Group Discussions: How to champion the fish market?

It was a fish market.

I couldn’t put across my points.

No one let me speak.

I couldn’t finish.

Oh I hate GDs!

Placements are a time of great stress and angst for B-school students. Like gallant knights of the old, candidates have to face obstacles like gruelling interviews and insidious group discussions in order to obtain the Holy Grail – a job in their dream company. Group Discussions are a rite of passage almost all Indian companies demand from candidates including companies like Hindustan Unilever, ITC, Pepsi Co etc.

As any student who has gone through the placements process will attest: group discussions are designed to evaluate your leadership skills, team playing skills and ability to cope with stress. These are integral skills a manager must possess and companies want to hire candidates who exhibit these qualities. So you may choose to love or hate group discussions but you can’t escape them. You can, however, prepare for them. How you ask? Fear not! We have travelled the expanse of the kingdom, spoken to veteran recruiters and B-school candidates, and collated insights that will help you crack any arduous sales and marketing group discussion.

Me vs We

You win or lose as a group in GDs.

The first thing you need to remember is that a group discussion isn’t a solo performance. The overall performance of the entire group is evaluated as a whole. Recruiters place a lot of emphasis on good team playing skills when evaluating group discussions. When evaluating a group discussion, it is very rare that recruiters have a fixed number of students they want to take to the next round. They are willing to interview as many students whose performance they like. Your goal should therefore not be to compete for a fixed number of slots, but, as a group, put up a stellar performance that ensures the maximum number of students from the group making it through to the next round. This subtle shift in group objective can reap great benefits for all group members. Maintaining professional decorum throughout the discussion is a must. A group discussion that turns hostile can sometimes be scraped altogether or very few candidates will make it through to the next round. It is also a good idea to use plural pronouns like “we can discuss…” or “the solution as discussed by us…”. A conclusion or solution reached through group consensus is a mark of an effective group discussion.

Broadly speaking, there are two types of sales and marketing group discussions: case-based or generic. A generic GD will be on a topic, often inspired by current affairs, and students are expected to make an in-depth study of the topic as a group. In a case-based GD, students are given a case study that they are expected to read and solve the problems extrapolated in it as a group. Before placement season starts, students can begin preparing for group discussions along with the rest of their batch. It is a good idea to ideate and decide on a structure for group discussions beforehand to ensure efficient use of the time given for discussion. A student from one of the top B-schools of the country shares his Day Zero GD Experience with us: “It was utter chaos. Someone was talking about the merits and the very next speaker spoke about the demerits. No one was on the same page. Someone was speaking about the effects on the economy and someone was arguing about the environmental effects. There was no structure to the discussion and good points got buried under a lot of unnecessary and redundant noise”.

 

One way to bring structure to the discussion is to use pre-defined models to give direction to the discussion. In case of a marketing or branding problem, for example, using an STP (Segmentation-Targeting-Positioning) model followed by a thorough discussion of Kotler’s 4Ps (Product – Price – Place – Promotion) will ensure a holistic discussion of the brand or product given in a case.

For generic issues, try following the PESTLE model (political, economic, social, technological, legal and environmental) or the 5Cs (Context, Company, Competitors, Customers and Collaborators) to explore an issue from all vantage points. Mastery of GDs comes through regular practice, and almost all B-schools conduct mock GDs before placement season. During such practice GDs, it is a good idea to try and apply STP and 4P models so as to become habituated to it. If the entire batch follows the same model to give structure to their thoughts, it can prevent the group discussion from resembling a fish market. The discussion will flow in a pre-set manner and explore all facets of the topic without becoming chaotic.

Mediators Win GDs

The mediator in the group discussion is that one guy or girl trying to maintain decorum. While everyone around them is losing their heads, they, like the speakers in parliament, try to calm passions and steer the discussion towards calmer waters.

Recruiters absolutely love that because it is a good indicator of not only the person’s leadership qualities but also their ability to remain calm under extreme stress. A mediator is often the one who initiates the group discussion by defining the topic at hand. When a discussion meanders away on a tangential path, he or she brings the discussion back to the topic at hand. He or she keeps track of passing time. During an engaging discussion, it is often easy to forget about the passing time and spend a disproportionate amount of time discussing the same problem. In such a scenario, the mediator tries to steer the discussion by reminding the other participants of the passage of time and giving a structure to the discussion: “since we only have six minutes left, let’s move on to the second problem in the case”.

