Dealing with a loaded question

“Tell me about yourself”
Job seeking advice is a bit like parenting or relationship advice. Most people have done it and everyone has an opinion. No, or even disastrous experience, in any of the above, still leaves some undeterred. Share they will. Of course, basic common sense and a certain objective distance can go a long way, but a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.

Old chestnut
In the job seeking process, an old chestnut which prompts massive debate and conflicting advice is the question “Tell me about yourself.” I probably screen, coach and interview in excess of 80 people a month, so do have some experience. Imagine my consternation when a coaching client working on her interview presentation to that very question came up with ” I’m a passionate, charismatic, happy person, enthusiastic, hardworking and witty. And I don’t like cheese.” An eyebrow was raised. Mine.

The source of this inspiration came from an internet blog post by an advertising exec, recently turned transition specialist. I dreaded that the prepared response to “Why should we offer you the job” would be ” Just do it!

Before my inbox fills up, I’m not writing off humorous introductions out of hand. I am the champion of flexibility as you know. There are indeed times when a witty one – liner or gimmicky presentation can be really effective, but you have to know when that might be. For most this is not easy if you have only clapped eyes on the interviewer for the first time, 2 minutes beforehand and might be nervous. It’s high risk and can backfire. Instead of piquing interest, it may just waste valuable time. For this particular client it was possibly career kamikaze.

Iron fist in velvet glove
To avoid misunderstanding, let’s get a major point nailed. “Tell me about yourselfis a loaded question. It is a hard-hitting opportunity to gain insight into a candidate, masquerading as a sweet, gentle icebreaker. It is an iron fist in a velvet glove, so preparation for any candidate for this is vital. Although this is not articulated ,what they want to know is what you have done in the past and whether you can do it in the job you’re interviewing for. To think otherwise will lull you into a false sense of security.

Language choice
So although it’s important not to give a career chronology and I’m not a fan of elevator speeches either (prefer elevator sound bites), providing a list of qualities only, can also take you into dangerous territory. They tend to be what I call “non words“. Enthusiastic, hardworking, happy and loyal should be a given and are wasting either space or time. Would any organisations look for candidates who weren’t any of the above? No they wouldn’t, so you have to ask yourself how do those qualities translate into added value. Actually, add cheese to that list too or any other dietary preferences. It is really necessary to dig deeper and ask more penetrating questions.

Does it mean they are positive thinkers which could make them problem solvers and solution finders? Does it make them calm under pressure and capable change managers? What further value do those qualities add? Does it mean the person can be relied on to produce results on time and possibly be a good team member and /or an effective leader?

Adapt to your situation
The qualities requirements of any job vary, so it’s important to tailor any response to the specific profile and also to the audience. You can’t use the same stock phrase in every situation. There might indeed eventually be some people who will share an antipathy for cheese, but for the most part I would doubt it. That requires a certain level of empathy, an understanding of the position and mental agility to alter your approach and vocabulary content as appropriate.

Double edged
Remember as well that the many qualities we all have, carry a downside. I very often see people describe themselves as “detail orientated or perfectionist.” But associated with those characteristics are some negatives. Perfectionists are sometimes slow implementors, risk averse and procrastinators, because they get too caught up in getting things right, rather than getting things done. Big picture thinkers are sometimes poor implementors. Passionate can suggest loose cannon or lack of focus. That’s another reason why it’s better to dig deeper and indicate the value of these traits, rather than just listing them. There are also many well established personality tests available that also give precise feedback if anyone struggles with self insight.

Beware of bragging
There is a fine line between selling yourself and appearing arrogant. Saying you are “charismatic” is like saying you’re good looking. Those characteristics are normally self-evident the minute a person walks into a room. There is no need to verbalise it! They are also subjective. One person’s charisma, is another person’s turn off. Wit is also very personal. Translate those into added value. Individuals with strong personal appeal tend to make excellent sales people, leaders and public speakers. Show how that quality has worked for you. If you are a “brilliant salesperson” then you will be able to provide metrics to back that up and can drop the superlative.

I know it’s really hard to know who to listen to and which bits of advice to filter out. But eventually there is no substitute for knowing yourself. Any candidate who has been through that process will be flexible and confident and know what to deliver, when and how.

The best person to trust is you.

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9 thoughts on “Dealing with a loaded question

  1. Gwyn Teatro

    “Tell me about yourself” is indeed a loaded question, and to your point, Dorothy, I think a good answer always comes from a place of knowing yourself well enough to provide some meaningful and genuine information.
    I think too that in the process of searching for a good fit for ourselves, we need to do some homework around the organizations we hope to join. For instance, most organizations produce an annual report. In it, there is usually some good information about company values, customer base and goals. Making some decisions around whether we can see ‘a fit’ there before going on an interview helps us to prepare for the “Tell me about yourself” question and allows for a more authentic answer. Of course, if we can’t see a fit for ourselves it also gives us the option of looking elsewhere.
    If, at the end of it all, we have managed to answer the question authentically, throwing in the “I don’t like cheese” type answer at the end, can make you memorable, in a good way.

    Reply
    1. Dorothy Dalton

      Hi Gwyn – Thanks for your comment. I agree establishing a fit for a particular position is simply a follow on from the knowing thyself phase. Strong self insight should enable authentic responses to translate those qualities into added value quite easily.

      Witty comments are fine, but do require a pretty quick assessment of the audience and general situaiton . I just suggest the average (nervous) interviewee, who may lack the panache to carry it off, use that advice judiciously .

      Reply
  2. lorenaheletea

    Great post sweet Dorothy.
    You read people soooo well, love it, love it. It is fascinating how much people say about themselves even just by the way they walk or shake hand or enter a room. Our Self Image (the way we see ourselves) is like a mirror that we show to other people. You sure know how to describe what you see in other’s mirror.
    Bravo.
    Lorena Heletea

    Reply
    1. Dorothy Dalton

      Lorena – thanks for your comment and kind words. You’re so right – people reveal so much about themselves when they are not even aware they are doing it. Strong self image is key.

      Reply
  3. ROBERT P. POINDEXTER

    Great post Dorothy. You sure make some good points, and prove why it is so important to arm yourself against the “velvet glove”, I loved that analogy.
    Cheers,
    The Charismatic,Good looking and Witty( lol)
    Rob

    Reply
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