This most common question really contains within it two other questions of key importance for you to immediately address: "Why should I care about you?" and "What is your value to me (or my company)?" Don't get bogged down with rambling recitation of your work history. The best answer is your value statement, commonly thought of today as a personal branding statement.
An effective value statement conveys the kind of person/professional you are, what drives you and why those things matter. It isn't just what you have done professionally, but your demonstrated passion for doing those things that will propel your conversation forward.
Stuart Paap, a financial advisor in the Greater Boston area with a passion for helping people communicate effectively, advises that you avoid talking about job titles at this very early point in the conversation. At a recent Career Counselors Consortium Northeast event, he outlined seven key parts of a succinct branding statement:
1. Begin with your name. "I'm John Doe." Then move on quickly.
2. Identify your current profession or main focus. Relate a major element of what it is that you actually do when you're at your job in a very simple sentence. This is not the time to talk about your job title, where you work or how long you have been doing whatever it is that you do. For instance, you might say something as simple as: "My main focus as an accountant is counting widgets."
Paap strongly advocates for the present tense, to talk about who you are today. Statements like "I've been widget counting for 32 years," or "I'm transitioning into accounting and can't wait to start adding up widgets" are not as relevant or forceful.
If you haven't had a job doing whatever it is that you are applying for, Paap advises that you quickly do something related to it. Take a course. Volunteer. Do an internship. Even after you've been doing something for a short period of time, you can honestly say you are doing it. Leave the details for later. You want to convey that you are the type of person required for the job.
3. Transition. This is the time where you roll out your passion for what you do. Figure out what it is about your role that really excites you. Show you enthusiasm with a "What I love to do is…" sentence. Examples:
These kinds of statements demonstrate that you are highly motivated and really care about what you do. Evidence of these traits provides assurance to a hiring manager that you not only can do the job, but also that would you would be a great personality fit.
4. Who you help. This is where you demonstrate who benefits from what you do. Paap reminds his audience, "Both Apple computers and Mother Teresa help people ... they just help in very different ways."
Boil it down to something really simple like: "My widgets help cure sick people," "My widgets help people to be more creative" or "My work helps my team." All are ways of helping. By demonstrating who benefits from what you do, you begin to effectively convey your value.
5. Target your audience. Strive to understand your audience, and tailor your message to them. Your work might benefit a plant manager, a supply chain supervisor or a CEO, among others, in different ways. Figure out what about your work would be most important to the person you are speaking with, and talk about that. By taking the time to identify his or her issues and concerns, you can plant the image in his or her mind, "This person can help me and my company."
6. Accomplish a goal. What do you help people to do? Rather than listing a whole series of things, distill it down to a single important thing. Example: "I help my company save money." A clear simple sentence invites a question to go into more detail and engage in a conversation.
7. Show emotion. Figure out something about your job that gives you a good feeling, and convey it, even if just with a smile. When you show an emotional identity with the work you do, you demonstrate how you fit into a company's culture.
When you answer the "tell me about you" question with a value statement, you demonstrate your professional qualities, build interest in you as a person and increase the chance of beginning a meaningful dialog. Then, you are well on your way toward ending your interview with success.
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.