"Tell me a little bit about yourself?"
It’s everyone’s lazy interview question. And it’s the question we all dread.
But we don't have to.
We dread the question because we find it both self-evident (they have our resume in hand, isn’t that what they want to know?) and impossible to answer. How can you sum up an entire life in a few pithy sentences that won’t sound like your resume? I mean do they really want to know about your affinity for Borscht and micro-brews? Or the first time you built a snowman? Or that one horrific date where you ended up in the emergency room after a surprise food allergy? Not really, even if they’re the most chakra-aligned start-up in the hemisphere. What that question really means, and why we’re terrified by it, is: sell yourself.
If only I didn't make this face.
“Me?” You say and shrug, “I’m a _______ who believes in team work and getting the job done. And I’m really interested in the ____________ space.”
Congratulations. You now sound uncomfortable, rote, and stiff. Your answer has thrown you in the bucket with the dozens of other people they’ve interviewed. Yes, you could probably do the job, but you haven’t won them over. Likely, your candidacy really does just get reduced to your resume, where ridiculous things like GPA, school, and company you worked at matter more than what you can do.
But you can do better than that. You can take that insipid little question and get them to believe in your story. A story that shows your determination, your collaboration, and sense of humor. A story that has the interviewer nodding their head and seeing you as the person you’re proud of being. And it’s the story that’ll have them hurrying over to HR to hire you.
Thankfully, knowing how to tell your own story is a skill you can learn.
What makes a good story?
Every good story has three crucial components that help draw in and rivet the listener: honesty, narrative arc and clarity. A story without any of these three components fails in getting the listener to engage with, believe, and experience what you’re telling them.
Honesty helps build trust and rapport between you and the listener, and it extends far beyond just the literal truth. Honesty involves everything from body language to tone of voice to comfort and has to reflect who you really are or feel yourself to be, regardless of how you think it makes you look. It’s the honesty that makes someone open their ears.
A narrative arc is making sure that something has changed by the end of your story. A story without an arc can feel stale, directionless, and unsure of itself. Most of the time, its lack of an understandable arc that dooms a story to boredom.
Clarity, meanwhile, is about laying down the reasonable groundwork. It’s about setting expectations and either meeting them or thwarting them in ways that make sense within the rules of the story. Clarity is what helps your listener hold your story together. And it’s what helps your story spread.
Think of any story you’ve loved, whether told by an aunt over the holidays with spinach in her teeth, watched in packed movie theater with your shoes crushing sticky popcorn underneath, or between turned pages under yellow lamp-light, all of them had those three elements. Thankfully, it’s also something you can learn to shape your interview answers with.
How do you bring your story to the interview?
Of the three story elements, its honesty that’s the most misunderstood. I can already the responses: “I can’t tell them: I want more money; or I hate my boss; or I just need a job. They’d kick me out of the interview.” And you’re right, they would, but that’s because you’re treating the idea of honesty as a surface-level thing. Being honest in your story is a deeper thing that involves self-reflection: why are you really in that room, at that time, for that job? Let’s unpack the “I want more money” response.
On the surface, it seems callous and short sighted, but if you’re honest with yourself, you’d admit that the reason you want more money is because of your ambition. You have a goal of becoming a CEO before the age of 40. Or to be responsible for a product with millions of users. Or the ability to have more autonomy. Money is just a signpost.
Once you find that meaning, add to it your answer for why you’re in that room in particular. Knowing and explicitly stating “I’m an engineer because I love solving problems,” or “I’m a designer because I want to make beautiful things,” or whatever combination personally applies to you helps remind you and the interviewer why you’ve had the career you’ve had and sets the tone for why you want to be there. Because the truth is, even if you’ve ended up in a career you never planned, there’s a reason you kept picking that kind of work over something else.
Once you get to that level of self-knowledge to build your story around, your interviewer is going to listen and feel you’re being genuine.
Narrative arc, meanwhile, is about making sure your personal story goes somewhere. Take the engineer, who’s interviewing for a position with the software infrastructure team: its one thing for her to say she’s an engineer because she likes solving problems, but it’s another thing for her to say: “I’m an engineer, because I love solving problems. And as I progressed in my career, I’ve noticed the kinds of problems I’ve gravitated toward are the infrastructure problems. Like how do you get these disparate parts to actually create the core of a social network? How can I make that process happen faster? What happens when a billion more people join? The problems always get harder and more intricate and, frankly way more exciting.” If afterwards, she then goes into a story about a time in her last job when she tackled that kind of problem, the interviewer will not only get a better idea of who she is, but he’ll understand why she wants and believes she can do the job. But all the honesty and story-arc in the world won’t matter unless you can keep your details straight.
Clarity is probably the easiest and most tedious of the three aspects of story. Clarity is all about getting the details right, and in the case of an interview, that means preparation. It’s spending the time to make sure the details of your story align and reinforce each other. If part of the reason why the designer is interviewing for the role is because it’s a managerial position, then his story needs to show both that he can lead and that his frustration from not being able to lead came from him feeling like he was cut-off from the rest of the process. It’s the alignment of those details in his story (the ask from the client not changing mid-way through, for example) that will then reinforce not only why the designer believes he can do the job, but also why he wants the job in the first place. It leaves a concrete picture in his mind and with that clear picture they can then explain your story to the rest of the team.
“No that really helps clarify everything.”
Reel it in...wait till I'm out of the interview.
But beyond anything, what a story does is make you feel more confident when you walk in the room, and honestly, it’s that confidence that lets you then be the person you want to be in the interview. And that’s the person they’ll want to hire, because that’s the person you’ve made them believe in.