.
So that’s my marking grid. Because that’s what initiative means. Which means when I hear the five different answers, I’m looking to see how many of those bullets you have. One or two? You probably fail. Three or more? Probably enough to pass. All five? High scores all around, well done!
Now let’s digress for a minute to look at those five bullets. Where did I get them from? Did I have some magical resource that exists only for managers? No. I have the same resources you do. Dictionary.com. Google. Thesaurus. Websites like Treasury Board’s that explain what initiative means as a competency or ability. And after you look at a few, you see some common denominators.
Initiative requires that YOU initiate. Lots of people will tell me of a project they led or we’re in charge of, and all the great things they did. Except they were told to do it by their boss. That’s not initiative, because you didn’t initiate; you maybe demonstrated management or leadership, but not initiative. The number of people who give leadership examples is astounding…close to almost 70% in my experience give a leadership example as they have never thought about what initiative actually means.
Or they say that they came up with a way to track all the correspondence in their unit in a special spreadsheet. Great. But what was their job? Correspondence manager. Someone who was expected to track the correspondence. It’s their job. So yes you came up with a tool, but you were kind of expected to do that anyway. It’s not anything “special” or “unique” or you showing initiative, you’re simply doing your job.
Often, too, people will talk about this fantastic thing they came up with as an idea, and yet it is extremely simplistic. For example, they were designing a new tracking system for urgent files, and they came up with the idea to use blue tags for correspondence and red tags for memos to allow people to triage the files quicker. Total time to come up with the idea and implement it? Thirty seconds. It was a good idea, but there was no effort involved. There were no real obstacles to overcome, no planning involved, you didn’t have to work at it. Which means as a demonstration of initiative, I simply don’t care about it.
Or the worst scenario? They’ll tell me how they completely revamped a system, because they thought it was fun to do, and when they were done, it made no difference whatsoever. No better outcome. No improvement in speed or result. No result other than that they did something different to fix something that was working just as well previously. I’ve even had people admit that after they left, their replacement dumped it and went back to the old way.
However, one thing that always looks good is if you were challenging the status quo or truly being innovative. Yet without those other four elements above, why will I care as an interviewer? Did you do a lot of work to improve something, or are you just someone who likes to spin their wheels doing things differently because they hate whatever is already in place and they just want to be “innovative” for no reason?
Ultimately, look at the answer grid. If you tell me that you set up a new colour code system because your boss told you to do it, it took you thirty seconds, it was different than what went before, but two months after doing it, they dumped it because it didn’t matter, how is that an example of initiative? Contrast that with an example where you’re perhaps in charge of finance, but you’re pretty good with Excel; you aren’t involved with the correspondence system, but you know they are over-worked and having trouble finding time to triage files properly or come up with a new tool; you suggest to your supervisor that perhaps you could take this on as a special project, and you study it for a couple of days or weeks and come up with three or four options but recommend one particular one that involves a new Excel file that you design and train people to use, along with a new colour coding system; it’s completely unique in the branch; and it works so well that response times are cut in half, your group is suddenly meeting all of its correspondence deadlines, you have a tool that generates reports for management, and other directorates or divisions are asking if they can have a copy of the tool to use in their offices.
If you contrast those two examples, which one do you think demonstrates initiative? As a marker, the second one gets 10/10, the first one perhaps 1 or 2, nowhere near a passing grade.
Now, you might suddenly say, “Yes, but I’m a junior employee, I don’t have the opportunity to demonstrate initiative, all my files are assigned to me.” That is absolutely a common problem. But it doesn’t mean you can’t give me an initiative example. You may have to give me one that was assigned to you, true. And as such, you’re not getting the points for coming up with it on your own. But if it took effort, if it was innovative, if it produced a good result, if you went above and beyond the tasking, then you’ve demonstrated the other four elements pretty well and you’ll get a good mark. Just be aware that in an ideal world, you don’t start off with that spot if you can avoid it. Or if you do, make sure you hit the other marks as best you can.
Going back a few steps though, the question was about initiative, but the context was whether or not you can predict the question in advance. Some people will tell you of course not, you’re not a mind reader.
But you don’t have to be. Here’s the magic trick. In almost 95% of all interviews that are asking about abilities or personal suitability, there are only three types of questions I am likely to ask you. Some call it past, present and future; some call it applied, situational or theoretical. I prefer to think of them as experience, process, and principles.
Experience (or past or applied) — Tell me of a time when you’ve demonstrated strong interpersonal skills?
Process (or situational or present) — Here is a specific situation, tell me how would your strong interpersonal skills help you to deal with it?
Principles (or future or theoretical) — Why are strong interpersonal skills important to being part of a team?
