How To Answer The Question ‘Tell Me About Yourself!’

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Job-seekers know they’re going to be hit with the Big Three traditional, brainless questions at nearly every job interview. The Big Three questions are:
  1. What’s your greatest weakness?
  2. With so many talented candidates, why should we hire you? and
  3. Where do you see yourself in five years?

These are all stupid questions, but most job-seekers know how to answer them by now. One question that still throws job-seekers for a loop is the question “So, tell me about yourself!”

It isn’t a question, of course – it’s a request or command. In this column, we’re calling it a question.  However we classify “Tell me about yourself!,” you’ve got to have something intelligent to say when you hear it.

Often, it’s the very first question you’ll get as the interview begins.

What do you say when they ask you to talk about yourself? You could start with your childhood, like this:

“I grew up about ten miles from here. My parents had a farm. I studied Mechanical Engineering in college and over the past ten years became a Product Engineer.”

You could talk about where you are now in your career, like this:

“I’m an Online Marketing person, with a focus on ecommerce sites and online merchandising.”

When you’re asked to talk about yourself, you have no idea what the interviewer is looking for. Have they read your resume, or are they asking you to talk about yourself so they don’t have to read your resume? Most job-seekers find “Tell me about yourself” a hard question to answer, if only because you don’t know how much of your story the interviewer wants to hear.

Here’s how we coach Human Workplace clients to handle “Tell me about yourself.” You’ll start your story with a very short answer we call an Answerette. Then, you’ll switch gears and get to the meat of the matter – the reason you’re there at the interview in the first place.

You are there to learn about the Business Pain lurking behind the job ad. We call this technique Spinning the Table. The interviewer asks you a question (“Tell me about yourself”) and you’re going to turn it around to begin asking questions of him or her, instead.

You have a mission! You aren’t asking questions just for fun. You want to find out what the job is really about — beyond the basic blah blah blah described in the job ad. You want to find out where the pain is, because once you’ve got the hiring manager talking about his or her pain, the conversation can go to a completely different place.

Once you’re talking like humans about real Business Pain and solutions, you’re in a consulting conversation. At that point you’re as different from the typical Sheepie Job Seeker as could  be. You’re going to make an impression on a hiring manager then, and just as importantly, you’re going to see whether this person is someone you could work for, or not.

Will the hiring manager be comfortable with you Spinning the Table? That remains to be seen. If you use the technique I’m about to describe and the hiring manager doesn’t like it, you can back off and go back to answering his or her questions. Or, you can conclude “This is not the job for me” and politely excuse yourself to go find a nice gelato.

Only the people that get you, deserve you!

Here’s how Spinning the Table works. The interviewer will ask you the “Tell me about yourself” question. You’ll begin to answer with a brief Answerette and then pause. You’ll ask the interviewer if it’s okay for you to ask a question about the open position. You’ll have a Pain Hypothesis ready — don’t ever go to a job interview without a Pain Hypothesis! You’ve got to have an idea of what’s keeping this manager up at night.

JIM, A MANAGER: So, Lynda, please tell me about yourself!

LYNDA, A JOB-SEEKER: Sure. I started out in Sales and became a Marketing Manager about six years ago. My approach to Marketing really springs from what I’ve seen that works to get customers interested — I see Marketing as priming the pump for the sales process. Jim, can I ask you a quick question about this Online Marketing Manager role?

JIM: Sure.

LYNDA: I see that you’ve really expanded your online presence over the past year. It’s impressive — you’ve got sixty thousand Likes on your Facebook page, for instance, which is something a lot of companies your size would envy.

JIM: We do? That’s great. Our Social Media Coordinator, Brittany, is really good at that stuff.

LYNDA: I’m curious how your online marketing feeds into the sales process now. How do you see that intersection?

Lynda’s Pain Hypothesis is that Jim is willing to invest the cash to hire an Online Marketing Manager now because new-customer inquiries are decreasing. Jim’s company is private, so Lynda couldn’t find any sales figures online, but she notices that all of the product reviews she can find are two to three years old.

The company’s Facebook page with 60K likes is only nine months old. Somebody got the memo that said ‘Social and mobile are where your customers are’ is Lynda’s guess. Still, are all those Likes on Facebook translating to sales leads? Lynda intends to find out. She wants to learn more about the Business Pain Jim is facing, so she’s about to spring her Pain Hypothesis on him.

JIM: That’s a great question. We’re new to online marketing. We haven’t really been involved in social media until this year. Brittany’s social media projects are the first volley in that campaign, you might say. We’ve been very focused on things like Facebook Likes —

LYNDA: — and waiting for them to turn into sales leads, maybe? That’s a common issue.

JIM: That’s it! Sixty thousand Likes is a lot, but we also give away samples in exchange for Likes and do all kinds of contests. The intersection isn’t quite there yet — that’s high on our list of 2015 priorities.

LYNDA: And how do you see that priority becoming real, Jim? How do you envision that bridge being built, between social media presence and Facebook Likes, and actual sales in the door?

JIM: Ah, there’s the rub, eh? What are your ideas?

LYNDA: (That’s it! That’s the big pain point. Jim has invested whatever he’s paying Brittany, and not seeing an uptick in sales. He’s willing to hire one more person — me, potentially – to build the bridge that will take his audience from clicking LIKE on a Facebook page to ordering something.)  Great question! This is always fun for me. I have ten thousand questions to ask you, to help me understand where the break is occurring. Sixty thousand Likes on  nine-month-old Facebook page is a lot, Jim. People know who your company is. They just don’t have enough pain to place an order, or they don’t see why they need your product. That’s my expertise — figuring out why that is and solving the problem. It could be that your Facebook page is currently reaching people who will never be your customers.

It might be that folks don’t understand how your products could help them, or it might be that they’re getting a lot of good stuff from you guys already, for free, so they think there’s no need to buy.

JIM: I sometimes feel that way! We give away so much.

LYNDA: That becomes addictive on both sides of the equation. If Brittany is recognized and rewarded for getting more Likes on the Facebook page, she’ll have more incentive to give away free stuff and your customers will have even less incentive to plunk their money down.

JIM: How many sales leads would you say we should have had from those sixty thousand Likes?

LYNDA: One percent would be six hundred. How many leads do you typically convert, as a percentage?

JIM: About thirty-five percent.

LYNDA: So that’s about two hundred new customers. How large is the average sale?

JIM About eight hundred dollars.

LYNDA: So what’s the number, then, of sales that are left on the table right now, unrealized?

JIM: You mean eight hundred times two hundred? Geez, that’s a hundred and sixty thousand. I could use those sales this quarter.

LYNDA: We should keep talking, in that case.

What happened in this interview? The power dynamic completely shifted. Lynda helped Jim rise out of “I’m the manager, and I’ll ask the questions” mode to become a guy with a problem — Lynda’s favorite type of person to meet! Lynda only did the same thing she’s done hundreds of times with internal and external customers.

She asked questions. She didn’t offer solutions. She showed Jim a path, instead — she showed him enough of her process to let him know that she knows what she’s doing.

Most job candidates wouldn’t have the nerve to Spin the Table the way Lynda did. They’d sit in the chair like a good little Sheepie Job Seeker and answer Jim’s “tell me about yourself” question in the conventional, sheepie way.

Lynda doesn’t play like that. She’s been around the block. She knows that if she can’t get a person to lift the veil and talk about his or her problems, she can’t help them anyway. In this case, Jim knew that he had a wise counselor in his office, so he dove right into the conversation. The managers who can do that are the ones you want to work for.

Try this at your next job interview!


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