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23rd April 2024

Meet the Mentor: presentation coach Merrill Powell

Finito World meets Merrill Powell, who does important work, using her television background to prepare candidates for interview. 


You’ve had a long and varied career in television. Can you talk a bit about your career, and how you use that experience to help mentees today?


All the skills I learned in television can be passed onto Finito candidates and, believe it or not, they are absolutely relevant for whatever job a candidate is applying for. The prime one is to be able to make points succinctly so that you say what you want to say, clearly – and, above all, concisely. A couple of minutes of TV time is a long time for the viewer, but not for the speaker! The skill is to hold the attention of the listener and to make the points you need to make in a short time.

Another important point to understand is that you will never have enough time to say all you want to say, so you must learn to prioritise the important points. It’s a discipline that is particularly useful with so much in the business world happening on Zoom. I should also say that at Finito we work as part of a team, therefore if a candidate needs extra help in a particular area, another mentor will let me know so that I can focus on the weakest areas. That gives comprehensive training and practice. All of which allows the candidates to grow in confidence and self-belief. The most watchable people on television are those who are so experienced that they look relaxed, it isn’t an easy job but they make it look easy. It’s the same with an interview. The better prepared, the greater the chance of not letting nerves overtake you.


Presentation seems to be partly down to how we dress, and partly to do with our speech and manner. What factors are you especially looking at when a candidate first comes to you for mentorship and advice?

Zooms can be unforgiving, and people can become very slack about how they present themselves often being at home.   I notice if someone is slouching, chin cupped in hand, too relaxed, or sloppy. All negatives. When I am mentoring I prepare for the Zoom as I hope a candidate will. I look smart, notes ready, background prep done,  proper chair and I sit up. In other words I am ready for business.  One candidate seemed barely awake so I asked if she was alright. “Oh yes, sorry,” came the reply, ‘but I had a glass of wine before we started.”Not a Finito candidate I should say, but it shows how not to treat a Zoom. You can give yourself an edge by making sure you look groomed, are alert and ready to take the meeting/interview very seriously.

I am very straightforward – and strict – when I’m mentoring. If a candidate has annoying habits such as constantly playing with their hair, chewing a pencil or letting their eyes wander everywhere I say so, because those irritants are highlighted on Zoom. I must say so as it’s part of the preparation, which is to showcase the best of yourself and it often needs a third party to spot improvements which need to be made.

You have one chance to get it right, so be prepared. I’m there to help you get it right, to showcase your talents, make sure you are on top of the job description and are able to articulate why you are the right person for the position.

What are the most common mistakes which prospective candidates make when it comes to presenting themselves at interview?

The most common mistake anyone makes during any kind of interview or presentation is to speak too quickly. Speaking slowly and clearly is essential and very few manage it without training. The brain often works faster than the mouth so the result is a waterfall of words rushing out as speech struggles to keep pace with thought.

Clarity of communication is essential, particularly in a remote interview.  Most personal touches are absent – handshake, eye contact, body language, natural energy. These are important nuances that create a sense of the person you are speaking to in a physical meeting. Therefore, other ways need to be found to create an authentic and complete portrait of the candidate – that is through words and the skilful use of articulating experiences, ambitions, and understanding.

Obviously preparation is very important, but how can candidates protect themselves from being overprepared and too robotic during an important interview?

Preparation is essential. I never worry that someone will be over-prepared. That’s because preparation is necessary to best showcase personal talents, experience and ability in a concise, cogent way. The one way to ensure that the candidate is never robotic is to ban written notes. Reading out prepared answers is a disaster. Bullet point reminders can be useful but each answer should be straight from the head and heart, not learned, which means they are slightly different each time therefore authentic. It’s all about building confidence.


You’ve been extremely active with Women2Win helping female candidates through the arduous process of winning seats. Can you talk a bit about how the presentational skills required for major roles are changing during the social media age?

It has been a huge privilege training political candidates standing for public roles such as Police Crime Commissioners, Councillors, MPs. They all begin from the same position: asking people to vote for them. To win that vote, they must have appeal to the electorate. As we would say, it’s about winning hearts and minds. That means asking for trust, having integrity and empathy as well as intelligence and the ability to work extremely hard. If you are asking people to trust you with their future and the future of their families, look as if you deserve and can carry that trust. You must know your area so that the constituents don’t have to, because you are there to serve them.

The greatest modern change and challenge has of course been social media and I think many of my colleagues would agree that nowadays any public servant can be subject to terrible online trolling. A robust character is therefore probably more essential now than ever before. There are many skills required to take on a public role but again it remains imperative that candidates  present their arguments cogently and persuasively.

Social media equally offers wonderful, cheap and easy opportunities to connect with all levels of the community. It has transformed communication. Whether it’s about a local area forming a group to complain about potholes or rubbish collection, or Coronation celebrations, everyone can have a voice. The candidate has to be completely conversant with all means of communication. It’s a huge job. I expect to see many Finito students stepping up later in life!


Zoom interviews are an increasing trend. What are the pitfalls with Zoom, and conversely what are the opportunities?


During lockdown Zooms took off. I was able to train remotely scores of candidates without any of us leaving home. That also meant that a huge amount of research and mentoring happened without any travel costs incurred. That is a huge consideration for so many where high travel costs can often limit ambitions. It enabled many to be trained online who previously could not have afforded travelling to training centres.

We all discovered how to communicate easily with the outside world and the benefits were enormous. Our parameters changed for good. But there are also pitfalls to Zoom: there will always be those personal meetings that can only happen in an office where ideas spark because of proximity. We must never underestimate the exponential value of personal interaction. It’s healthy for humans to mix too. The challenge with Zoom is to try to make an impersonal tool personal, to learn to use it to show what kind of human being you are. That’s much harder on Zoom than in person.

My aim is to build confidence in a candidate so that they feel sure-footed enough in their answers to let their own personality, their own unique selling-point, shine through.




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