When I do my presentations, people are almost shocked that there are only three types of questions. So they start trying to come up with scenarios or questions that would be a fourth type. Go ahead, do it yourself now. I’ll wait.
Now that I’ve hummed the complete soundtrack to Jeopardy, what have you got? Now take that question and ask yourself this…is it REALLY any different from one of the above three? Remembering too that the situation could be different, or your past might be different, or it says in a group instead of a team, but ultimately they are asking you to talk about interpersonal skills.
Remember above where I said they had a generic marking grid? They have it here too. For interpersonal skills. So no matter which answer you give vs. the next candidate’s answer, they can still mark both. So they googled “interpersonal skills” and came up with some headings. Like showing respect. Listening. Working together. Building trust. Clear communication. Transparency. And another four or five other possible headings.
Just for the sake of argument, let’s assume that I as the marker only decide to list three things about interpersonal skills — respect, trust and communication. Now, ask yourself…what is my marking grid if I ask you to tell me about a time when you demonstrated good interpersonal skills?
Shows respect for others
Builds trust with other people
Clear recognition of the importance of communication
Now ask yourself…If I give you a situation where you are in a new team, there’s been some conflict, and I want to know what you’ll do to demonstrate good interpersonal skills, what does my rating grid look like?
Shows respect for others
Builds trust with other people
Clear recognition of the importance of communication
Hmm, looks familiar. Now what if I ask if you think that good interpersonal skills are an important aspect of teamwork? What does my rating grid look like?
Shows respect for others
Builds trust with other people
Clear recognition of the importance of communication
You’re not seeing double or even triple. It’s true. My rating guide for all three of those questions is (probably) identical. Oh, sure, I might have said “showed respect” in the first, and “shows respect” in the second, and “important to show respect” in the third, but it is the SAME rating grid.
Now, at this point, you know there are only three types of questions and you also know that I’m going to mark whichever one I ask (almost) exactly the same as the other two.
Doesn’t that sound like a question you can predict in advance?
Of course it does. Because I, as the hiring manager running the competition, am not a rocket scientist. I am not gathering magical information from the Oracle at Delphi to populate my rating grid. Instead, I’m basically doing the same thing you’re likely to do. Google it. Talk to other people about what it might mean. Come up with some headings. Put together an outline of possible things people may say. Call it done.
In the above example and summary, I keep saying that all three are “almost” identical, and they are. But there is a slight nuance difference.
In the first form of the question about experience, I need you to give me an example that shows those headings. In the second form of the question about a situation, I’m looking for the steps in a process that you’ll follow to show that ability. In the third and final form of the question, I need you to talk more about the principles involved.
But if you combine all three, you can create a single answer that answers all three and actually gives you more points for any of the three. Let me show you.
Suppose for example I ask you to tell me of an example where you demonstrated good interpersonal skills. You’re likely to immediately start with the context, what you did, etc. and tell me you showed respect, built trust, and emphasized communication.
But what if you started with, “I think the most important element of interpersonal skills is respect for other people. So the example I’m going to give you…”. Instead of starting with the details of what you did previously, you already are creating a great structure that says, “respect for others” and now your example is evidence of how you have done that exact heading. Then, as you go along, you might say. “After setting up those first few meetings and respecting what the others had to say, I felt it was important to start building trust with others.” Now you’re pulling from the process type response. And perhaps you finish with the experience example, “I really learned from this interaction the clear importance of communication, and I try now to incorporate it in all my interactions.” Wow, all three elements in the same answer.
Why would you do that? Because the first one is a basic answer. The second one is much more robust, more comprehensive, gives concrete examples, talks about principles and what steps you would take again, etc. And more robust while still maintaining a good structure means higher marks. Instead of getting 6 with your first example, you’re up into the 8 or 9 point range with a full answer.
Remember back in Chapter (x) where I said there was Secret Template #1? It is time for Secret Template #2. For every element that they are marking in the interview, you’re going to fill out the following table with short bullet points.
