Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Common Interview Questions: #2 Opener

A very common question I get from clients and readers is: "I hate the 'Tell us a bit about yourself' question at the beginning of a job interview. Where do I start? How long should I talk for? How much detail should I include?"

Getting off to a good start at a job interview is vital. Interviewers rely on first impressions as heavily as the next person, so if you come across as being overly nervous, inarticulate or a rambling, shambling speaker you are in big trouble. This post should more accurately be titled, "Introducing yourself without boring them to tears."

At the beginning of a large percentage of all interviews, you will have to do a "This is who I am and this is how I got here" speech. Unskilled interviewers will lead a "tell us a bit about yourself" approach, a more probing interviewer may say something like: "Take us rapidly through your CV. In particular, we are interested in the reasons you had for making the choices that you did."

In thinking about your approach to this, I recommend that you start at the end - why do they ask the question in the first place? In the good old days, the whole idea of the Opener was to slide you into the process with an ‘easy’ question - to loosen out your vocal cords and get your bum comfy on the chair. In these slightly more pressurised times, let’s assume for a moment that the person who asked you the question does know what (s)he is doing. In that case, your answer to the Opener allows the interviewer to very quickly assess your:
  • Confidence level
  • Preparedness / Professionalism
  • Overall intelligence
  • Capacity to string coherent sentences together
If you lead off fluently, it nicely sets you apart from the pack at the outset and establishes the climate for the whole interview. Because this one is all about you and what goes on in your head, many candidates stutter and stumble their way through it. That is unforgivable! "Oh, I hate talking about myself, I'm much better at talking about what I do," is something I hear from a lot of clients. Tough, get over it.

I would recommend that you have a 90-second version of this Opener and a 2-minute version. If you are going for a senior post, you can stretch that out to three or four minutes, but no more than that. Once again, tape or video yourself. How many words per minute do you speak at? Most people will use 140–170 words per minute in day-to-day conversation. JFK once addressed an audience at an extraordinary 327 words per minute in a speech, but very few people can speak anything like that quickly and portray themselves as being in any way reassuring and confident. Most of us would sound like a cartoon chipmunk on helium going at that rate – hardly the sort of first impression you want to convey. Take it slowly, aim for 130–160 words per minute in your drafting. Write out a long version, including everything you want to say about yourself. Then you can start putting shape and discipline on it.

Beginning, middle, end. Pick your start point and work your way forward from there. Think about the reasons why you have done the things you did. Review compliments and feedbacks you have received; one or two of them slotted into your opener will give it more gravitas. Likewise your accomplishments – what were you exceptional at, what got you noticed? What got you promoted? Were you ever singled out for extra responsibility? So:
  • Why I made the choices I did
  • Nice things that have been said about me or happened to me
  • Concrete stuff I did/accomplished (just soundbites at this stage)
  • 50-60% of your speaking time spent on the last five years (Spend that time on the last two years if you are coming out of formal education).
If there is something you want or need them to know about you from the outset, tell them. This is no time to be coy. Don’t expect them to read between the lines – put it in between their eyes. If you were selected ahead of 999 other applicants for a job and someone took a real risk in appointing you, a risk that paid off – tell them. Use simple words in short sentences and TELL THEM!

Many interviewers will not have scrutinised the beautifully phrased CV, which took you hours to finalise, in any depth. Some of them will be seeing it for the first time as you walk into the room. So be ready to talk really well about your history. No irrelevancies ("I'm very kind with children and animals and my most fervent wish is for world peace"), no weird tangents ("That was when I was into Satan worship"), no jumping back and forth in time ("Oh, and another thing about my first job …"). Logical, concise, articulate.

Passive terminology is a big no-no – "And then I found myself doing …" If you made a move, have a reason for it. It may not have been part of a Master Plan at the time, but if it sounds like you were being swept along with the tide, things will not go well for you as the interview unfolds.

If you really want to do the interviewer (and yourself) a favour, wrap it up by talking about why you are sitting in this interview today. The second question asked in most interviews is either "Why do you want to move on from your current role?" or "Why do you want to work here?" I recommend that you round off your Opener with one or both of these answered and obviate the need for them to ask the second question. (more on this in #3)

Some version of the Opener happens at almost every interview. You know it is coming and they know that you know it is coming; so a bad start really is reprehensible. For a few brief moments, you are totally in control in the interview room, do not look that gift horse in the mouth. You can demonstrate that you are a logical, concise and articulate person with sound motivation – wouldn't that be a nice first impression to plant in their heads? If you have laid your groundwork and developed the agenda that you want to put forward at the interview then a strong opener can set the tenor and really start to bring control back on to your side of the table.

See also:
Talking about weaknesses
Answering the "Why you?" question
Handling competency interview questions
Handling case (or puzzler) questions
How interviewing works


Barb said...

You are so true about first impression. It's important to leave and impact on the interviewer if we really want to have the job. There's no reason for us to attend the interview if we are not prepared.

Ellen said...

I always settle with preparation. No matter how intelligent a person is, our brain can't remember everything, and it wouldn't do us any good if we can't remember what we've learned.