Why Talking About Yourself Can Torpedo a Job Interview

Many job candidates are given bad advice. They’re told to write out their accomplishments and practice them so they’re ready to respond to the oft-answered question: “Tell me about yourself.” Then they proceed to babble on and on and on.

The Real Question

The subtext behind the question really is: “Tell me about yourself and what you can do for my department and company.” It’s all about the benefits you bring to the table. Think of a job interview as a presentation or sales pitch. You don’t want to simply read the entire menu, but choose those “entrees” that will whet the interviewer’s appetite to hear more.

But how do you know what those are? You do it by learning everything you can about the company:

  • What business are they in?
  • Are they expanding or cutting staff?
  • What is going on in their business sector?
  • Who are their biggest competitors?
  • What are their products?
  • Have you used any of them?
  • What is the culture like and will you fit in?
  • Who do you know in the company who can give you the inside scoop?

Once you’ve done your homework, tailor your talking points to their business. The job description and your research should give you a good idea of what they are looking for in a candidate.

The Interview

You don’t need to feel trapped by the open-ended question, “Tell me about yourself.” Be ready to respond, “I’ll be happy to do that, but I’d like to tailor my response to the position and how my experience and skill sets will fit what you’re looking for. Could you be a little more specific?” Then be ready with your key messages that answer his specific question.

Suppose the interviewer doesn’t want to be more specific and you’re interviewing for a job in the fashion business. You could say, “I’ve always been a fan of your designs. I visited Bloomingdale’s to look through your fall line and also saw what your competitors are offering. In my last position, I managed the marketing campaign for our new line, and this is how I did it…”

Weave in how that experience makes you the perfect candidate for the job.

Try to keep your answers short and to the point. Get the other person talking. That’s the secret to a successful interview. You’re not giving a speech – you’re having a conversation.

When you enter the room, find something to comment on – a beautiful photo on her desk, or an award plaque on the wall. These are excellent icebreakers.

Also prepare for what we call “squirmer” questions. These are the questions you’d rather not hear because they make you squirm with discomfort. These could include:

  • Why are you out of work?
  • Why did you really leave your last job?
  • How much money are you looking for?
  • Are you prepared to take a cut in salary?

Don’t fudge the truth. It will only hurt your chances.

Going for an Internal Promotion

So far, we’ve focused on a candidate who is entirely new to an organization. But if you already work for a company and are seeking a promotion, you’ve got to show that you’re the right person for the job, too.

Line up your internal advocates and have them prepared to provide glowing references for you. Coach them in what to say. You may already work there, but do you know everything you need to know about the position you’re applying for?

Talk to other people in the department to uncover their needs and where you can fill the gaps with your experience. Don’t expect the interviewer to know all about you.

We worked with one executive who simply couldn’t articulate what she did. While she was very good at her job, she lacked the confidence to seek a new position. After 15 years with one firm, she just couldn’t articulate her many accomplishments.

Two of the most beautiful words in any language are, “for example…” People like to hear stories. The interviewer may actually lean in to hear what you say next. So be ready with examples, anecdotes and case studies that are results-oriented.

What to Wear

We shouldn’t have to remind you – but we will! – that you should dress appropriately. If you are interviewing with a Fortune 500 company where men wear suits and ties and women tailored outfits, then that’s what you should wear.

On the other hand, if you are interviewing for a social media startup, the dress code is likely to be quite informal. The interviewer might be uncomfortable if he is in jeans and a sweatshirt and you show up in a dark suit and a rep tie.

However, it’s still important to be respectful and you’ll earn points if your hair is combed, you wear clean, pressed pants and shirt with a casual sports jacket. Women should never wear a skirt that is too short or a blouse that reveals too much cleavage. No workplace is that informal.

If possible, wear something that the company makes. I actually borrowed a friend’s Bulgari watch and wore it when working with the head of the company. Yes, he noticed!

Job interviews are stressful, but you can’t get a job without one. So consider getting professional coaching to sharpen what you will say and to get advice on what to wear. With preparation and practice you can nail the interview. Remember, though, that it’s all about them and not you.

Never leave without asking for feedback. “Is there anything else about me you need to know?”

And always, always send a thank-you note, summarizing your key message points along with any other information the interviewer asked you for. Doing these seemingly “little things” help give you the competitive edge.

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