Very often the first substantive statement that an employer will make in a job interview is “So, tell me about yourself” (or words to that effect). The way that this question is answered sets the tone for the entire interview. Unfortunately many inexperienced interviewees answer in such a way that puts them immediately out of contention. They essentially recite the information contained in their resumes, which suggests that they have some combination of timidness, lack of imagination, and cluelessness.
Few people like to interview prospective employees. It’s time they’re not devoting to their jobs (unless they’re in HR) and it’s a process that’s generally ill-defined, but that requires a lot of focus and attention. So the key to successfully responding to this request lies in engaging and impressing the interviewer.
I coach my clients to respond by beginning with a little (I emphasize LITTLE) personal information: “I was born in Lima, Ohio and had a pretty typical childhood until I went out-of-state to George Washington, where I decided to major in finance, primarily due to an awesome professor I had freshman year. I was lucky enough to land a summer internship at Bank of America two years later, and that really hooked me.” Then I suggest that they pivot the conversation to what the interviewer really wants to know: “Is this a person we should hire?” The pivot can be accomplished smoothly by saying something along the lines of “But let me tell you what I think it’s most important for you to know about me.” And here’s where a version of the elevator speech comes in; stating the key talking points that align with the job specs. I say a version of the elevator speech, because the pitch needs to be tailored to what the employer needs. This is where the concept of “personal branding” can cause trouble, because the interviewee may focus too much on repeating selling points that may be appropriate in a general networking situation but not sufficiently attuned to the job being sought.
The pivot suggests boldness, initiative, and efficiency: a no-nonsense approach that is pretty much universally valued. Now if the interviewer is someone who’s particularly chatty this might not be the best approach to use; successful interviewing requires the ability to “read” the interviewer and adjust style accordingly. But in most instances the approach I recommend will be impressive.
In addition to the primary issue of qualifications, a candidate’s likeability is such a core component of a hiring decision that it is also important to try to inject an element that will ideally result in the interviewer connecting on a personal level. This might take the form of a “coda” to the recitation of the key talking points. For example, after reciting the qualifications* it could be engaging to say something (with a sort of wink of the eye) like “and maybe not quite so important for you to know, but I’m a rabid Redskins fan,” something distinctive and therefore memorable.
Whether “So tell me about yourself” comes up or not, the points I’ve made above are adaptable to almost any interviewing situation. Keep them in mind!
*Except in entry-level kinds of situations, don’t just talk about what you managed or were responsible for in your work history. Anyone, good or bad, who holds a particular position can claim with equal validity that they managed or were responsible for something(s)/someone(s). Talk about end results, achievements, accomplishments, demonstrating the value that you’ve created in previous jobs. And then make it clear how those past actions predict positive contributions to your prospective employer.