YOU knew it was coming, right? The big question asked in just about every interview. You have the chance to tell all there is to know about you and your successful career.

Often, it is the only opportunity to create a lasting positive impression. You don’t want to blow it right at the beginning. Your answer can set the tone for the remainder of the interview and, quite possibly, be the deciding factor in whether you come back or not.

Interestingly enough, this question has eluded even the most successful job seeker. All his credentials are in place and his experience level matches the position.

The hiring manager and our job seeker meet, pleasantries are exchanged, then comes the big question, “So tell me about yourself.”

Our friend decides to launch into a blow-by-blow chronological review of his career path. The hiring manager nearly falls asleep while listening to this long-winded recap of his career.

Does this sound at all familiar to you? Have you caught yourself spending way too much time answering this question?

It’s so easy to answer the big question by describing each job you have held from the beginning of your career to the present day. You figure the more you tell, the more you increase your odds of getting to the next stage.

Simply not true.

What are interviewers looking for?

First, they are not looking for your ability to memorise your entire career path from cutting grass all the way to chief executive officer. They just don’t care about every single job you have held. They want to get to know you as a person. They want to know if you have the personality it takes to handle the job.

Your experience, education and other qualifications play a significant role in the hiring decision, but it is still very much based on the personal opinion of the interviewer.

This question is aimed at drawing out your personality so the interviewer can tell if you are a match for the environment and culture of his company. Often, his instinct decides who will proceed further in the interview stage or eventually get the job offer.

Put yourself in the interviewer’s shoes

Imagine sitting across the table from someone who spouts off their entire professional career journey when you ask them this question. Might this affect your decision about hiring this person or recommending him for a second interview?

Now, imagine interviewing 10 or 15 people and everyone answers this question the same way — telling you their life story. Doesn’t sound much fun, does it?

So, how do you answer the big question? Here are two methods that take a different approach:

•  Answer with your 30- to 60-second commercial: This is also known as your “elevator speech”, modified for an interview. Begin with a short introduction describing a title or speciality. Continue with short statements about your unique abilities and talents. Then finish with comments about your interest in working for the company in this role.

An example of this might be:

“I’m a senior project manager specialising in complex technology installations. I have extensive experience in working with multiple departments, including international offices, and getting them to communicate with one common language.

“My experiences working with Fortune 1000 companies taught me to deal with highly stressful situations and deliver a quality project at the same time. I see a great opportunity to share my expertise within your company, particularly since you have ventured out beyond the borders of the United States.”

•  Talk about your unique skills: Unique skills are exceptional abilities that others in your field may not have or haven’t perfected as well as you. These skills separate you from all the other interviewees.

Express your unique skills with descriptive words or short phrases that tell a story. For instance, one of your unique skills might be “expert in dealing with difficult employees”.

Think about two or three unique skills applicable for any interview when asked this question. Your dialogue here might go like this:

“Throughout my career as a human resources professional, I’ve perfected two highly unique skills. I’m an expert at dealing with difficult employees and know how to build highly effective teams.

“I’ve been challenged several times throughout my career dealing with employee performance issues. In every case, I’m able to quickly stabilise the employee’s emotions, understand the problem and coach him through a solution.

“I’ve also had the opportunity to teach several managers how to build and manage high-performance teams. I’m skilled at teaching managers at any level how to identify top talent in the interview stage. From my research on your company, I think I can offer a unique approach to your human resources organisation.”

When you are asked the big question, resist the temptation to launch into a complete diary of your career experiences. Hiring managers don’t have the time or patience to hear your life story.

Instead, boil down your answer to a powerful expression of who you are, what you can do and how you are the best fit for the job. Now go ahead — tell them about yourself.


Article by Frank Traditi, co-author of Get Hired Now! He is a career strategist, small business marketing consultant, speaker and 20-year veteran of Fortune 500 companies holding executive management, career services, sales, customer service and training positions.