It’s the most dreaded question of all!
“Tell me about yourself.”
Followed closely by the equally ambiguous, “So… what’s your story?”
What do I say? What do they want to hear? I don’t even have a story!
Yes, you do. Everyone has a story. And yes, you have interesting things to tell about yourself.
But this open-ended interview question is not an invitation to dive into a multi-part monologue. It’s not asking for everything about you.
Sharing stories is actually quite simple. Here are a few tips to turn these broad questions into specific and strategic replies.
Let’s start with what NOT to do:
- DON’T start at the beginning. “Well, I grew up in a small town in Nebraska…” No. Be present, not past. Start with where you are now, not back in time.
- DON’T repeat your resume. “I started my career at Company X and then after three years there, went to Company Y.” They already have this information in front of them. There’s no need to rehash each stage of your career.
- DON’T start a soliloquy. These questions are invitations to conversation. Conversation includes two people and a natural back and forth. If you’re going on for 5+ minutes, you’re going on too long. It’s the first question, not the only one.
- DON’T avoid the question with another question. “What do you want to know?” is a lazy reply. You get to decide the story you want to tell about yourself. Don’t give away that opportunity.
- DON’T forget to check-in with the interviewer. Are they listening? Do they seem interested? If they’re tuning out or seem perplexed, your story isn’t in alignment with their needs or… you’re boring. (Equally bad!)
So, what can you do? Try these DO’s:
- DO start – not at the beginning – but at THE END. The end goal, that is! What do you want this person to know, think, and feel about you as a result of what you have to say? Align your response with the optimal outcome.
- DO create a Big-Picture Statement. “I’m a graphic designer who loves bringing concepts to life…”, “Nothing makes me happier than creating events that make kids smile…”, “After years as a successful coder, I want to teach others…”
- DO know your highlight reel. Consider your biggest successes and victories. Bring one up in this opening opportunity. Details matter. Don’t just say, “I led the biggest campaign in the company’s history…” Be specific! Details are what make our stories unique and help us stand out from other candidates.
- DO relate your reply to the position at hand. “The job post mentioned a need for someone who is comfortable with change. I’ve worked on two start-ups in the last four years…”
- DO personalize your response. Be who you are, not just what you’ve done. It’s perfectly OK to add some human touch. Do you coach Little League? Are you starting your own home brewing business? Have you failed in your last three marathon attempts? Keep it real, keep it positive, keep it brief, but keep it YOU.
There’s no one right way to answer the “Tell me about yourself question.”
But there are a number of ways to get it wrong.
Be authentically YOU and align your response with what the person asking most needs to know about you.
That’s how you get it right.
Valerie Gordon is a 10-time Emmy-winning television producer who put hundreds of stories on the air over the course of her career. Through The Storytelling Strategist, she uses the power of storytelling to help clients and audiences land the job, seal the deal, nail the presentation, and create successful and fulfilling next chapters. Follow her on LinkedIn.