"Tell me about yourself." If you're participating in job interviews, you're likely to hear this question over and over again -- and how you answer it could make the difference in landing the job.
“In business settings, hearing ‘Tell Me About Yourself’ is inevitable, and your answer to it matters,” says Esther Choy, author of Let the Story Do the Work. It matters because it’s your story that helps others learn about you, remember you and want to further engage with you.
“Tell me about yourself” is what I inquire of every student during our first coaching appointment and to prepare them for interviews. And in the overwhelming majority of cases, what I get in return is a list of degrees earned, positions held and tasks completed. In the student’s mind, this is who she is. As someone who hears hundreds of similar introductions on a regular basis, I know this is definitely not who she is. My goal, therefore, is to guide the student as she polishes the story so that it shows what motivates her to pursue a specific career and helps others remember her as an individual and not just another business student from a recognized university.
A recitation of schools, programs and internships makes it difficult for me to remember each student, and I can guarantee you, it will also make it difficult for employers to see you as a standout. The above tells others nothing of who you are as a professional and as a person. At best, they suggest you have a particular knowledge. But you don’t want people to simply know what you know; you want them to know what you can do, what motivates you to do it and what your values are. Stories help you connect to others on a level that degrees and positions never could.
“Whether you’re looking for a new job, fundraising for a new business or meeting a new prospective client,” Choy says, “telling a compelling story when asked about yourself will help you make a meaningful human connection.” As you work on your story, keep in mind that a fully developed one has a beginning, a middle and an ending.
With the first sentence, grab your listener's attention. Open with a statement that points to the context in which your journey to a particular industry began. It’s the moment when you had an experience that moved you in a specific direction. The goal is to draw listeners in so they can’t help but hear the rest of your answer. The opening also introduces the main theme of your story. “Without a theme, your story will have no backbone,” Choy emphasizes. A theme helps you focus on a main idea that relates to the target position and the interviewer. “When we tell stories in a way that aligns them with narratives familiar to or experienced by the listener, we automatically move higher on the likability scale," Choy advises. If listeners like you, they are more likely to trust what you say.
Three years ago, I worked with a student interested in investments and wealth management. After exploring reasons for her interest, she came up with the following opening line: “When I was 11 years old, while my friends were outside playing games, I was in my house playing the stock market with my father.” The theme of spending quality time with a parent resonated with many listeners and immediately helped her connect with them. Moreover, it introduced the context in which her passion for investments originated. Getting to such a powerful opening takes time, exploration and reflection. In a coaching session, I would ask exploratory questions and guide the student through a discovery process. I also recommend freewriting as a tool to generate possible openings. Dig deep during your interviews and flesh out what started it all.
Following the introduction, share details on what happened after the initial experience or realization. What steps did you take to clarify your goal? What are the resources and mentors you pursued? In this section, take listeners on the journey you traveled to get to them. What challenges did you overcome to reach the final destination? “A story with no obstacle isn’t much of a story,” says Choy. Show listeners the struggle you experienced on your journey and how overcoming that struggle taught you a lesson that has brought you to them.
The middle section is also the place where you may want to highlight specific details that relate to the type of work you will do if offered the role. For instance, if the role requires a candidate with strategic vision and negotiation skills, integrate both into your story as supporting information. Avoid simply stating “I am a strategic thinker.” Show them that you are one. Also, this is the section where you showcase personality traits you have that align with the role. If the employer is looking for an adaptable candidate, show how you are one at interviews by incorporating an example of adaptability in your story.
“Truth be told, the ending -- the takeaway -- is most important,” says Choy. In fact, she recommends that you start with the ending at your interviews so you have an idea of what you want the listener to remember most. When that’s identified, it will be easier to polish the rest of the story so that only relevant details are included. The ending’s goal is to inform listeners about what motivates you to want to join a company. How has your journey led you to sitting in front of an interviewer, describing yourself? The ending wraps up the story and leads interviewers to an understanding of what brings you to them. “Your listener needs to understand why you are telling this story,” says Choy. It is your story but it also must connect to the listener -- that’s the key! A story can portray you as the person you want others to see during interviews, and it could also help you align with the values or mission of an organization.
You may prepare different stories for your interviews depending on context and audience, but all ultimately say something about you. Once you have developed a story, spend time polishing it. You can do so with a career counselor but you can also turn to a trusted friend or a mentor. Choy recommends that you have your friend ask you the following questions: What information do you recall from my story? How does my story make you feel? After listening to my story, what questions do you have for me? Practice will help you strengthen your story and ensure it does what you want it to do: Grab listeners and make them want to hear more from you and about you.