60% of Interviewers decide on a candidate in the first 5-15 minutes. This is what makes the “Tell Me About Yourself” question the most important question you will ever answer in an interview. This is the time to communicate your passion for this specific opportunity, highlight how you are uniquely qualified, and demonstrate your ability to communicate in a structured and powerful manner.
In this post, we will share a mental model and framework you can use to structure and synthesize a powerful story that enhances your candidacy and increases your chances of landing the job.
Let us start with how most candidates approach this question. They typically do one of two things – they either:
- Glance down at their resume. They go through it line by line and ultimately give the interviewer no real new information. OR
- They start to piece together a story real-time and ask themselves “what do I include?”, “what do I leave out?”, and “where do I start?”
Both of these approaches leave much to be desired as the interviewer is left with an incomplete picture and does not fully understand why you took each step in your career journey. Instead, the interviewer is left with the unenviable task of trying to piece together different pieces of the puzzle of your career.
So, the interviewer applies their own pattern recognition, having looked at other candidates, and as a result, you do not distinguish yourself from the competition.
So, How Do You Ace This Question
The “Hook” is the first part of the answer and will take up 10-20% of your answer.
This is the essence of your professional DNA. 2 aspects of your hook to consider are:
1. What you do.
Let us take the example of a project manager. What you do in this role includes:
- Facilitating problem-solving conversations with different stakeholders (e.g., marketing, finance, product engineering)
- Tackling big conceptual problems and disaggregating them into smaller manageable parts.
- Daily execution and process management to ensure each team is meeting their meeting milestones.
Let us take another example – this time, one of a marketer. What you do as a marketer can include:
- Empathizing and connecting with your customer to understand their needs
- Translating these insights into campaign strategies, which ultimately drive sales for your organization
2. Why you do it.
This is important because it signals your motivation in doing your job. For example if you are in healthcare, maybe your “why” is having an impact on people’s quality of life. Another example could be if you are in the transportation sector, your “why” could be connecting the world and bringing the latest technologies to bear to improve speed and quality of travel.
CORE CHAPTERS OF YOUR CAREER
This is the second part of your answer and where you will spend roughly 60-70% of your time. You can frame this part of the answer either chronologically or functionally
Let us start with an example.
Let us assume you have been in the I.T. industry for 15 years and you have had seven roles. You do not want to describe every role in detail. Instead, it is better to “chunk” your story in two to four chapters. The reason it should be two to four is the same reason why Social Security numbers are chunked up into two to four digits at a time — it makes it easier to remember. So in this example, you can frame up your career narrative into 3 chapters:
- Chapter 1 (The Foundation): This chapter can focus on the building blocks – maybe in terms of core technologies or understanding the IT management more broadly. Or, often people start with a helpdesk role, and this can be discussed in terms of getting very close to the most critical challenges the end consumer faces — so you show you have a deep understanding of the client.
- Chapter 2 (Early Leadership): It is common for the next step to be early forays into team leadership — either with a form management role or leading the charge on an initiative without formally having direct reports.
- Chapter 3 (Amplifying Impact): The next step could be about expanding beyond I.T. and playing a leadership role for other business functions. An example could be helping the marketing team build out their own technology capabilities.
What you are looking to do with this chronological framing is show the growth in your roles and capabilities, so it is clear how you can bring those experiences to bear as you take the next leap in your career — which could be the job you are interviewing for.
Another way to frame the chapters of your career is to do it functionally instead of chronologically. This approach is especially helpful if your career has not followed a linear trajectory and it will be difficult for the interviewer to understand why you made the changes you did.
In this case, it can be compelling to frame up the distinct functions you worked on as opposed to the timing of when you worked on them.
A functional example could look like the following: “I have spent my career working in 3 areas…”
- “The first was marketing where I gained experience in understanding the voice of the customer and how to connect my company’s value proposition with that customer.
- “Second, I have had roles in communications, which is where I learned to fine tune language, build stories, and create narratives that resonate with a diverse set of audiences”. And when you talk about this communication chapter you can connect it with the marketing chapter because there is an overlap
- “The third chapter of my career was working on investor relations and this is where I honed some of the “Voice of Customer” skills I got in marketing as well as the storytelling and narrative skills I got in communication, and I applied that to investor relations where the stakeholders were a bit different and the stakes were higher.”
Taking the time to connect the discrete functions of what you have done and how they relate can be a compelling way to present your candidacy without having to explain away or defend the nonlinearity of your career.
Now that we have the hook in place and the core chapters of your career articulated, the third and final part of the answer is the pitch. This is where you want to answer three core questions:
- Why this job?
- Why now?
- Why this company?
Let us go back to our earlier “functional approach” example of a candidate who had a combination of marketing experience, communication experience, and investor relations experience. Let us assume this candidate was applying for a marketing for a healthcare company. The way this candidate could frame up their pitch and potentially differentiate themselves from candidates who only have experience in marketing is to say:
- [Why this job] “I am very excited about the opportunity to combine my deep marketing skills with my communication experience where I really learned how to fine-tune language, and the experience I bring to bear from the Investor Relations space were I understood how to speak to different audiences when the stakes are very high” [Similarly. stakes are very high in healthcare and now you are connecting aspects of the job in a unique way]
- [Why now] “And I’m excited about doing this now because the healthcare industry is at a unique inflection point where technology is evolving very rapidly. And for me, this is a unique time to actually play a role in the healthcare sector.”
- [Why this company] “I am particularly excited about your company because I think you are doing some of the most innovative things in this sector and I am excited about making a difference with this company”
- Be synthesized. This does not mean being brief for the sake of brevity, but rather it means being very purposeful and deliberate about the most salient aspects of your candidacy that you want to articulate and tying those aspects to impact. You are going to tell your story in roughly three minutes. So be very smart about what it is you share and even smarter about what you leave out.
- Demonstrate clarity. A strong sense of clarity will help the interviewer internalize your story. However, clarity does not mean sharing all the details of your story as this leads to a lack of synthesis, as your story becomes long-winded. And all those details leave the interviewer with an information overload, and they miss out on the most important aspects of your story.
- Include sound bites. Think about two to three sound bites that you want the interviewer to leave the interview with. Because ultimately when they walk out of the interview what they are going to remember is a handful of sound bites and that is what they will share with their colleagues, hiring managers, and H.R. So think about what the sound bites might be and make sure they are a part of your narrative. Importantly, think about the sound bites that are going to distinguish you from the competition.