Position / Project 1
Position / Project 2
(Work / academic / volunteer)
Position / Project 1
Position / Project 2
(Work / academic / volunteer)
Ability 3, 4, 5…
Position / Project 1
Position / Project 2
(Work / academic / volunteer)
Personal Suitability 1
Position / Project 1
Position / Project 2
(Work / academic / volunteer)
Personal Suitability 2
Position / Project 1
Position / Project 2
(Work / academic / volunteer)
Personal Suitability 3, 4, 5…
Position / Project 1
Position / Project 2
(Work / academic / volunteer)
See Annex 2 for a sample blank layout that you can use to populate your own info. Note that you do not want a lot of information, as you won’t be able to memorize it. I’ve listed 1 or 2 projects for experience, but ideally you can get it down to one really solid one that meets all your headings. For processes, I think in some cases it might be 4 or 5, but again, will you be able to remember them all when you get in the interview? And for principles, I like to stick to the rule of 3, as it is easier to remember those than it is for 4 or 5. And often if you are trying to do 4 or 5 principles, you’re too far into the weeds. Plus, if you did it right, you’ll be able to pull from ALL THREE columns for your example to create a really rich and robust response to whichever form of the question you get asked. So you won’t have room for two examples, five steps, and five principles in your answer. Keep what works, drop what doesn’t.
You’ll see in the above table that I have taken the identical approach to abilities and personal suitability. Some managers have noted that abilities tend to emphasize the experience and process/situational columns more so than principles, while personal suitability tends to use principle questions more often than experience or process. I tend to believe that is generally true, but I have no quantitative evidence to prove it one way or another. However, both abilities and personal suitability CAN ask any of the three types, and you need to be prepared, so I don’t recommend shifting emphasis in that fashion. Note too that you can expand the table if you want to include rows for the essential experience and knowledge, but the three columns don’t work as well for that. Essential experience is covered by the application, and you have a separate table to cover all the “experience examples” in more detail. For knowledge, you could put the knowledge factors down the left hand column, but usually you would be only using the process or principles at most, and highly dependant upon the type of job you’re doing (an FI might have some examples of where they used legislation, or the steps they used, or the principles behind the legislation, whereas an AS might have steps only). I think knowledge prep is mainly about the different types of documents referenced earlier, not putting it into a table like the two secret templates.
Finally, I said at the beginning of the chapter that there were four areas to cover and the one that is left is a heading for “extra” modules. If you did the work above, you know how to answer questions that fit 95% of the form you’ll see. Past, present or future, for example. You’re good to go.
Then you get in the interview and they ask you something weird. Something you are totally not expecting. And it doesn’t look like anything you have prepared. You start to panic. What do you do?
Well, remember how I said structure was queen? You need a structure to answer the question. Because a good structure is going to give you something to say, and it might be enough to get you half-way to passing the question. But what structure do you use for a question you weren’t expecting?
You are going to use one of the extra modules you can create to handle the unexpected. For example, if you google “problem solving cycle” or “steps”, you’ll see there are tons of examples. I like to cheat and look at the images tab to see what diagrams people have posted on various websites. Some will have 4 steps, or 5 steps, or 10 steps. It doesn’t matter which one you choose, as long as it is one you can understand and remember easily. I tend to think of problem-solving as having five steps:
Define the problem
Analyse the problem
Develop options and choose one
Implement the chosen solution
Evaluate the solution
Now, if you are doing policy work, you should have the policy development cycle too. Search the same way. Guess what you find? The policy cycle looks pretty similar. Define, analyse, options, implement, evaluate. If you’re in project management, look at the project management cycle. Hey, almost the same. It’s not rocket science, they’re all pretty general and generic. So, how do you use them?
Let’s look back at that example of Foreign Affairs where I asked how to have an event for Rick Hansen when I had no budget. I had no idea how to answer, so I reached into my bag of magic tricks and pulled out the problem-solving cycle.
Define the problem — Have to have an event and I can’t pay for it;
Analyse the problem — Three possible interpretations — I can’t pay for it because I have no money, I can’t pay for this event but could pay for another, or I can’t pay but someone else could;
Develop options — Free event, merge with existing event, find a sponsor
I didn’t have to implement or evaluate the options for that question, I just had to give ideas. But it was an unexpected question and I needed a good structure — so I used my “extra” problem-solving module to give me the headings to use.
While problem-solving, policy development or project management are relatively the same, there is no universal set of headings to “choose”. The five part option listed above is pretty standard, but if a model that has only four elements works for you, use that instead. It isn’t about the right answer per se, it is about you having some headings that will let you give a good answer to an unexpected question.
There are lots of little cycles like this that are good for various types of jobs. If you are applying for a stakeholder relations job, it is a good idea to memorize steps in a consultation process. If you are in HR, maybe the steps in a general job process. If you are in finance, maybe the headings for the typical budget cycle. A researcher might have headings around managing a research project. Things that resonate with them and they can adapt to other unexpected questions on short notice.
I also like to have in my backpocket some sample answers to weird and wonderful questions that someone might use as an icebreaker or part of another question. They can ask:
How you are the best candidate?
What is your past experience?
What are your personal strengths?
What are your biggest achievements>?
How would this job relate to your career goals?
