"So, tell me a little about yourself."
Almost every job interview starts with this question and, in almost every case, the answer is a missed opportunity.
When confronted with this request, most job seekers simply summarize their education, job history, and current situation—all information that the interviewer already knows from reading the resume. What a waste!
Instead, use this inevitable request as an excuse to tell a brief but memorable story about yourself, a story that explains, heart to heart, why you're right for the job.
What the Question Really Means
Before answering this request, it is important to understand why it is being asked. To understand the psychology of the situation, it is useful to think of the job interview as a sales call. The interviewer is a potential buyer and you (or rather your services) are what's being bought (hopefully).
Whenever a buyer and seller meet for the first time, the buyer has three questions that must be answered before the sale can move forward, according to Mike Bosworth, author of the classic best seller "Solution Selling" (McGraw Hill, 1994) and the newly published "What Great Salespeople Do" (McGraw Hill, 2011). These questions are:
1. Who is this person?
2. What does this person want?
3. Can I trust this person?
Indeed, the reason interviewers open with "tell me about yourself" is because they want to get a sense of who you really are (beyond what it says on your resume), what you really want (beyond what it says on your cover letter), and whether or not you are trustworthy. They want a sense of your character.
A recitation of facts does nothing to answer these questions, other than to prove that you didn't lie so flagrantly on your resume that you forgot what you wrote. What's worse, a recitation ignores what's really going on. The interviewer wants to "feel comfortable" with the idea of hiring you, and that is an emotion rather than a logical conclusion. Once the interviewer wants you emotionally, your resume can help provide the logic.
The Power of Story
Human beings are natural storytellers. Among the earliest human artifacts are cave paintings that tell stories about life, death and survival, and the first use of the written word was to record stories for posterity.
Storytelling is literally a part of our DNA. Most people are familiar with the concept that the brain has two halves: the left hemisphere, which deals with facts and numbers, and the right hemisphere, which deals with emotions.
Stories (unlike facts) communicate emotions via a mechanism called a "mirror neuron," which fires both when an animal acts and when the animal observes an action performed by another.
In other words, the emotion you feel while telling a story, echoes in the listener's right hemisphere, causing them to feel that same emotion. Stories give you the opportunity to create "emotional rapport" with the interviewer.
A story puts the storyteller and the listener in the same place and thus has the potential, during a job interview, to answer the three key questions, on an emotional level. Just as importantly, emotions tend to stick in one's memory even when facts are long forgotten.
In short, if you tell the right story at the right time, interviewers will "just feel good" about you, regardless of how many other candidates they interview. "The great challenge of selling is making an emotional connection with the buyer," says Bosworth.
How to Prepare Your Story
Here's how to prepare your story before your interview, based upon a series of in-depth conversations with Bosworth and his co-author Ben Zoldan:
Step #1: Select the Right Story
Obviously, you don't want to tell just any story; you want a story that will help make you the favored candidate.
To do this, first review the job description, your research into the hiring firm's needs, and your research into the interviewer's career and background. Then, reminisce about your experiences to find a story or anecdote that, when you're done telling it, will leave the desired impression.
For example, suppose you're interviewing for a job where sales reps don't have much sales support and must take responsibility for all stages of the sales process. Find a time in your background where you successfully worked a sale from beginning to end or perhaps when you were otherwise responsible for a sale's success despite a lack of sales support.
Step #2: Create a Brief Setup
Every great story begins with three elements:
1. A person who is going to do something (i.e., you)
2. A place where the action will happen
3. A time that anchors the story in the real world
It adds emotion (and therefore memorability) if you briefly flesh out these elements. Here are some examples:
-"Back when I was just getting started out in sales, I was living in Phoenix, where the summers were so hot that you could literally fry an egg on the sidewalk."
-"About five years ago, I had an inside sales job, working inside a huge cubicle farm."
-"I was in New York City a month ago, right during rush hour. It was raining, so it was impossible to get a cab."
Step #3: Identify the Goal, the Obstacle, the Decision, and the Outcome
Every memorable story has a plot, which consists of four elements:
1. A goal that must be achieved
2. An obstacle that prevents the goal from being achieved
3. A decision that makes it possible to achieve the goal
4. A result that comes about because you made that decision
For example, suppose you're telling a story that is intended to leave the impression that you're a self-starter who's motivated no matter what. The goal in this case might be a big sale, the obstacle might be a particularly difficult customer, and the decision might be what you did to help that customer make a decision. In turn, the result might be a bigger order than your original forecast (i.e. the goal.).
Important: Don't tell a story that makes you out to be some kind of superhero. Ideally, your story should include obstacles that you overcome as the result of your character and resilience.
How to Tell Your Story
When it comes to actually telling your story, there are two crucial rules:
Rule #1: Signal that you're going to tell a story.
Don't just leap into your story. Instead, introduce it with a conversational ploy, like "Can I tell you a story about that?" or "I've got a story for you that answers that question."
This is important for reasons that aren't immediately apparent. While it appears as if you're opening the possibility that the interviewer will refuse to listen to a story, in reality that probably won't happen. Human beings, being human, rarely refuse an opportunity to hear a story.
The real reason you signal that you're going to tell a story is that it puts the listener's mind in a receptive state. Such introductions are the grown-up version of the traditional "once upon a time."
Rule #2: Keep it short and sweet.
You should aim to tell your entire story in around 2 minutes. Make sure you hit all three elements of the setup and all four elements of the plot. Include just enough detail to make the story real and visceral.
How To Say It (and Not Say It)
-Here's an example. The situation is as follows. You're interviewing for a job selling software solutions to enterprises. Your interviewer is a sales manager who's worked primarily for large firms.
Following conventional "how to be interviewed" wisdom, here's how the conversation might play itself out:
Interviewer: Tell me a little about yourself.
Candidate: "Well, I started off as a programmer, but I helped sell a system to Lockheed, then I got into marketing and now I'm looking to get back into sales."
Here's the same conversation with a carefully-crafted story:
Interviewer: Tell me a little about yourself.
Candidate: Let me tell you my story.
A decade ago, I was working as a programmer in a group of about 100 in a remote development center. A real skunk-works, if you know what I mean.
We developers created an innovative piece of software, but the sales team was too busy to give us much attention.
It scared me to death to get away from my computer screen, but I sucked it up and called some of our biggest customers to discuss what we'd developed and whether they could use it to solve real-life problems.
I ended up speaking with an engineer at Lockheed Aerospace and we figured out that our software would save them about a million dollars a year.
Lockheed ended up not just buying the prototype, but gave us the upfront money to turn it into a real product.
It was at that moment, when that deal closed, that I realized that I loved selling and solving problems for customers more than I loved programming.
And I've been in sales and marketing ever since!
As you can see, the story tells the interviewer far more about the candidate, and the candidate's entrepreneurial attitude, than the recitation of mere fact.
BIO: Geoffrey James is a business journalist who writes "Sales Source" on Inc.com, the world's most-visited sales-oriented blog. His newly published book is Business to Business Selling: Power Words and Strategies from the World's Top Sales Experts (Prentice Hall, 2011).