interview

How to Answer the Number One Interview Question



The job hunt can be brutal. During the interview process, factors such as how you dress, when you arrive (or log into an online meeting) and even how much you smile play into whether a hiring manager gives you the thumbs up. As a result, you may feel constrained, if not paralyzed, worried that every simple action could make or break your landing the job.

Still, there are ways for you to make a great first impression. One key way involves how you
handle the interviewer’s likely opening prompt:

“So, tell me about yourself.”

Know that this conversation starter comes in many versions. It could also be posed as a question: What got you to apply for this job? Or: How did you find us? Or: What got you interested in [industry]?” You need to have your ear trained and ready for this invitation to use this question to share your elevator pitch.

Don’t Make This Common Interview Mistake

As a career coach, one of the first things I want to know about a new client on the job hunt is the quality of their elevator pitch. The biggest issue I have found: not having something prepared.

In answering this question, it may be tempting to rattle off your resume or give a timeline walkthrough of your entire life. But this isn’t what interviewers want to hear, whether they consciously know this or not. The truth is that people have shorter attention spans than a goldfish, literally–our attention span has been found to average 8 seconds while a goldfish’s is believed to be 9 seconds.

So instead of walking through your background, you want to captivate the interviewer—and you have eight seconds to do this.

Four Key Elements of an Elevator Pitch That Works

Having helped countless clients build their elevator pitches, I have identified four key elements to crafting a pitch that compels your audience and offers concise clarity around your career intentions.

Here is the four-part structure of an elevator pitch that will share who you are and what you value most.

While 93% of Americans say they experience anxiety related to an interview, according to a recent study conducted by JDP, a company that does background checks for employers, being able to confidently address this question will help reduce your overwhelm and keep you on track for shining during your next interview.

Your Story

No one wants to hire someone who is simply spraying and praying when it comes to their job applications. Instead, they are looking for someone who is living a purpose-driven life and who wants to work at their specific company for a real, heartfelt reason. This is why it’s powerful to start your pitch off with one or two sentences that paint a picture of a deeper meaning to why you are there. People perk up when they feel like you’re not just in it for a job—you’re in this world for a purpose.

This can come in two forms: tracing your career direction back to a childhood moment or sharing a defining moment in your life. Find a memory in your life that directly relates to what career path you are currently pursuing. If you are making a career pivot, perhaps you can use the defining moment approach and share when you realized this new career was what you were meant for.

•  Childhood: “Growing up, I loved to garden with my mom, and I’ll never forget the first time I planted my own tomato plant and watched it grow. I always knew I was meant to work in agriculture.”

•  Defining moment: “I’ll never forget the day I stood on the soccer field and watched an athletic trainer help my teammate after an injury. The way they were able to step in and help struck a chord in me, and I knew, after I was done competing, I wanted to be that person helping others.”

These short statements offer insight for the recruiter into why you operate the way you do, and that is far more powerful than hearing a regurgitation of your resume.

Your Cuff

Your cuff—so named because it should be brief and “off the cuff”—is your opportunity to address any lingering doubts you may have about your application or job history. Why so quickly? Because it gets awkward if you spend too much time talking about your shortcomings.

So many people step into job interviews feeling profoundly insecure about one particular piece of their job application. Perhaps they have a gap on their resume, they are transitioning out of industries, or they’re trying to leave a job they just started. Whatever it is, there’s something you may know that has caused a bit of doubt.

You aren’t alone: three out of five Americans have a gap on their resume, according to a 2019 report from Monster. It may be tempting to bluff about your resume, like 78% of candidates surveyed by Checkster, but you’re better off being honest.

Here’s the thing: interviewers may wonder about something in your application that’s not super straightforward, but may not always ask you about it. Instead, they will give you the opportunity to address it. So use the cuff to clarify what you think needs explaining, and do it quickly.

One thing to note is if you’re addressing a concern and your response is personal, tread softly. If you left the workforce because you had a serious illness, for example, I’d say something like, “I’m so excited to be back in the workforce, as I had a health issue that’s no longer holding me back.”

The cuff has two pathways, so if you have no doubts, use this as a place to humbly brag, such as, graduating from a top college or speaking a foreign language. The key to keeping it humble is to explain how this brag helps your career and their company. For instance, “I am so grateful to be bilingual as it has given me the opportunity to connect with international clients on a more personal level.”

Your Golden Skill

There’s nothing inspiring to an employer about your being a jack- or jill-of-all-trades. While it helps to show you have versatility or a broad swath of experience, they are hiring for a particular role. That’s why it’s important you share a skillset applicable to the job at hand.

Take this skillset and authentically place it in a testimonial format that ideally comes from your boss or a fellow colleague. Think back: who has given you praise for that one golden skill that your next employer would love to hear that you have? This will come across as both honest and not overly boastful. It also helps in continuing to tell the story of who you are and outlines your pathway to discovering that this job, for this company, was what you were meant to do. You could say: “My previous boss always told me I had a knack for seeing the small details on every page, and after reflecting on it, I realized I should be an editor.”

If you aren’t sure about your strongest skill set, ask the people you work closely with for their insight. Studies indicate that people generally don’t know their own limitations or strengths as well as the people who know and work alongside them. To help you learn more about yourself, I also have a free quiz on my website on how to discover your best career fit.

Your Goal

With a vivid picture of your career journey painted, it’s time to round out things by sharing your goal. If you are in an interview, the goal is to yes, get the job, but also talk about the company’s mission. For this reason, it’s so important that the people who interview you feel as though you’re intimately tied to working specifically for their company or organization.

We live in a world where employees may not feel the same amount of company loyalty that previous generations felt, and as a result, human resources take into consideration whether or when you’ll leave. They should be concerned, given that employee turnover costs a company an estimated 30% of their salary, according to the Work Institute. That’s why it’s key that the company feels like you really want to be there. They want to feel special in your eyes, and as a result, you must personalize your goal. A few options would be to touch base on their mission statement, a social responsibility they support, or perhaps some compelling press coverage you saw.

In a networking situation, the goal is rooted in sharing what you are looking for, so the person can help you with your job search. This could sound like, “At the moment, I am looking to transition into [insert industry/job function].”

The Takeaway

With preparation, you will have a compelling elevator pitch that provides the exact details a hiring manager is looking for.

It’s helpful to have your elevator pitch developed and updated even if you aren’t currently looking for a job. The request “tell me about yourself” may show up at your next networking event or when you grab coffee with a mentor. Being prepared to share your elevator pitch can be a game-changer for up-leveling your job hunting and career networking.


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Ashley Stahl ABOUT Ashley Stahl Ashley Stahl is a career coach, keynote speaker, podcast host (You Turn Podcast), and author.


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