What is your biggest weakness? (Very rarely asked, as difficult to mark) and what you are doing about it (obviously you will not give an example that something needed / relevant to the job!)
What is a challenging project or situation with a difficult employee that you have dealt with?
Do you have any good examples of teamwork or partnering?
Tell us about your leadership style / communications style / personal values and ethics?
These questions are generally answered badly by everyone, so most managers never ask them. However, if used properly by the hiring manager, they can be good questions to use as icebreakers or just to see how they answer a difficult question in terms of communication styles, etc. I wouldn’t spend a lot of time on them, but their worth reviewing every so often.
For the summary of yourself or your experience, it can be the same summary for best candidate, past experience, personal strengths, achievements, weakness, etc. It’s up to you to decide how you want to respond, and again, they are not likely scored so there are no wrong answers in terms of an answer grid. They are really just trying to get to know the real you. And to make sure you’re not a general whackjob who says their greatest weakness is poor integrity or low attention to detail for a job that requires high values and integrity and a lot of precise details.
For me, I’m a manager, so I often get asked a general question about my management style. I’ll embellish a bit, and make it a bit more hypothetical, but I could say. “You know, I think my management style is tied tightly to my values and ethics and how I deal with other people. For me, it starts with respect for others. Embracing diversity, the use of french and english in the workplace, and a strong commitment to lifelong learning. But I think my biggest accomplishment as a manager has been tied to transparency. I focus heavily on sharing information when I can, and using that information to create a shared vision with my team that is clear and open, and I feel like I have had a lot of success with this in my last 10 years as a manager.” Off the top of my head, is that a perfect summary? No. But I can tweak it, practice it a bit, improve on the structure and then voila! I’ll have a handy dandy little speech module that I can use in different ways depending on what “weird” or “unexpected” question comes along.
Interviews are complex, and you need to be ready for all the parts that come your way.
Just to recap, the oral test is divided into four parts. The first two are more or less transactional French, with voice mails and meetings to listen to and then respond to a few questions. They are designed to test your ability for Level A (Beginner) and B (Intermediate), but you really don’t get into the real C level questions until Part 3.
The first part of Part 3 is an opportunity to do a short exposition on a subject of your own choosing, amongst a predefined list. You are given three possible topics, always related to work, and you are supposed to choose one. If you don’t like any of the three, you can go for a fourth, but then there is no choice — you have to take the fourth one, an obvious risk.
Once you have chosen a topic, you have 90 seconds to make notes for yourself. And then it’s GO time — you talk about the subject for 2-3 minutes. Two minutes is too short, and they’ll cut you off at 3, so you want to land somewhere in between.
Now that you know how the process works, let’s talk about the topics. There are two general forms:
Recounting a story of a specific event; or,
Describing something that is either more general or happens more frequently.
What does that mean? Well, for the recounting option, you will likely have to describe:
some event you experienced (training, crisis, first day, social activity, or the competition for your current job);
some work you did that you liked or hated (project, acting for your boss, or a business trip);
a challenge you faced (small or large, specific or general, controversial file, or an HR problem);
interactions with a colleague (difficult colleague, a mentor, or someone you helped); or,
something that has changed (work environment, or physical changes to the office).
For those who did their B test, the structure is basically “What was the project, what did you do, what was the result”. For the C, it is similar, but you also have to add “why”, and nuance to what extent it went well or what impact it had on you or your division in general. Basically adding some colour commentary to your story. While in almost all cases it is in the past, it can be a hypothetical or in the future (such as a project you would like to do and, again for the C, why you want to do it).
The second type is a bit more difficult for the Level B, but more suited to Level C commentary. These ones, describing something that is more general or a frequent event, include questions such as:
types of social activities for your division;
the qualities of a leader (compared, for example, with a manager);
type of preferred tasks, and why;
whether meetings are important to your ministry;
what’s an appropriate relationship between supervisor and subordinates;
the elements required to create teamwork;
how you go about meeting deadlines; or,
the (general) steps in doing a performance evaluation.
In all of these (except maybe the last one), you are still identifying several factors and providing the commentary about each, but they are less about “steps” and more about key variables.
My preparations for this section have identified four main ways to respond, and I’ll use the first type (specific events) to show the possible structure:
Level B or C (bad): Introduction; Details — Yep, lots of people start this way. They just talk. But you’re supposed to respond DIRECTLY to the questions asked, and having no structure is a good way to just seem like you’re wandering around with no understanding of what the actual question was or how to respond.
Level B (good): Introduction; Step 1 + small detail; Step 2 + small detail; Step 3 + small detail; Conclusion — This is the normal structure everyone learns, practices, etc, as it allows the person to use passé composé and imparfait in the same story, series of relatively short and medium-length sentences, and then wrap it up.
