I killed a man last night ...

"Can you give me any advice on answering the, 'Tell me about yourself,' question? It's a standard question and I feel like I'm giving a standard answer."

Interesting point, Deborah. "Tell me a bit about yourself," is most definitely a stock question, but it's most definitely not a kindly, gift-wrapped, warm-up opportunity. Whether you or the interviewer recognise it or not, it's a 'first-impression' moment. You can let it slip through your fingers, or you can caress its beating heart in your loving hands.

Picture the scene of the interview

For you, this is possibly the most important meeting of your life. The future direction of your career; where you live; how well you live; your friends; your life-partner and the genetic make-up of your future off-spring can all hinge around this one meeting.

Do you REALLY want to deliver an answer that's just wallpaper paste?

Anyone got a pair of matchsticks?

For the interviewer, this is just another day on the treadmill and you're just another candidate. The, "Tell me a bit about yourself," question is a litmus test; their quick way of determining how much attention you deserve. In fairness, the bar is probably set low because they know candidates take time to settle down.

Your minimum will be to show that you can talk in a logical order and deliver structured sentences about something approximately relevant. Playing with your hair, staring at the ceiling and grunting through the words, "Erm … yeah, well … like, I'm twenty three next week. At primary school … ," will see you fail to clear that bar.

However, since the interviewer's expectations of you will be low, why not grip them by the lapels, burn their eyes out with the intensity of your passion and fry their brain-circuits with your real potential?

Wouldn't it be great if they sat back thinking, "Jeez, what just happened," and then ran from the room screaming, "Oh my God everyone, come and meet this person,"?

What can make that difference?

You need to surprise the interviewer with an answer that delivers more than expected. Amazingly, it's not that hard. Since their expectations are relatively low, and almost every candidate will deliver the verbal equivalent of lift-music at this early stage of the interview, the way is open for you to seize that moment.

Planning for that question

Use 'The Daisy-Cutter Process', so named because it obliterates everyone and everything around you, leaving you standing alone in the middle of a clearing as the only viable candidate. The steps are:

  1. Aim at the target
  2. Hit the spot
  3. Sell your successes
  4. Eliminate the competition
  5. Stop and hand back to the interviewer

In two or three minutes, you can be the only one left standing. Here's the detail.

1. Aim at the target. Plan your answer to stay focussed on showing how you and the role are a great match. Nothing else is relevant. No one cares about your transport challenges, 'A' level results, family circumstances, what you want out of a career, the fact your Dad knows the Queen or that you train falcons to hunt food for the blind at weekends. Seriously.

Ironically, it's not all about you. It's about them and what you can do for them.

2. Hit the spot. Be direct with your introduction. You can't shout, "I'M GREAT, PICK ME! PICK ME!" It's too direct and there's no back up justification to your demand. However, you can hit something like it in one sentence.

"I'm a suitably qualified engineer with relevant work experience and I was really pleased to see this job come up because … [ enter hard-hitting short justification which shows relevance and enthusiasm here ]."

Bang. That's Job 1 done. You've just met the role requirement and person specification in the first ten words. You're over that bar and well on your way. After that, everything you say can start to add perceived value. An interviewer begins to get very excited when faced with enthusiasm and reasons why a candidate is driven.

Whilst your peers will bang on for minutes, simply justifying the fact they're actually allowed to talk to the interviewer, you've staked your claim for a place at the table as a fact in ten words, served the entree and then offered a main course. What's not to like?

Are you being presumptuous? Yes, but you must already have met the minimum requirements, or you wouldn’t have been invited to an interview, so why waste time covering old ground?

3. Sell your successes. Next, plan to talk about your successes that link directly with what the role-holder will need to achieve. (Your research should have identified that.) Have two or three great examples and deliver them individually.

Again, you have to be artful. You can't shout, "I'm brilliant! I've achieved X, Y and Z and that's exactly what you want so who da man?" You can go with, "From the work experience I mentioned, I think such and such is probably quite relevant to what might be expected of me. I was tasked with … [STAR-type answer goes here]." Follow it up with another one or two examples.

You're showing (not telling) that: you've done some research; you have a clear understanding of the role; you have insight into what might be expected of you and you're able to prop up clear evidence of your ability to deliver in that role.

4. Smile and drop your daisy-cutter. So far, so good. You've just cleared the second bar by answering the question in the interviewer's mind, "Is this person likely to be effective in this role?" The answer is obviously yes. You're in the frame, you're at least in the shortlist slot but you could still have competition.

There are two ways to cut that competition off at the knees.

  • Show your unique selling proposition (USP). Have you got a truly value-adding extra skill or experience that you think none of the other candidates can offer?
  • Show that you're a person who makes things happen. Can you show examples where you didn't just succeed with an objective you were given, you identified the problem, thought of the solution and then made it happen, overcoming some problems along the way.

Either might do, but both will make you unstoppable. Your extra skill, your initiative and your proactive approach will clearly show that you have substantial potential for the future and would be an asset to their organisation.

5. Stop. That's it. Don't bang on, smile pleasantly, show you've finished and hand it back to the interviewer. Hopefully, if you keep it sharp, the above will take you no more than a couple of minutes or so. You'll capture the interviewer's attention and stake your claim to be the number one choice.

Now it's yours to lose

It's can be very challenging and fantastically time consuming to research, analyse, plan and practise your answers, but every second will prove to be worth it. If you can really capture the interviewer's attention, they'll be looking for reasons to put you through, not to reject you.

At the interview, they'll almost certainly ask you the question so If you prepare well, you'll have a free shot. Now you know how to make it count!

Oh, I guess now is the time to move on and prepare for the rest of the interview …


Questions to ask / not ask at the end of an interview

How to handle Scenario questions + 10 questions

25 'standard' interview questions

Don't pull out of interviews early

Assessment centres - strategy and tactics

How to approach strengths-based interviews

How to handle the 'previous failure' interview question

Taking control of your interview

Good luck everyone.

Jon Gregory, Editor

For more detail on this subject, read “Winning That Job: A kill or be-killed guide to job-search and interview preparation.” You can pick up it up as an e-book or paperback here on Amazon >>>

Keywords: interview, tell me about yourself, first impressions, interview preparation, added value, USP