Congratulations! You have successfully passed the first stage of evaluation and have been invited to the ERC interview in Brussels. The panel members have assessed your B1, and have decided that the proposal concept, your CV and track record are of sufficient quality to pass to the second stage. By now, external reviewers are asked to evaluate the full proposal. Their input will be in place by the time of the interview.
The ERC interview is known to be challenging. Many find it stressful and difficult. By nature, ERC is a highly competitive grant, seeking for the best PIs with the best research projects. Other than ERC StG/CoG, no other funding scheme within Horizon 2020 allows the applicants to present themselves and defend their proposal.
It is thus a unique window of opportunity to communicate with the ERC review panel, clarify open questions, and further impress them.
The ERC Interview – a technical overview
Technically speaking, the ERC interview is highly demanding, while the specific instructions vary between review panels.
Typically, the time allocated to the PI’s presentation ranges between 5 to 12 minutes only. This is followed by 15-20 minutes for Q&A.
Many review panels will restrict the number of slides that can be used. Some review panels may restrict the presentation aid to be 3 PowerPoint slides or even one slide (or one sheet) only. Other review panels may not allow using PowerPoint presentation at all!
Operationally speaking, interviews are being held back-to-back, over a few days. In the process, the panel members interview dozens of applicants competing with the PI on the same spot. This means that the panel members also have a demanding task. This must be taken into account during the interview preparation.
The do’s and dont’s for the ERC interview
- The most common mistake in preparing for the interview presentation is the attempt to summarize the full proposal. We can report, based on our experience, that this simply does not work. First, time does not allow the PI to cover everything. Second, the panel members simply do not need to hear everything at this stage. Some have read the proposal and remember the details. Others haven’t but cannot grasp this amount of information in such a short time. The interview presentation should thus focus on highlighting the aspects that would make the PI and the proposal stand out and appeal to the review panel members.
- Don’t overcrowd presentation slides with information. In line with the previous point, there is a limit to the amount of information one can take in. An overwhelming slide could cause the viewer to lose focus and miss crucial points. Make sure slides have a manageable amount of text and visuals. Be sure that the bottom line – the core message – is clear to you and would be clear to others from the slides.
- Panel selection is critical to the success of any ERC application and it is done at the submission stage. The panel is a given at this stage, however it is a good idea for the PI to refresh his or her memory about the potential panel members that will be in the interview.
How to make the presentation stand out
As noted earlier, the panel members will see and hear presentations of dozens of applicants, one after the other, over a few days. It is thus essential that the PI and the project presentation will stand out. The key is to find the fine balance between the various elements and factors that need to be addressed within the time limit. The main message that the PI should convey is of the uniqueness of the project itself and capability to lead it. Simply put – convey an exciting, timely, high risk, high gain project led by an excellent researcher.
Re-visiting presentation skills is a must
Presentation skills are essential for this occasion. There isn’t a second chance and the interview framework is rigid. Even if the PI is well-accustomed to presenting in front of an audience, it is highly recommended to refresh presentation skills. Keep in mind – this interview is not similar in any way to the regular conference presentation or teaching a class. It requires unique attention and preparation, be it conceptually, technically and mentally. The PI is essentially expected to go above and beyond a regular presentation and offer something that is exceptionally unique.
Additionally, the PI should expect a scientific debate as part of the Q&A phase. This debate can go either way: pleasant, positive and encouraging, or it can be unpleasant, negative, provoking to some extent and confrontational. It is essential to be well prepared for any scenario. Experience shows that repeated training and simulations of the presentation are essential.
Expect the unexpected during the ERC Interview
In addition to extensive practice and mental preparation, the PI should also consider that unexpected distractions may happen. These may include external noise and interference, power outages, presentation malfunctions, and more. Experience shows that these are more common than one might expect. Though this may come as a surprise, rest assured that the review panel will not stop the clock in light of these, or any other, distractions. Therefore, the PI should be well prepared to overcome any setbacks. This could mean, in extreme cases, presenting without the prepared slides (in case of power outage) or with distracting and ongoing noise in the background.
To conclude, the above points can only serve as the basis that will help the PI prepare for the interview. A lot is at stake at this point, and it is absolutely critical to thoroughly prepare for what is to come. Knowing what to expect is only the start. Now is the time to move forward from concepts to a specific presentation that will award the PI the best chance at passing the panel with success.
For additional assistance in this process – our team is here to help. Learn about our individual ERC Interview training service that covers all of the above, and more.