The Job Interview: “Tell Me About Yourself”

Under the magnifying glass: The job interview

You finally got the interview you’ve worked so hard to secure, you’ve donned your best “power suit,” polished your shoes, and you find yourself staring across the desk into the bored, over-worked eyes of a hiring manager.

In spite of your insane level of confidence, your palms are sweating again (after you discretely dried them before shaking hands), and you fear that you have visible hives blotching their way up your neck.

Your interviewer shuffles a few papers around in front of her, glances down at what appears to be your now-coffee stained résumé, before finally exhaling and throwing out the ice-breaker: “So, tell me about yourself.”

PERSONALITY & CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT

The fact that you’ve made it to the interview suggests that the hiring manager has already read your credentials and has a basic understanding of your qualifications.  You will expand, of course, as the interview progresses. But your ice-breaker response needs to shed light on what your résumé cannot articulate — your personality and character.

A face-to-face, phone, or Skype interview is your first chance to infuse your individual personality and character into the job search process.  Answering the ice-breaker that somehow instructs you to “describe yourself” is the perfect opportunity to do this.

“Tell Me About Yourself”

Because the most oft used ice-breaker prompt is “Tell me about yourself,” you need to be prepared to do exactly what is being asked of you.

In a discussion about this topic on LinkedIn.com, the majority of people who left a comment ride the bandwagon that favors a response using the “Elevator Speech,” a short 30-second to 2-minute blurb that summarizes your best skills and qualifications while incorporating your brand somehow.

The problem with using your Elevator Speech to answer the ice-breaker prompt, “Tell me about yourself,” is that you are wasting an opportunity to do just that: Tell the interviewer who you are, not what you can do!

When you are asked to tell the interviewer about yourself, it may be an overly vague question used as an ice-breaker, but most interviewers want to know about YOU — the person. Will your personality be a good fit with the firm?  Is your character one that will somehow benefit this employer?  Those questions can’t be answered with an Elevator Speech; they are extraordinarily objective and are based on the crucial interviewing process.

Let’s look at what the ice-breaker does not ask or imply:

  • It does not ask you to list your skills;
  • You are not being asked for a sales pitch / elevator speech;
  • The question does not ask, “What have you done?”
  • It does not imply, “What can you do for us?”
  • The question does not ask, “What is your experience?”
  • It does not ask, “What roles in life do you play?”

Who are you?” is a far different question than “What have you done?”

EXAMPLES

The following is a list of typical responses when someone is asked to “Tell me about yourself.”  Following each example is a short response to why the example isn’t effective:

I’m a mother, wife, and a lawyer.

  • Think about it: How can you possibly state these roles in the proper order?  You can’t!  If you list “mother” first, does that mean you value that role more than you do your marriage?  If you state first that you are a lawyer, do you now value it more than being a wife and mother?  Besides, your roles as a parent and a spouse are very unlikely relevant, and certainly the interviewer already knows you are an attorney!  This response doesn’t say WHO you are; it says WHAT roles you play.

I’m an innovative employee who has developed several successful strategies that increased the profits for my previous employers by at least 20%.

  • This response tells what you have done. It says nothing about who you are.  For an ice-breaker response, it is too detailed.  You’ll get to this further into the interview, and you likely (hopefully) have articulated this in your résumé.  Too much redundancy will make you look like you lack the depth they are likely seeking.

I’m saving the people who are saving the world! (she pauses and smiles.)   I’m Sue Smith, a lawyer for non-profits. My company, Smith NonProfit Solutions specializes in helping non-profits keep their fund-raising legal.  I can definitely meet the requirements of your firm.

  • This typical “Elevator Speech” says nothing about who Sue Smith is; it tells what she does.  One might be able to make some presumptions about her personality by the quirky opening line, but that’s it.  It otherwise sheds no light on the individual’s personality and character.

A BETTER APPROACH

Here are some sample responses that accurately reply to the ice-breaker, “Tell me About Yourself”:

In a nutshell, I’m a dedicated, loyal, and passionate person who enjoys a good challenge.  So long as I am learning, achieving, and giving back somehow, I’m happy.  And, frankly, I’m a pretty happy guy / gal.

——–

I’m an energetic, confident person who gives 100% of my effort to whatever project or activity I undertake, whether it be in my profession as a writer, or as a volunteer mentor for inner-city youth.

——–

Unlike my approach to things when I was a rookie in my 20’s, I am now a wiser, more experienced person who has figured out how to maintain the proper balance in life.  This, in turn, makes me a confident person who is able to meet all of my obligations.  That’s something I’m proud of and, I think, tells you a lot about me.

——–

Most would say that I’m a witty, charismatic person who knows no limits; I would say, however, that I’m a detail-oriented person who is sensitive to the needs of others, whether they be clients, employers, friends, or family members.

——–

I’ve always been a very conscientious person — someone who really cares about the statement I am making with my choices and actions.  I’m not happy unless I’ve done my very best with whatever task I choose to undertake.  As a result, I’m a successful and happy person, able to go to bed at night with a clear conscience and a sense of pride.

Notice that each example gives some insight into the person’s personality and character — that part of you that answers the prompt, “Tell me about yourself.”

WHEN TO USE THE ELEVATOR SPEECH

The time you’ve taken to write, memorize, and perfect the delivery of your elevator speech has not been wasted.  You will be able to use it during your interview, and, likely, you’ll use it just after the ice-breaker.

Here’s an example:

Interviewer:  Hi, Mr. Smith.  It’s good to meet you.  (extends her hand for the shake)

Interviewee:  (offering a firm hand-shake) You, too, Ms. Jones.  I’ve been looking forward to it.

Interviewer:  Please, have a seat. (she motions toward the chair)

Interviewee:  Thank you.  (you seat yourself, trying to look comfortable in spite of the knots in your neck)

Interviewer:  So Mr. Smith … Tell me about yourself.  (the ice-breaker)

Interviewee:  Gladly.  (pause; make eye-contact; readjust in your seat, leaning forward with confidence)  Ms. Jones, most people would say that I’m a witty, charismatic person who knows no limits; I would say, however, that I’m a detail-oriented person who is sensitive to the needs of others, whether they be clients, employers, friends, or family members.

Interviewer:  Can you elaborate on that?  How, exactly are you detail oriented? (or some such similar follow up)

Interviewee:  (eager to spit out his carefully practiced elevator pitch)  I’m someone with the proven ability to find a path to success by dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s, whatever that entails.  For example, I managed a project for ABC Co. and by taking the time to search for and read some contracts that someone misfiled, I was able to reduce the division’s overhead by $85,000 in one quarter.  If it’s been overlooked, I’m the guy who will find it — whether it be an existing opportunity, an untapped market, or an under-utilized division; it’s in the details.  My sensitivity toward the needs of a company, and my attention to details, always leads to happy campers and increased profits!  And, I might add, it makes for a happy family, too, who appreciate my ability to balance all of life’s priorities.

As you can see, the interviewee has introduced aspects of his personality, character, and past achievements all within the first few moments of the interview.  It’s a great start!

But had he started with his Elevator Speech in response to the ice-breaker, it might then be awkward to later incorporate a statement about his personality and character.

THE BOTTOM LINE

If you’re given the opportunity to respond to the broad ice-breaking prompt to “Tell me about yourself,” you’ll be a step ahead by using the opening to provide insight into who you are as a person, not what you do in life.

Sell your personality and character, not just your skills and experience!

~ Lynda C. Watts
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