You’re on the phone with a potential new client.
Maybe you’re even sitting across from the woman who could become your mother-in-law.
After exchanging a few pleasantries, the other person takes control of the conversation and says, “So, tell me a little about yourself.”
*Gulp.* Is it just me, or is it getting warm in here?
What does that mean, “tell me about yourself”? Where to begin? Clearly it’s not, “Well, I was born in the car on the way to the hospital…” nor is it “Here are the 50 most frequent compliments I hear about myself.” It feels like an extrovert’s question, doesn’t it? Introverts are more about “show, don’t tell,” and we assume extroverts probably love this question (and follow it up with “Now, enough about me, what do you think about me?”).
The truth is, it’s an awkward question for most of us, introvert or extrovert. To the person doing the asking, “tell me about yourself” might sound innocent, almost like an icebreaker. But when we’re put into situations where we don’t feel entirely safe (we’re being judged on some level) or the stakes are high (we need the work!), the open-ended vagueness of the request can leave even the most articulate among us tongue-tied.
And as much as that question can leave us searching for words (sometimes even if we’ve prepared for it), we’re not likely to avoid it. According to an infographic prepared by ComeRecommended.com, “Tell me about yourself” is number one on the list of “five questions most likely to be asked” during an interview (you can see the full infographic here).
Since I myself clam up when asked that question (it all feels so boring to say out-loud, even though my life is far from boring), I decided to seek the advice of a few experts. Their wide range of perspectives was enlightening and even comforting, since now I can hear “tell me about yourself” as an invitation, rather than an inquisition. I hope you experience the same relief!
In my experience, the “tell me about yourself” question at the start of an interview is a make-or-break moment for most candidates. My advice is to answer the question in three parts. First, give a very abbreviated tour of your work history in about a minute or so, hitting only the highlights and keeping in mind that the employer already has a copy of your resume in hand. When finished with this step, sum up your career to date with a powerful “crescendo” where you outline the top skills, values, and/or work passions you believe you’ve demonstrated consistently as a professional, leading to success in each of your past positions. What do you stand for? What overarching themes are woven throughout your background? What authentic strengths set you apart from your peers? Then finally, bring your answer to a close by passing the conversational baton back to the interviewer with a statement like “So that’s me, in a nutshell. I’d be happy to elaborate further on anything, if you’d like — and am looking forward to hearing more about the position you have open and how these strengths I’ve mentioned might fit with it.”
Ahhhh yes, the dreaded question, ‘Tell me about yourself?’ There used to be a time where I wanted my prospective employer to be a mind reader and just KNOW me through my resume and my great looking suit! But alas, no one knew until I told them.
The way that I would handle this question is to NOT focus on “you” as the individual (i.e. I am a team player, I am confident, I am a self-motivator, etc…) but to focus on what you LOVE TO DO! Usually, the “what I love to do” statement is followed by answers that involve helping others. We, as humans, LOVE to help and support other people BEFORE we help and support ourselves! And if you think about it, when a prospective employer or client really asks the question, “Tell me about yourself,” they are really asking, “what do YOU do (or CAN you do) that could benefit my company OR my mission?” What’s your passion? How can you take what you love and benefit that company or that potential client? Your passion is what attracted you to that job description or that person who wants to work with you.
When you look at the “Tell me about yourself” question as a time to reveal how YOU can help and support someone else, the question doesn’t seem as dreaded and you don’t have to wish, anymore, for them to be mind readers.
Put yourself in the interviewer’s mindset and think about why they may be asking you this question. Perhaps they have been drafted into the interview at the last minute, or been so busy they had no time to prepare. They’re embarrassed that they haven’t read your resume ahead of time, so they’re stalling and hoping you’ll fill in the gaps enough to make them sound slightly educated when they ask you questions. Or, they may think “Tell me about yourself” is a good way to help you relax and establish rapport. No matter what the reason, keep in mind – their intention is good. It’s not a question designed to embarrass you, trip you up, or make you say something you wouldn’t reveal otherwise. Don’t respond with “Well, what do you want to know?” because then you may embarrass them! Pause. Breathe. Say, “Sure, I’d be happy to.” And follow with a brief but interesting response showing how you would add value to their organization in the particular job you are interviewing for.
When I Grow Up Coach
I think – at risk of sounding like a hippy-dippy – it’s about setting an intention that puts it outside of yourself. If your intention is to Connect, for example, then you’ll stop the loop in your head that you sound like a big braggy jerk because there’s a bigger purpose behind it. It’s also helpful to try to take the emotions out of it and just see your experiences and accomplishments and personality traits as facts to relay. You can ask yourself pre-interview what you’d want someone to know about you right off the bat that you’re going to be working with for the next 5 years…what would make you feel at ease and more comfortable if they knew it about you? That’s what you want to relay.
