“Tell Me About Yourself.” How to Craft a Compelling Personal Narrative

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If you’ve ever been to a job interview—or an interview for just about anything, for that matter, you’ve fielded the request, “Tell me about yourself.” It seems innocuous and oh-so simple, doesn’t it? But chances are, that question has made you feel like a deer in headlights at least once. “Tell her about myself? What about myself? Who am I, even?”

Here’s the secret:This question may sound like an invitation to put yourself first, the most effective answers follow the number-one rule of any important communication event: put the audience first.

“Tell me about yourself” is, of course, a very broad question, but it’s not a request to share your autobiography. At its core, it’s a request to tell the audience about your personal characteristics and experiences that make you the right person for the job. By focusing on the principles of audience-centric communication—getting to know your audience and tailoring your communication to resonate with their needs and perspectives—you can craft a killer answer to this deceptively tricky question every single time.

Here’s how:

First, Get to Know Your Audience

Your audience is the interviewer, technically, but she represents the entire company. So your first step is to understand as much as you can about the organization. Start with the job description: what are they looking for in an employee? What are the specific hard and soft skills they’re asking for? What are the tasks and responsibilities the new hire will take on?

Then, learn as much as you can about the company as a whole. Check out their website, of course, but also take a look at their social media platforms. Try to identify their core values and their company culture so you can tailor your response accordingly. Do they paint themselves as a high-end, formal, white-glove service provider or a more laid-back group that gets the job done well and has fun while they’re at it?

The more you understand about the business, the more effectively you’ll be able to speak to your place in it.

Learn Their Language

As you’re researching, make note of the general tone and specific terminology the company uses, and adjust your own language accordingly. If the job description calls for a team player, refer to yourself as a team player. If it calls for a collaborator, use that term, instead. And if you detect a highly formal communication style, incorporate that into your own voice; if you notice the company tends to communicate more casually, you can relax your tone a bit (but, of course, keep it professional).

As always, stay authentic to your own voice and experience, but within the bounds of that authenticity, adjust your communication style to match your audience’s as much as possible. Not only will you sound like an employee, but you’ll be able to tap into “mirroring,” a communication technique that helps build trust and connection with others and will likely help you come across as a great cultural fit for the company.

Prepare Your Response

“Tell me about yourself.” You know the question is coming, so spend time before your interview crafting your response based on what you’ve learned about the company and how your skills complement their culture and their needs.

First, identify one or two ways in which you’re best equipped to meet the company’s biggest needs or expectations for the particular role. For this, you’ll want to go beyond what’s on your LinkedIn to highlight how your particular skills fill that need. Show the interviewer something she hasn’t read yet by digging deeper into one of the bullet points on your resume. This piece of the puzzle is your key point, or your thesis statement. “I’m someone who ______” or “I’m a _______.” You know from your research what kind of person she’s looking for, so this is your chance to frame yourself as that kind of person.

Next, think of a story that illustrates that key point. Your story will provide credibility by showing you can back up your claim, and it will help the interviewer learn even more about who you are as an employee and a person. But perhaps most importantly, your story will help make you a more memorable candidate. Keep it brief and to the point, but don’t be afraid to use vivid imagery, figurative language, and even a little emotion to make your story captivating so your interviewer will recall it later. (You can learn more about crafting a compelling story in my recent blog post.)

And finally, practice. The more prepared you are when the interviewer says, “Tell me about yourself,” the more confidently, effectively, and naturally you’ll be able to answer the iconic question, impress the interviewer, and position yourself as a great fit for the role and the company.

And these steps are powerful for situations beyond the interview. Refer back to them anytime you’re preparing for a critical communication event. What does your audience need to know about you in order to get excited about what you have to say? To craft your introduction, get to know them, first.