I have two kids in college and two recent graduates. If their early work life is like mine, every few years they’ll be changing jobs or even careers. When you’re in your twenties, it’s always ‘interview season.’ Even later in life we’re occasionally asked to explain our career arc to others when speaking on a panel or starting a presentation. How can you best respond to that question, ‘So, tell me about yourself?’
Let’s say I’m interviewing you for a job. If I’ve done my job well, I have read your resume and made some notes about your work history. I’m ready to ask some pointed questions to find out if you have the skill set to perform the job in question. If I start the conversation with, ‘Tell me about yourself,’ I’m trying to see how you view yourself. Wherever you start reflects your sense of self. If you start with your academic credentials, you’re communicating you think your education is impressive. If you start by talking about your current job, you’re saying what you do now has relevance to the job you’re seeking. If you’re in your thirties and you start with, ‘I graduated at the top of my high school class before going on to the University of X,’ you’re telling me you live on former glory. Since I already know where you went to school and what you do now, there’s not much added value in sharing those points. Granted, it gets the conversation started, but it’s not the strongest start.
Instead of sharing what’s already on your resume, tell me what makes you tick. Tell me about your value. I recently passed a college-age woman on the street who was wearing a t-shirt that said, ‘I bring absolutely nothing to the table.’ I laughed at the honesty and humility of the message. She’s young and isn’t going to pretend she knows more that she does. It’s a great line for a t-shirt, but it isn’t true. In fact, she probably has a lot of innate talents and skills, not to mention a sense of perspective and a sense of humor that are valuable to any employer.
To prepare for an interview, reflect on the attributes that have made you successful in your career and life so far. If you’re just out of school, think about what you have added to clubs or sports in which you’ve been involved. If you’ve been working for a while, what skills, talents or attitudes have helped you succeed? If you’re returning to the work force after an extended absence, what talents have you been using and what perspective have you gained that would be of value to me as an employer?
Pick three adjectives that describe you. Then, think of a real, targeted instance in which you have applied those skills. What story can you share that proves to me you have the skills or aptitude you claim to have?
Don’t tell me where you worked. Tell me what element of you helped you succeed and the benefit that brought to your employer. Since you can probably list ten or more adjectives that describe you, how will you know which to share with the prospective employer? Think about the job for which you are interviewing. What do you think the most important tasks will be? Of your many attributes, which are most important to this role? That answer will determine which adjectives and supporting stories you need to share.
Chances are that one of the adjectives that has made you successful is that you are smart. Don’t tell the interviewer you are smart. Demonstrate that you are smart throughout the interview – by how you answer questions, by what questions you ask, by not making grammatical mistakes, and by having a clear message about yourself. Use the interview to share attributes that won’t be evident from your resume.
When the interviewer says, ‘So tell me about yourself,’ you could respond by saying, ‘I’ve worked in many different settings over the years. I’ve been proud of being able to help my (employer, club, volunteer organization). I think I’ve been able to add value because I am (insert your three adjectives here). Those seem like traits that would be needed in this job.’
Then, let the interviewer take it from there. Don’t blurt out all of your anecdotes. Share your story about each adjective as the opportunity arises organically in the conversation.
I was once coaching a senior IT professional at a global financial services company. At one coaching session, he asked me to help him with a presentation he was making the following day. He had been asked to speak on a panel with other senior leaders to about 200 younger colleagues as part of a series of talks on career management. Each panelist had been told, ‘Just tell the audience about your career.’ I asked ‘Jack’ to run through what he planned to say. Jack spoke for about 10 minutes walking me through his career path. ‘First I worked in this division doing X. Then I moved to another division and was promoted to work on Y.’ In short, he reviewed his resume, using a tone of voice as flat as a resume. It was boring. It was boring because it had no application whatsoever to his audience. It was all about him. We’re all more successful communicators when we focus less on ourselves and more on the audience.
I asked Jack what he thought made him successful throughout his career. He reflected for a moment and said, ‘Well, I’m very hard working. I’ve been willing to take on roles and projects no one else wanted. And I always share the credit with whoever else on the team has contributed. I think those attributes have propelled my career.’ He was then able to share with me a brief anecdote about how those quintessential elements of being ‘Jack’ helped him succeed.
When he finished, I said, ‘You’re done. That’s your talk. Instead of telling people about you, tell them what they can do to succeed. The talk isn’t about your path. It’s about what the audience can learn from you path, which is different from the path itself.’
After the event, Jack shared that he got terrific feedback from his peers and boss. While other panelists had taken the approach of reciting their resume, Jack stood out because his talk was driven by stories that helped the audience.
If you’re on a date and your date says, ‘Tell me about yourself,’ he or she wants to get to know you. When you’re on an interview and the interviewer says, ‘Tell me about yourself,’ he or she means, ‘Tell me how you can add value to my organization.’ What are your value adds?
Originally published on Forbes.com