Level C (option 1): Introduction; Aspect 1, colour commentary; Link to Aspect 2, colour commentary; Segue to Aspect 3, colour commentary; Conclusion — This is the one that all the learning schools seem to generally recommend, with opinions and general facts added to the various colour commentaries, using complex (but not complicated) phrases that are a bit longer, use subordinate clauses, etc, or “les mots liens” that aren’t “and”.
I mentioned there are four options, but I only gave 3, because that is what the schools generally teach (well, #2 and #3 I guess, they don’t teach #1, although in a way they do as early in your language training they get you to talk and talk to improve your comfort with the language, before trying to get you to focus in later parts of your training).
For me, I struggle with #3 above. Why? Because I talk too much. (Not just in French, as my wife would chime in!). So when I go to do the colour commentary, there is a REALLY good chance that I will “tourne autour du pot” which is a french idiom that means “beat around the bush”, or more pointedly, to say things in general terms rather than being specific. I lose my train of thought, I get lost in the sentence, and it REALLY sucks as an answer. Sure, I give the description and the colour commentary, but then I sound like I’m just repeating myself, which I am. When I did my last exam, it was under the old format, and I managed to hold myself to three sentences for every “higher-level” question exactly to avoid that problem.
That’s not a strategy that will work for this new format, so I came up with a slightly different structure that works for me:
Introduction — repeat the question back to them to basically show you understood and to make sure you’re responding directly too;
Discussion, introduced by there are several factors (* unspecified number, you’ll see why in a second)
Aspect 1 + (small colour commentary);
Aspect 2 + (small colour commentary);
Aspect 3 + (small colour commentary);
Aspect 4 + (small colour commentary);
Aspect 5 + (small colour commentary);
Conclusion — repeating the key part of the original question and adding summary of my position of the situation
What’s the difference? More items to say in the same period of time, which means that I *can’t* go into detail on any of them or I risk getting lost in my own head. I stay on track, plus in the 90 seconds, I can think of four or five things to say, but I don’t have time to think about what to say. Because my problem isn’t exactly HOW to say stuff, it’s WHAT to say. I just don’t have time to add sub-points as I’m deciding on what to say, and then when I go to add my colour commentary, I fill my time trying to figure out what to add (content). If I skip that trap that may only affect me, and stick to the higher level description with enough detail to sustain a colour commentary, I’ll stay on track to the end of the summary. And I say something about several factors, because if I am running long, I can drop the last one or two; if I have said “there are five”, then it will look ridiculous if I stop at 3 for time management.
Of course, the colour commentary has to have some of the key “opinion” phrases:
à mon avis, …
selon moi, …
je trouve que…
il me semble que…
I try to avoid “je pense que” as it slips in even when I don’t want it to, so I already use that. I would love to use “d’apres moi”, “quant à moi”, or “je crois que” but those never come to me. They just don’t seem as “natural” to me. Similarly for “pour ma part”. I would try to use “en ce qui me concerne”, but I bet I would forget the “me” and just use “en ce qui concerne” which is a totally different sense.
For the links between sections, and even for the more complex of the little colour commentary, I can segue with the most common “mots liens” that I am capable of using at least some of the time:
parce que / c’est pour quoi / c’est pour cette raison que (because)
à cause de / grace à (thanks to)
puisque (since – time)
etant donné que (given)
alors que / lors de (while)
En meme temps que (at the same time)
depuis que (since – time)
tant que (as long as)
apres que / avant que (subjunctive)
d’abord / au debut (at the start)
ensuite, puis (then)
finalement / en fin (finally)
en générale (in general)
en effet (in effect, indeed)
alors / donc / en consequence, par consequent, apres tout
For / goal
afin de … (in order to)
afin que / pour que (subjunctive)
cependant / pourtant (though, yet, however)
par contre (by contrast)
tandis que (whereas)
au lieu de
sinon (middle of phrase)
à moins que
malgré / malgré que / bien que
de plus / d’ailleurs
Nevertheless / anyway
neanmoins / quand meme
mois que (less than)
loin de (far from)
plus que (more than)
tel que (such that)
aussi / comme / et / ainsi que
While Part 4 seems at first to be quite different in the opening, it basically requires a summary of what happens in a long conversation, and while I accept there are quite significant differences, you can pull some of the same elements. First and foremost, you don’t want to fall into the trap of listing everything that is said; it’s a summary, not a transcript. Second, there are still some good “mots liens” to use to show how it develops.
And in both Part 3 and 4, you have follow-up questions. But that is for the next post.