“Tell me about yourself.” One of the most common interview questions. Often, a question you get asked in a networking situation.
An open-ended question like that can lead you in so many directions. What do you want to tell the other person? What is the purpose of the two of you meeting? I got thinking about how I might answer that question.
I could say that I am married and I have four kids. I am proud that I have been married for nearly 35 years to the same woman (and amazed that she still puts up with me after all that time). I have great kids. In the end, this family that I helped create is really my true legacy. That’s one answer.
I could give my job history. I could provide a short statement of the companies I worked for, the job titles I held and some responsibilities.
I could talk about my interests. I write a weekly blog on careers. I am a runner. I am a life-long learner, most interested in how people make decisions and the biases we don’t know we have.
Any of those responses might make a connection with the other person. Or they might not
Turn that question around
Rather than answer that query with whatever strikes you, turn around your perspective. What if you spent some time thinking about how your answer could best serve THE OTHER PERSON? What insight can you give them that might help them understand you better? Giving the other person something to work from, rather than a recitation of some history, helps them.
Here is one idea. Remember that for the other person, you are mostly a blank slate, perhaps augmented by some assumptions they have made. Start with some of the best things YOU DO. This helps them see where you shine. It starts to fill that blank slate in. In addition, you have started the discussion at a place where you shine the most.
A similar idea is to start with three adjectives that describe you and provide a brief example of that adjective in action. Connecting those adjectives to something the other person needs, creates a dialogue. In the context of an interview, I have helped the other person understand how I might help them meet a need or overcome a challenge. In the case of a networking conversation, I have helped the other person know how they can help me. Let me expand on each.
“Tell me about yourself” in an Interview
What you have done at your jobs is interesting, but may not be relevant to the job you are interviewing for. It may be a fact that you were a “software engineer at XYZ Company for five years who assisted customers with use of our software & resolved issues requiring back end access”. But if that activity is not almost exactly the same (in the interviewer’s mind) as the requirements for this job, it is not helpful.
“I was a financial analyst assessing and hedging currencies to protect company profitability” might be true. Unless the other person is look for that skill, you have not opened up much of a conversation.
But what if you started with something different? “I find that when asked that question, the best I can do is help you understand what makes me tick. So, I want to tell you about three characteristics that describe me and give you an example of each. First, I am organized. I find that spending a little time before a meeting prepping myself on the issues at hand and what I know about potential options makes me more productive. Second, I am . . .”
Keep it short. Much more than a minute long and you lose the other person’s interest. Think about what you learned in high school or college: “tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them and remind them what you told them about”. Repetition is not bad when it helps learning. Also make sure it matches the other person’s need.
“Tell me about yourself” in a Networking conversation
Networking conversations can be so awkward. We typically don’t want to ask the person for a job, or ask them if they know any jobs in our field of interests. Either of those puts them on the spot. Sometimes the networking contact is someone we don’t know. If we can help them understand what we can do, perhaps we help them help us.
An “elevator speech” might be one approach. But to be honest, they sound canned. They sound like you are reciting some poem you had to learn in grade school. High on the “buzz words” factor, but low on true usable content.
Try a similar approach of highlighting your strengths. “Thanks for asking. Let me tell you a little about three things that characterize me. I would be interested after you hear them what you think might be a good approach for me going forward. First, I am organized, etc.”
In this case, I told the person what I am going to tell them about. AND, I told them what I am hoping them to get from them (“I would be interested…”). This helps them understand what they should be listening for.
Keep this in mind
The other person may have a good reason for asking “Tell me about yourself”. They want to see how you respond. They want to know are you a short answer or a long answer person.
There is an equal chance the person has NO good reason for asking that question. They aren’t very good at interviewing or networking. They often use it as an opener (just like we often see someone and say “what’s new?”).
So don’t try to read too much into that question. Your preparation with a concise, meaningful answer will refelct well on you.