As much as these questions might cause angst for you, they likely create boredom for the interviewer. They read the same articles you do, they interview many, many candidates, and they can tell a canned answer a mile away. If you treat the interview as something like a test, with questions asked, answered, and graded, it is extremely difficult to break out from the rest of the pack. However, if you dispense with the question with just a short sentence or two, and then re-frame it you can bring some pizzazz to the exchange and really differentiate yourself from your competition.
You can't necessarily do this with every interview question, but you can reshape some of the standard open-ended ones with careful and thoughtful interview preparation. Here are a couple of examples:
1. Tell me about yourself. This is the standard opening gambit. Rather than go on and on, give a short one or two sentence answer that picks up your personal branding statement like, "I'm a [insert your role—i.e. Web developer], with experience doing A, B, and C." Then, without missing a beat, pivot to a related, but somewhat different question, and get buy-in from your interviewer. "May I tell you about something about my work that really excites me?" or "Can I tell you something about myself that I'm really proud of?" or "Can I share with you the path that I'm charting for my career?"
Each of these qualifying questions does respond to the larger "tell me about yourself," but gets the interviewer to approve in advance of the direction you want to go in. And, each of them allows you to share something truly unique about yourself. Rather than going over your history, you let your personality and character shine through. Now you can show what really gets your professional juices flowing, share a story that relates to this job, and speak with enthusiasm.
2. Tell me where you see yourself in five years. Of course, some people are prone to answer, "Right here in this job." Or: "Here, but one or two steps higher than this job." Either answer can be risky. You might show yourself not to have enough ambition. Alternatively, you might come off as so interested in the next job, you only see this one as a short-term stepping stone.
Rather that buy into a dangerous premise, you can creatively pivot by saying, "I'm not certain how far along my career path I'll be in five years. But can I give you my longer term goal?" Pause… wait for an affirmative response, and then go on: "When I retire, I'd like my last job title to be [fill in the blank], and I'd like to look back on my success in the areas of A, B, and C."
Again, you must prepare for this question in advance, and give provide an answer that shows you have a sense of where you're going, along with the drive and ambition to get there. You can relate how the success you expect to achieve in this position will be a real contribution to the employer, and be in line with your long-term direction. You can put this job into a larger context of your long-term career arc for the interviewer, and once again demonstrate your unique fit for it.
To be sure, you always need to be responsive to your interviewer. However, you can turn the interview into a conversation rather than a test, and thereby separate your responses from those of your competition. When you take care in re-framing questions, you can elevate the dialogue, snap the interviewer out of his or her own boredom, and show yourself to be a stand-out candidate who can appropriately show both respect and initiative.
Arnie Fertig is the head coach of JOBHUNTERCOACH.COM, where he utilizes his extensive background in HR Staffing and as owner of a recruiting company to help mid-career job-hunters land their next job. Arnie provides one-to-one coaching services to individuals throughout the U.S. in all aspects of the job hunt, including: resume writing, personal branding, utilizing social media, enhancing networking skills, preparing for interviews, and negotiating compensation.