“So, tell me a little about yourself.” It’s one of the most difficult questions to answer, yet also one of the most common. Whether you’re a job candidate sitting in an interview, or an entrepreneur pitching an idea to a panel of investors for the first time, at some point you’ll have to decide how best to summarize who you are. Maybe you’ll wince as you rack your brain in confusion, shuffling through all the possibilities: Where on earth do you start? How far back do you go? How much detail should you include?
Pause–and then exhale. The truth is, you shouldn’t waste time trying too hard to suit your answer to the situation. They key in most professional settings is simply to show, rather than tell, your listener about your strengths. Here are three specific areas you can zero in on–and how to do it well each time.
1. SHOW YOUR INTELLIGENCE: DESCRIBE A STRETCH ASSIGNMENT
I once had a client who told me in the first 30 seconds of our conversation that he went to Yale for undergraduate, and Harvard Law School and the London School of Economics for his graduate degrees. Sure, they were impressive degrees from impressive schools, but this approach raised several questions: Is he an insecure overachiever? Is he trying way too hard? Is he arrogant? You may think that your credentials are all the proof you need of how smart and capable you are, but you’d be wrong.
It would’ve been more effective had he described a specific project or achievement he was proud of while he was a student at one of those schools. For example, perhaps he volunteered at a legal clinic as a law student, where he had to work on cases that didn’t have a textbook answer. As a result, he had to devise an unconventional but effective solution with limited financial resources. That’s a clear example of intelligence in action without having to use an elite pedigree (which many hyper-intelligent, talented people simply don’t have) as a substitute.
2. SHOW YOUR PASSION: SHARE A PERSONAL STORY
When you’re trying to impress a hiring manager, a networking contact, or an investor, it’s easy to start off by saying, “I’m passionate about the company” or, “I’m passionate about the product I’m creating.” Anyone can say something like this–but if you can’t elaborate on the “why,” you probably won’t stand out. What you need to do is tell a real story about an experience that had an emotional impact on you. Not a huge, monumental occasion. Just a simple, real story.
Here’s a great example: I recently worked with a client from a medical device company. When I asked him why he was in that particular industry, he told me that one of his children was born with a congenital heart problem. The doctors told him they could either perform open-heart surgery or try using a medical device to help save his son’s life. After much debate, the doctor decided to try a device approach instead of surgery. After that experience, my client decided to join the company that built that device. Anyone who hears him share that story will have no doubt that his commitment is real–his story illustrates a clear and powerful “why.”
3. SHOW YOUR AMBITION: FOCUS ON THE PROCESS, NOT THE GOAL
There’s nothing wrong with showing your ambition as long as you don’t come across as formulaic, shallow, or even sarcastic. If you say something like, “I want a fast-track to the corner office,” or, “I want to make as much money with this business as quickly as possible,” that’s probably not going to impress the hiring manager or investor (even if they can tell you’re joking). So avoid discussing the outcome you’re hoping for, it is a round of funding or a great job offer and you both know it.
Instead, turn the conversation toward the process it’ll take to fulfill your ambition. For example, a client recently told me that he likes golf. “Why?” I asked him. Because just like chess, he explained, you’re always thinking ahead–about the next shot, and the next shot, and the next shot. No matter how badly he may or may not want to beat his fellow golfers at a round of holes, that explanation highlighted his willingness (and passion) for the process of getting there. He showed me he’s someone who loves a challenge as well as the work that it takes. Take a similar approach any time you’re trying to answer “tell me about yourself” with an anecdote about your ambition.
If you forget all of this, at least keep one rule in mind. Anytime someone throws you an open-ended question about who you are, and you want to sound smart, passionate, and ambitious without coming off as pretentious, arrogant, or entitled, always show–don’t tell.