This is a very tricky question because many job seekers interpret it as a reason to recite a long winded history about themselves, from start to finish.
This question will be asked, so there’s no reason not to be 100% prepared for it. In fact, this is one to practice over and over to keep your answer interesting and succinct. The goal is to align your experience with what the job is calling for, but it’s more than that. You want to make yourself look good, but you also want to add some personality and give them something to remember you by. When you realize how many candidates they might be interviewing – potentially many that have an excellent pedigree and are equally qualified — you want to make sure that you stand out.
So, you need to develop a pithy stock answer, and then make sure to tweak it so it is directly applicable to the job for which you are applying.
Here are the three things that most people do wrong:
- Squander your time reiterating your job history. Remember that the interviewer has your resume and has probably read it, so this is your chance to expand on the bare statistics and job titles and really add some color. You also want to beware of going too far back in your history and prattling on about too many different things that don’t directly impact the job you are currently interviewing for.
- Delve into your personal history. Sure you want to show some personality, but that doesn’t mean focusing on personal attributes. This is not the time to volunteer where you grew up or what your first job was because that diverts attention from the messages that you want to leave them with. Also, avoid discussing about your family situation because you don’t want to disqualify yourself by volunteering information that might turn them against you. For example, talking about where you currently live can inject questions about whether you are going to get stuck in traffic. Mentioning your kids immediately can make them inadvertently wonder if you’re going to be home with sick kids, or leaving early for elementary school pickup. Mentioning that your husband travels for work makes them immediately picture you as the sole parent helping with homework — and missing crucial after-dinner networking opportunities.
- Ask “What do you want to know?” Part of the reason the interviewer asks this open-ended question is to see how you think and how you answer. If you ask them what they want to know, you are making them do the work and showing that you are not a creative thinker.
It’s easy to say what NOT to do. But what are some things you should do? Everyone likes a good story, so the best way to answer this question is to tell vignettes and stories that illustrate your experience and expertise.
Here are the top three concepts to include:
- Highlight your most impressive successes at your most recent position. Here is where you can use a vignette to describe something you’re proud of, rather than just reciting statistics or numbers. For example, if you are applying for a position that requires interacting with lots of clients, highlight a great example of your client service. You could say, “One of my biggest successes at my last position was earning the trust of a long-standing customer who had been reluctant to work with someone new. They appreciated my service ethic, my attention to detail and my persistence, and eventually we were able to grow that account even more than my predecessor.” An answer like this not only underscores your career success but can help alleviate an underlying fear that veteran customers might balk at a new relationship.
- Talk about why your interests and experiences align exactly with the position for which you are interviewing. This is where you directly address the specific duties that are called for in the job description as you have read it. Is working with big cross-departmental teams an important facet of this job? Even if that wasn’t the crux of your previous positions, you can discuss a time when you did that so that you underscore your experience in this area, even if it’s not something that’s specifically highlighted on your resume.
- A positive mention from a client or supervisor. If you can, casually insert an accolade from your colleagues or clients. That can be a wonderful way to show that someone else values your work. Hopefully they will speak to your references, but proactively offering kudos underscores what you’re saying about yourself. For example, referring back to the client service example, you could say “I was especially pleased that my supervisor made a point of acknowledging that my hard work helped save a key account.”
After giving your three or so minute “elevator speech,” take a moment to pause and see how the interviewer responds. Chances are good that they will follow-up on what you said and ask another leading question. But if they look at you expectantly without making a statement or moving on, add another detail or two. Again, no answer? Ask if they have any questions. Chances are they will then move on. Beware of prattling on and on. Sometimes an interview trick is to see what you do if they don’t say anything, so after you’ve made your case, it’s fine to stop.
Look at this question as a gift. You know it’s coming, and you are able to control the answer by steering the conversation where you want it to go. By telling the story that you want to tell, complete with personality and vivid examples, you are setting the tone for the interview and portraying the confident vibe that makes you a winner.
by Cathie Ericson