Most interviews start with the same question (which, actually, isn’t even a question):
“Tell me about yourself.”
Because open-ended questions are the best way to get to know someone. And, they’re the easiest way to allow someone to reveal themselves.
The question is simple enough, yet most people answer it incorrectly.
The most common strategy is to go through your work history chronologically, starting from your first job or degree and then move forward in time.
There are multiple problems with this “bottom-up” approach:
- You’re leading with your worst material. That is, you’re starting with your LEAST RECENT experience and, most likely, your LEAST RELEVANT experience.
- You’re introducing a super-predictable story structure. Predictability leads to boredom. The interviewers have already seen your resume so they already know what you’re going to say next. So there is a high probability that they will zone out.
- You’re eliminating a chance for suspense, any hope for something new.
- You’re more likely to slip into your schtick. You’ve told this same story a hundred times. And it’s likely to sound that way: rehearsed and tired.
- You’re forgetting your objective. The goal of the interview is to build rapport, show your best bits, and allow the interviewer to learn about you, not just your career path.
Remember, there are no rules for interviewing. You can talk about anything, so you should think more about what’s going to get you the job and less about how to explain your work history, in its entirety.
Here are some alternative methods for answering the dreaded “Tell Me About Yourself” question:
#1. The Traits-First Strategy
Come up with 3 or 4 core character traits about yourself and present them to your interviewer(s) right off the cuff. “I’m __________, __________, and __________.”
Then elaborate, taking each character trait and underscoring it with an evidence-based story pulled from your work history. Make sure your first story is from your most recent experience. You can back it up with an earlier story but always start with what just happened (or, is still happening).
These 3 or 4 words you introduce will guide the rest of your interview. They are your home base. Most of your answers from here on out will wrap around these core attributes.
Also, should you blank out on an answer or have to answer an outrageous question (e.g. what animal are you?), you can ground yourself by remembering these traits. You may not come up with the best possible answer but you will say something that lines up with who they are understanding you to be and that means you’ll come off honest, coherent, and authentic.
#2. The Interesting Story Strategy
Instead of telling a bunch of stories, just pick one, a recent one, and one that illustrates who you are deep down.
Use the following line as your lead-in to the Interesting Story: “Something happened to me recently that I think exemplifies who I am.” This way, they’ll know how to listen to your story: looking for something deeper, something truly revealing.
Have fun with it. Be dramatic. Make sure your story has characters, a setting, a conflict, a touch of suspense, and a resolution – one that leaves everyone relieved. Then, tell your interviewers exactly why that story exemplifies your best 3 to 4 traits.
Don’t worry so much about quantified outcomes at this point. There’s plenty of time for that. Focus on telling a good story, just as you would to a friend over coffee.
Everyone loves a good story. Even interviewers.
I guarantee, they’re not going to interrupt you and ask you to walk them through your work history, instead.
#3. The Moral High Ground Strategy.
This strategy is particularly good if you’re applying to a mission-driven company that claims to lead with its values, such as a social enterprise, a nonprofit, a foundation, or a tech startup (they love that values stuff).
Once again, you’re going to begin with a story, but this story should be about something that happened outside of work.
Yes, you can do that.
More points if this thing happened yesterday or even that morning. Recency is important. With this story, you’re going to show off your morals and value system. It shouldn’t be hard to find such a story since you’re the kind of person who walks through life, morals first.
At the end of your story, say something like, “I know this wasn’t about work stuff, but I think it really shows the kind of person I am.” Then, have a back-up work-related story ready that underscores the same value, just in case they ask for one.
This strategy is a surefire way to be remembered because you’re breaking the mold and showing your heart, right away.
#4. The Front-to-Back Strategy
If you want to talk about your entire career, that’s fine, but don’t start at the beginning.
Start with NOW and work backward. Kick it off with “Currently, I’m __________.” Demarcate different “chapters” of new jobs with transitional phrases like: “Prior to this, I __________” or “Earlier in my career, I ___________.”
In your storytelling, each chapter of your life should get shorter and shorter as you go back in time. Your earliest work experience should be described in a simple line or two: “I started off my career doing __________” or “I got into the industry through __________.”
This strategy is more predictable than the others, but at least you’re starting with the mighty “Here and Now.”
The interviewer may, indeed, start getting bored three-quarters of the way through, but by that time, you’ll be talking about your least relevant experience, which means they won’t miss anything important.
Also, you’ll be steadily picking up speed in your spiel since your job summaries will be getting shorter and shorter. That will help with keeping them awake.
A fast-moving plot is always going to be more of a page-turner.
#5. The Path Less Traveled Strategy
When we have unusual work histories, we usually try to hide them or smooth them out into a traditional career path.
This strategy tosses that idea out the window.
Instead of hiding it, lead with it:
“I’m not like other candidates.” or
“I’ve taken a different path into this field.” or
“I don’t do things like other people.”
You get the idea: differentiate yourself and, instead of shying away from the truth, create value with your unorthodox career trajectory.
Often you can find that you have more things to offer an employer than someone who took a more traditional route. Figure out what those things are and tell your future employer about it, boldly and unapologetically, first thing in the interview.
There’s no one like you. That’s a powerful thing to say.
The bottom line is interviewers are looking for the outlier.
They want the anomaly, the one that stands out above the rest, the one that catches them off guard. They want something real and they only have an hour to pull it out of you.
Why not give it to them right away?