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“Tell Me About Yourself” Doesn’t Mean “Tell It All”

By Arlene S. Hirsch

When an interviewer asked a systems engineer to "tell me about yourself," he felt well-prepared to answer. After all, he'd been a professional for more than two decades and could recite the ups and downs of his career in great detail.

Perhaps too much detail.

The engineer was only halfway through a chronological explanation of his work history when the interviewer interrupted him to ask another question. The engineer was upset that he hadn't described several important accomplishments. Reflecting back, he realizes he could have been more succinct. He also should have grabbed the interviewer's attention at the beginning by saying something more memorable than where he grew up and why he majored in engineering.

If an interviewer gives you the stage in this way, understand that responding is trickier than you think. The following tips can help you provide a memorable and effective description.

1. Start with the end in sight.

Despite the deceptive phrasing, the directive, "Tell me about yourself," isn't a polite request for your life story. What the interviewer wants to know is, "Why should I hire you?" Knowing this, your goal is to craft a convincing statement that will make the interviewer want to know more about you and what you can do for the company.

To prepare, you must develop a response tailored to the specific employer and addressing its interests, goals, and needs. You should revise, refine and rehearse your script until you can deliver it flawlessly -- with energy, enthusiasm and confidence.

2. Take the time to establish rapport.

When interviewers invite you to tell them about yourself, they're asking you to step into the spotlight, a place where extroverts and natural performers shine but where introverts can become anxious, tongue-tied and self-conscious.

If you don't feel comfortable in the limelight, look at the situation in a different way. Rather than delivering an oratorical performance, focus on establishing an emotional bond with your interviewer. Here's where body language can make a difference: Smile, make eye contact, lean toward and talk to and not at your listener.

3. Sketch the big picture.

Experienced candidates should focus on the big picture first so that interviewers will place later information in the proper context. Start by providing an overview that allows them to see your career in total. Example: "Why don't I start with the big picture? As you can see from my resume, I have more than 15 years of experience in sales, marketing and general management, primarily in consumer products. The majority of that time was in the food-and-beverage industry. Thanks to my experiences at ________ and _________, I have an in-depth knowledge of the domestic and international marketplace for the food and beverage industries."

4. Focus.

After you sketch the big picture, talk about specific experiences that are most relevant and interesting to an interviewer. Your research can pay off here. Learning as much as you can about the industry, employer and job (via the job description) allows you to zero in on your most relevant qualifications and experiences.

A senior communications manager experienced in marketing, public relations and event management knew that a prospective employer, a nonprofit, was well known in the Latino community for a successful annual conference. In previous years, major politicians and government officials had been keynote speakers.

While preparing her tell-me-about-yourself statement, the communications manager decided to focus on three major experiences:

<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>her success in marketing and promoting high-visibility events;

<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>her high-profile experience working on political campaigns; and

<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>her experience with the Latino community.

However, she didn't use a chronological approach since these experiences happened at different points in her career.

5. Showcase your communication skills.

Most interviewers observe how you organize and present information about yourself. If your recent experience is most relevant, detail your accomplishments in reverse chronological order, giving less emphasis to your first few jobs. Conversely, if your most relevant experiences happened in the middle of your career, you may want to start your description at that point.

Assume, for example, that your first love is training, but recently you've spent more time working as a general human-resource manager. When interviewing for a training position, your tell-me-about-yourself statement might start: "Since training is my first love and one of my core strengths, I'll start by telling you about my training experience and accomplishments. While I was working at _________, I put together a very successful management-training program that received rave reviews from participants..."

6. Highlight the benefits you'll bring to the employer.

A job search is a self-marketing campaign. Experienced marketing experts say to stress a product's benefits to the customer rather than its features, which could well be nifty but the customer might not need them. In a job search, you're the product. Toward that end, orient any discussion of your skills and experiences toward showing how they can benefit your future employer.

Example: "From the job description, it sounds to me like you're looking for someone who has strong project-management skills. My greatest accomplishment as a project manager was at _____________." From there you can describe the goals of the project, what you did to attain them and the subsequent results.

7. Spotlight the positive.

Never say anything negative about yourself or previous employers. If you decide to highlight earlier experiences instead of a more recent role, be sure to present all your jobs in a positive light. To do that, emphasize how and why your later experiences enhanced your abilities and scope.

For instance, after describing her training accomplishments, the HR executive might follow up by discussing how her success as a manager has given her a better understanding of organizational needs and naturally enhanced her credibility and performance as a trainer.

8. Provide details.

Don't expect interviewers to take your story on faith alone. Have specific examples ready to illustrate your skills. For example, to emphasize your problem-solving ability, describe a problem you faced in a past job, what actions you took to resolve it and the result of those actions. Whenever possible, choose a problem that's similar to those the prospective employer might face. To determine the type of challenge you might be asked to correct, refer to the job description or, lacking that, ask the employer to describe the position so that you can focus your presentation effectively.

9. Disclose personal information cautiously.

When it comes to disclosing personal information, there's no right answer. It depends on two factors: whether you feel comfortable using personal details and what you plan to accomplish by doing so. While disclosing personal information can be a good icebreaker and rapport-builder, it also can backfire. You never know how an employer will process that information. Will a hiring manager be glad to know you're a family man or worry that you won't be free to travel or work long hours?

Keep the purpose of the conversation in mind. Whenever possible, mention personal information strategically. For example, an executive who's interviewing for a job with a toy manufacturer might share anecdotal information about his children's experience with the manufacturer's toys. An executive who knows that a job requires extensive international travel could share about his or her personal travel experiences.

10. Finish strong.

When should you return the floor to the interviewer? Use nonverbal signs as your cue. If an interviewer seems restless and bored, ask for feedback about your presentation: "Is this what you want to hear? Or is there something else that you'd like me to focus on?" This allows the interviewer to change the flow of communication and establishes a two-way dialogue.

If the interviewer remains attentive, you'll have more leeway in how you wrap up. The best way to end your statement is to put the conversational ball in the interviewer's court by saying why you're interested in the company and position and asking for more information about current needs. Listen attentively to the response to determine what parts of your experience and accomplishments to mention as the interview progresses.

Ms. Hirsch is a career counselor in Chicago and author of several books on career issues, including "How to Be Happy at Work" (Jist Publishing, 2003).

From CareerJournal November 2004