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Tell me about yourself: how to answer the dreaded interview question

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05/12/2019
Tell me about yourself: how to answer the dreaded interview question

Not all interview questions were created equal. Some are there for the interviewer to extract basic information, like the places you worked for, your previous job scopes, past projects you worked on — these are pretty common interview questions. Some interview questions are objectively more left field, and they are there to test your analytical thinking skills and ability to think on your feet. However, some questions will always come across as being difficult no matter how common it is, such as: Tell me about yourself. 

Self-introductions are hard because most people don’t go around every day thinking about who they are, let alone talking about it to complete strangers. So when you are put on the spot during a job interview, many candidates either clam up with few things to say, say too much or, worse, say too much in the wrong direction. Even given enough time to prepare prior to the interview, it is difficult to summarise all of your experience and skills into one solid and punchy answer. This is on top of the pressure of having to impress the interviewer. 

The good news is that most of us are really overthinking it. Self-introduction, or these tell-me-about-yourself questions, are actually quite simple to answer. All you need is to have a framework to work with, a bareboned scaffolding that will allow you to build relevant, impressive answers on. 

1. Stay specific 

Interviewers generally have a handful of candidates to go through, so staying on point is a good rule of thumb anyway. After all, it is an interview and not a chat over coffee. With that said, your specificity is even more important when asked to introduce yourself. Rather than listing each and every one of your existing skills, which is likely going to overlap heavily with other potential candidates, interviewers generally want to hear concrete examples of your past achievements. 

Part of being specific is also about showing off actual data and results to back your examples up. Dishing out the numbers is a quick and easy way to differentiate yourself from the crowd and to show that you did indeed make a difference to your last company. As such, instead of saying “I have solid social media skills”, say “I was in charge of X social media channels, and I managed to increase engagement by Y% and followers by Z during my time there”. 

2. Give short, punchy answers

All your prior job achievements will be for naught if you take too long to get to the point. In fact, a lot of candidates tend to ramble when they are asked to introduce themselves, which not only fails to impress the interviewer, but it bores them and wastes precious time also. A life story or a thesis is not exactly what they look for here. Instead, all they really need is one good example, then one evidence to support said example. Make sure that, along the way, everything you talk about ties back to your key skills and showcases what you can bring to the table. 

Think about it this way: recall the last time you told a joke to a friend or family member. Every joke is supposed to come with a punchline, or a word, sentence or twist that’s supposed to trigger laughter. A good storyteller will capitalise on the build up to that punchline to make the joke really memorable and funny. On the other hand, if you ramble on, the punchline will get lost and you end up with awkward silence at the dinner table — it’s the same thing here. 

Be concise and succinct with your self-introduction, and predict where the most impressive bits — the punchlines — are. 

3. Build a structure around your answers

When it comes to communication, it is common wisdom that the words themselves are only part of the message. The method of delivery, too, is critical. We mentioned earlier about building a scaffolding to hang your answers on, and this is where it applies. And while there isn’t a fixed scaffolding per se, this is the basic structure we recommend: background, reasoning, then opportunity for follow-up. In this case, the background is basically the ‘What’, the reasoning is the ‘How’ or the ‘Why’, and the opportunity for follow-up is chance for the interviewer to ask more questions. 

The answer will look something like this: (Background) I have more than 10 years of experience in digital marketing, including roles at Company A, B and, most recently, C. I specialise in SEO-based content. When I was the social media manager at Company C, I led a team project that increased the number of engagement by X% and the number of social media followers by Y%. (Reasoning) I am looking for a role that will allow me to apply my skills to an e-commerce platform. I am also really interested in areas X, Y and Z. (Opportunity) That’s how I would describe myself, but what else would you like to know? 

4. Practise, practise, then practise again

In a way, the best part about interview questions based around a self-introduction is the fact that you know it will come up in every interview. This also means that you have more than enough opportunities to prepare for it. Preparation also allows your answer to come across as less rehearsed and more relaxed. Treat this as a presentation of sorts, which most of us have had to give more than once throughout our careers. 

One tip to do so is to record your answer as an audio or video, then play it back for yourself to assess. You will be surprised at how much a recording can reveal about the way we speak and what we are saying. If you need further help, there are resources online that will help you speak even better.

Of course, if recording an audio or video of yourself is intimidating and strange — and it can be very strange indeed to hear your own voice — grab a friend or family member who will be able to give you pointers and feedback. If your self-introduction bores even them, it is most definitely not going to impress an interviewer.