Self-Promotion for Introverts®
As an introvert, thinking out loud is likely not one of your many strengths. So when someone asks you about yourself, your mind may go blank, and it can take awhile to think of a suitable reply. By that time, your new acquaintance may have gotten off the elevator—literally or figuratively. To perfect your pitch, think of yourself as a great product, say an iPhone. Jot down a list of assets that would appeal to different audiences—and pick those most relevant to the person you’re talking to. For help with the list, ask a few people who really “get” you.
Then practice out loud, preferably with one of those people, and videotape it on your smartphone. As difficult as it might be, watch the video, and tweak your pitch. Finally, use every time you meet someone new—at checkout lines, airports, parties—as an opportunity to practice. Always make your answer to “Tell me about yourself” succinct, engaging, and as relevant as possible to your conversation partners. Be authentic and targeted, and you’ll never sound canned. My basic elevator pitch: As a business communication coach, I help clients write, speak, and promote themselves with increased confidence.
HR Brain For Hire
Tell me about yourself is definitely one of those interview questions where so many candidates get stuck on, yet they don’t have to be. When responding to this request, a candidate should focus on both their professional and personal values. Look at it from a 80/20 rule of thumb: 80% of what is shared highlights specifically the professional traits that are relatable to the position for which you’re applying, and the other 20% focuses on personal experiences and accomplishments of which you’re the most proud. Here’s an example:
“I’m an experienced PR and marketing specialist with extensive knowledge of communication tools and techniques. I’ve developed comprehensive public relations and marketing plans for major corporations, written dozens of articles accepted by worldwide publications, and created educational workshops for adults and students. I am always eager to learn new methods and procedures, and have implemented continuous improvement techniques in my past positions that saved money and increased productivity. I like working with people and enjoy group projects, but am also a self-starter who is comfortable working on my own. I’m a volunteer with the local chapter of the Boys and Girls Club and enjoy participating in community events. My goals are to complete my Master’s Degree and broaden my experiences with community relations.”
Ruth Dow Rogers
Ruth Dow Rogers Consulting & Coaching
Regardless of whether you’re an introvert or extrovert, my advice as a career counselor and coach is to compose your answer ahead of time, carefully choosing things you share about yourself that directly relate to the job description. Empathize with the employer, sharing only what you think will help them understand why you are a great match for the position. Be strategic about what and how much you share. They want to see how you handle yourself and if you understand what they want in a candidate.
You can start by legitimately asking them a question, “What have you heard?”, “Where did you hear about me or my company?”, “What about my services or me made you reach out in the first place?”. Obviously, depending on tone, these question rebuttals could be taken as sarcastic, but getting an answer can help you form your actual response to their initial inquiry.
Secondly, if their impression of you and your abilities is not accurate, for better or worse, it gives you a chance to correct that image. If your skill set is all about providing assistance with “A”, and their interest in you is based on an image that they feel you can do “B”, then it has to be cleared up.
If, however, the atmosphere is not conducive for such an exchange and you have to answer them directly, then fall back on reinforcing the experience they have already had with you. “As you can tell by my timely responses I pride myself on keeping lines of communication open and clear…”, or “As you can see by my appearance I tend to be a (fill in the blank)”.
However, if you are like most of us introverts, you can always say “I tend to be quiet, reserved, and my strength lies in my ability to provide thoughtful analysis and discernment in decision making.” The key is consistency from first interaction through to the point you are asked the question.
Cate Johnson Brubaker
Small Planet Studio
Introverts often see deep connections between lots of things, and that can make it difficult to know where to even begin with the “tell me about yourself” question. At this early point in the game, the goal is to simply give someone a taste of who you are, not tell your life story. A colleague described it to me once as figuring out the “bait” that will “hook” the listener so they want to ask you follow-up questions. Think about the things you’ve done, what you’ve learned, what you’re curious about, your biggest challenges, and what you’re itching to do. This is your bait. Then, brainstorm ways you can present your bait so that the listener’s curiosity is piqued, and they can’t help but ask you questions. This is helpful because the listener’s questions will give you clues about their values, interests, and priorities, which can help you stay on track and communicate more effectively. So, what’s your bait?
What do you think? How do you approach the “Tell me about yourself” question? Please share in the comments!