“So…. Tell me about yourself.”
And we dread it for good reason. It’s way too broad and we have no idea what the interviewer wants us to say.
It’s the interview question we all dread.
“Just be honest” is the advice given by many careers experts. So how’s this?
Well, I’m 29. I’m scared of heights. I sometimes take a teddy bear with me when I go travelling. I love Coldplay. I still smoke even though I told everyone I quit. I cry when I go into an animal shelter because I want to adopt all the pets. I have a rash on my left foot that’s not responding to treatment. Oh and I have a hard time with commitment.
That’s honest, but it’s probably not what they’re looking for.
My honest opinion is that “tell me about yourself” is a lazy interview question. It tells the interviewer nothing meaningful and it unfairly discriminates against those who don’t have a talent for pithy, perfectly pitched answers to pointless questions.
But regardless of what I think, you will find yourself sitting across a room from a stranger who rustles papers for a minute or two before looking up and saying “so … tell me about yourself.”
So what do you say?
I don’t believe there’s one answer to this question because I think your answer should always be tailored to the needs of your employer. (I’m not a big fan of the “elevator pitch” for this reason. If you’ve prepared it and learned it in advance, how relevant can it be to this particular employer at this particular time?)
I think there are 3 steps to preparing a good answer to this most dreaded of questions and you must do them all in advance of each interview. That way you’ll be prepared when those papers starts to rustle.
Step One: Assess what’s important to the company
No matter how smart and succinct your answer is, it won’t resonate unless it relates to the needs of the job. So if you’re applying for a marketing manager job in the music industry, consider what’s important in this type of role and within this industry. If you don’t know, research!
So our marketing manager knows that it’s very important to do more with less in the music industry. Declining music sales mean declining budgets. He also knows that an understanding of the industry will be important.
Step Two: Make a list of things that make you a good fit for the role
You won’t use all of these in your answer, but that’s OK. Just making the list will increase your confidence for the interview. And what’s more, some of the items on your list will help you answer additional questions later in the interview.
Our marketing manager is experienced at viral and street marketing, he’s accustomed to working within tight budgets, and he has always delivered good results. His past experience has been in a related field (he marketed movies previously) so he understands entertainment.
Step Three: Plan your answer
Remember, the recruiter doesn’t really want to know all about you. She just thinks this is a good way to assess your ability to perform under pressure, or your talent for speaking off the cuff, or some other character trait she feels is important.
The most common mistake people make (I’ve done it myself) is to start rambling about ancient history, literally trying to tell your whole story. This is a mistake and will cause the interviewer’s eyes to glaze over while she plans her next moves on Candy Crush Saga.
Instead, choose one of these 3 approaches to ensure that you pass the test with flying colors.
1) The ‘story’ response.
With this answer, you simply tell a short story (and do keep it short!) that demonstrates your ability to meet their requirements. Stories are memorable, which is why this approach works so well.
For example, our marketing manager could say:
I have 8 years of experience in entertainment marketing and during this time I’ve learned to work within tight budgets. For example, I recently had to promote a documentary with almost no budget. I created a video that was designed to go viral and then promoted it across all social media channels. Within one week, the video had indeed gone viral and the documentary performed much better than expected as a result. These are the situations I genuinely enjoy.
2) The ‘others say’ response
With this approach, you frame your answer in terms of the things other people have said about you. This allows you to boast about your skills without sounding as if you are boasting at all.
So our manager could say:
I’ve had 3 managers so far in my career, and they have all praised my ability to do more with less – to create buzz and excitement even with the tiniest marketing budget. I’ve been in entertainment marketing for 10 years now, and I think this is the thread that runs through my entire career.
See how this answer shows what a great match he is without ever actually coming out and saying it?
Another way to use this approach is to start with:
The 3 words people most often use to describe me are …
3) The ‘I believe’ approach
With this approach, you answer the “tell me about yourself” question by explaining your philosophy on work (or marketing or sales or people management – choose whatever is most relevant to your employer).
This answer works particularly well for management or leadership roles, although I think it can be effective for anyone. The reason it’s so effective is that it shows you have really thought about your approach to your work. It conveys a seriousness and dedication that you couldn’t convey any other way.
So here our manager could say:
“I believe that effective marketing is all about connecting. I think too many companies throw money at a problem and then wonder why sales don’t increase. I’ve always believed that when you truly connect with your audience, results naturally follow. As an example, I recently had to promote a documentary film with almost no budget. I felt the best way to get results was to connect with the potential audience via social media, so I created a video that was designed to go viral …” (etc. etc.)
“Tell me about yourself” is actually an opportunity
While I may think it’s a lazy question, and you may find it intimidating, the truth is that “tell me about yourself” is actually a wonderful opportunity to take control of the interview.
With some planning, you can forget about feeling tongue-tied and instead turn those first few minutes into a chance to make a perfectly targeted pitch.