As the mediator emerges as the informal leader of the team other candidates might start addressing their points towards him or her through deferent non-verbal cues. This reflects positively on the candidate. Today’s employers look for candidates who can work in a team-oriented environment especially when recruiting for a sales and marketing role. However too many interruptions can restrict the flow of the discussion and reflect badly on the candidate portraying him or her as a control freak.

Verbal and Non-verbal Language Cues

From the minute you enter the room you are being evaluated. In a group discussion, only one participant can speak at a time but non-verbal cues like your body language speak even when you don’t. Maintaining eye contact with your group members (never the panel; remember they are supposed to be invisible) and nodding indicates that you are listening attentively and reflects positively on you. Gesturing, fidgeting or slouching, on the other hand, can be seen as signs of disinterest in the discussion or arrogance. Physical gestures such as rubbing the back of the head, or touching the nose or hair signals discomfort and should be avoided, even if you feel stressed or anxious. Sit straight and try to avoid nervous behaviour like adjusting clothes, biting your lips, crossing your arms and legs, tapping fingers or fidgeting. You want to appear confident and calm to the panel.

Are We On The Same Page?

Language is symbolic in nature and thus it becomes necessary to be on guard against bypassing, in which two or more people have different meanings for a word but do not realise it. Bypassing can lead either to a false agreement or to the perception that a disagreement exists when it really doesn’t. This can arise in connection to abstract concepts like ‘patriotism’ etc. In a group discussion it is, therefore, advisable to be as concrete and precise as possible and give specific examples of what you mean when you have to use an abstract term. It is also a good idea to quantify whenever possible. For example, if the topic is based on ‘drunk driving’, in the introduction you might define drunk driving as “having a level of .08 percent alcohol in the blood while driving a vehicle” to eliminate confusion.

Mind Your Language!

Emotive words are terms that ignite strong feelings and interfere with good listening, and it is a good idea to avoid using such words.

In a scenario where the use of an emotive word sparks emotional responses, the group mediator may intervene and try to defuse the situation. For instance, if someone says “He’s just a failed politician, not a scientist, and he’s grandstanding as he looks for a new platform. What could he know about global warming?” The mediator could paraphrase as follows: “So, in other words, you think that the opinions of a non-scientist are not valid on scientific issues such as global warming, and you mistrust his motives?” This helps defuse the trigger words (failed politician, grandstanding) so the group can focus on the merits of the message itself.

A group discussion usually can be broadly divided into three parts:

• Initiation: As any veteran GD-candidate will tell you it is a good idea to initiate the group discussion. Not only does it show leadership skills but it reduces the risk of you missing out on a point because someone already said it before. However, the introduction sets the mood and tone of the discussion. While initiating the discussion, you can tackle the topic head-on by defining the key terms or you may also begin with an adage, popular saying, quote, anecdote or rhetorical question.

• Continuation: A common problem in group discussions is that participants make points in isolation and there is a lack of continuity in the discussion flow. It is always a good idea to try and refer to a point made earlier and link points together. The discussion must not digress from its focal point and should move forward logically and smoothly to make an in-depth study of the topic.
At all times in the group discussion it is important to remain professional. Don’t get personally offended or make personal remarks. At all costs avoid colloquial terms like yaar, abbey etc. and never use cuss words.

• Conclusion: In this stage, the group discussion is taken to its logical end by summarising all points discussed and reaching a solution through mutual consensus.

Apart from good communication skills, good content is also important to make a lasting impact in a group discussion. Statistics and facts are double-edged swords. If quoted correctly, they help you establish your knowledge superiority in the group. If you do not get them right, you can make a fool of yourself.To conclude we would like to reemphasize on the importance of practice. The more you and the rest of your batch practice group discussions, the easier it will be for you to communicate effectively with each other and also reduce bouts of nervousness.

In the few minutes before the discussion begins, note down all your thoughts on the topic in a priority hierarchy. Do not try to introduce more than one point at a time in the discussion as that will hinder effective discussion. Finally remember that your success is linked to the group’s success, and therefore it is important to work together. May the odds be ever in your favour!

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