This is one statement, or variation thereof, you are bound to hear during an interview (and quite often will hear during the natural course of conversation at a networking event).
Instead of fearing this query, you should embrace it. Unfortunately, we often don’t even think about it. We underestimate the power of this statement, which is really an opportunity for you to shine. It can also be your biggest downfall, with regard to developing a first impression.
I like to think of the way to respond to that probing statement in terms of the “three ‘Be’s’”:
- Be Specific. No two people are alike, so you may choose to lead with a personality trait or unique savvy—or you may choose to lead with accomplishments. Either way, you need to provide an example. Think: detail. Don’t just say you’re a natural-born salesperson. Tell your interviewer you consistently rank in the top 5 or 10 percent within the industry, or whatever your genuine achievement may be.
- Be Prepared. When you look at this question as an opportunity, you’ll likely take it more seriously and spend more time thinking about the answer. If you’re not the best “off-the-cuff” speaker, feel free to jot down some thoughts and “rehearse” them. You want to sound polished, but not like you’re a robot, either. There is a delicate balance. The important thing is to devote some time to content, so you’re not stumbling and bumbling around. Feel free to use feedback from others, and echo the nice things your mentors, colleagues or supervisors said about you. Chances are, if your current supervisor thinks you’re a great project manager because of the way you handled initiative “A,” your prospect supervisor will also be interested in hearing that, too.
- Be Unique. Though it’s not related to your day-to-day work life, if you have run 13 marathons or were a star water polo player, it still speaks volumes about you as a person in a way that perhaps even being among the top 5 percent of sales professionals in a given category doesn’t. It’s these unique tidbits that make you stand out from the back-to-back interviewees a prospective employer may encounter in a given day. When your potential boss digs into a stack of applications, you want her to be jarred by something—that “something” could very well be water polo. Let her connect that unique talent to you. It just might land you a call-back interview or the gig itself.
There IS a wrong response to “Tell Me About Yourself.” I like to refer to these pitfalls as the “three ‘Beware’s’”:
- Beware Amateur Mistakes. This is tied to being ill-prepared. If you don’t have at least a few statements or achievements you’d like to highlight, you’ll likely end up falling all over yourself as you speak. You’ve seen it before. The individual who becomes tongue-tied. Can barely spit out a sentence. Stumbles all over his words or her face becomes flushed. It’s very awkward. Don’t let that embarrassed, stumbling person be you.
- Beware TMI. You may find yourself doing the opposite of deer-in-the-headlights, unable to spit out a coherent sentence. You may actually find yourself talking incessantly, during which time you may start to divulge personal details about yourself. This is a very unprofessional move, but we’ve all probably been there—when we can’t believe we’re actually verbalizing something so personal, but for some reason our mouths won’t stop flapping. If you’ve prepped, you’ll be better able to stay on task—and less likely to divert into irrelevant and possibly embarrassing territory.
- Beware Lack of Priorities. Though you may not find yourself spilling personal information, you may instead veer into the aforementioned irrelevant territory with regard to professional background. You may bring up elements of your work style or work history that are not really tied to the job at hand, or elicit a big fat “WC” (Who Cares!). If during your preparation, you can better prioritize what you are most proud of and what you think will most resonate with your “audience,” you’ll be less likely to, out of nervousness or just lack of practice, bring up your summer job at the video store or the intricacies of filing and phoning.
As you can see, a lot of these “Be’s” go back to planning. If anything, you should really “Beware” taking this statement (which we’ve all heard so many times) lightly. It’s not as easy as it seems from the outset. After all, you’re taking many years of work and life experience and condensing it into a few moments. Make the most of these moments.
Whether interviewing or networking, this question is your golden opportunity to showcase YOU. Your accomplishments and positive attributes. And your prospective fit in an organization, or to a relationship that may lead to future business opportunities.
What will you say the next time you are asked, “Tell me about yourself”?