When someone says, “So tell me about yourself,” a lot of people stumble. When you craft your answer, you have 10 million hours of information to choose from. Many people actually hate getting this question because it’s so hard to zero-in on an answer.

This is an honest question. Someone wants to know about you. You should learn to choose the right things to say, so you can answer the question in a way that allows people to connect with you and remember you.

“The villain of getting ideas across is the curse of knowledge,”says Chip Heath, Stanford business school professor. I interviewed him about his book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. Heath says that when you know something really well, like every detail of your life, it’s difficult to figure out how to tell someone who doesn’t know.

Everyone has a complicated background. You need to pull that background together in a way that creates a single, memorable picture of yourself that is relevant to the person you’re talking to. In high school Ryan Patriquin focused on fine arts, but in college realized he really enjoyed computer-generated art, like “Toy Story.”

He spent a couple of years as a graphic designer. Then, while working at a large company that was going through transition, he got an opportunity to fill in as a product manager.

Now 28, Patriquin was recently interviewing at EBSCO Publishing, a provider of reference, subscription and other information services. In the interview, he said, “I’m a creative person who has product management experience.”

This is a way for him to convey to people that he has two skills without explaining every detail of his life.

When you hear a summary like this, and it sounds obvious, that’s because it is right. But most people cannot see their own history so clearly to convey a short, one-sentence summary of who they are. You have to find your one-sentence if you want people to remember it. Try it out whenever someone asks you, “What do you do?” or “Tell me about yourself.” The answer to this question is a work in progress, and you can judge how you’re doing by how engaged the person’s response to you is.

As for Patriquin, Brenda Kelley, a recruiter at EBSCO Publishing, says “He packaged himself in a way that helped me know he was the right person for the position. And we ended up hiring him.” Patriquin is now a user interface designer for the company.

Sometimes, you only have time for a one-sentence summary of your life – when you are introduced to someone in passing, for example. But sometimes, there is more time for an answer – in an interview, for example. When you have more time, tell a story.

The best way to have people connect with what you say about yourself, and remember what you say, is to tell a story. Most people instinctively list details about their life, “I did this, then this, then this.” It’s not very interesting. Stories are more engaging, so get used to talking about yourself in stories instead of in lists.

Telling stories about yourself takes practice. A lot of it is trial and error. As you’re telling the story out loud, you’ll instinctively feel if it’s a flop or not. When you find a good story, hone it until you’re conveying what you want people to know, in a way they’ll enjoy hearing.

A story I used to tell in interviews is how I made my career choice during an argument with my ex-boyfriend.

Heath says there are three different kinds of plots we can create about ourselves.

1. The challenge plot. You overcame an obstacle to get to where you are. Heath’s example is someone who says, “I’m really good at customer-focused service.” It’s not very persuasive if someone makes that declaration. But this challenge plot makes things more persuasive; “I learned customer service working at an ice cream stand. In the summer the line was twenty people deep and it was a challenge to keep the customers happy.” Now the listener has an image in their mind of you being good at customer service.

2. The creativity plot. In this plot, the turning point in the story is a eureka moment – when an idea comes to you and changes everything. You could say, “My business is about selling textbooks.” Or you could say, “I had an idea to sell textbooks, but I couldn’t figure out how to market them as interesting to the consumer. Then it hit me that no one has a favorite text book, but everyone has a favorite professor. So I needed to use the professors to hook in the customers.”

3. The connection plot. This plot comes in when you are telling a story about bringing a team together. For example, “our toy company merged with another toy company and people were duplicating each others’ efforts to create a new doll line. I convinced the teams to combine designs and work together. We created a doll that dominated the collectible doll market that Christmas.”

Once you’ve practiced a bit, you can relish the moment someone says, “So, what do you do?” If you understand how to talk about yourself, this is an opening to connect in a meaningful way and make a lasting impression.

Here’s the structure of an interview: The interviewer asks you a lot of questions about you, figures out what you like, what you’re good at, and customizes as he pitches the company and the job to you.

This structure works fine if you are not all that interested in the job. But if you go into the interview knowing that you want the job, this structure will not benefit you. This is because if you really want the job, you will be trying very hard during the interview to convince the person that you’re a good match. But the structure of the interview doesn’t give you the chance to find out a lot about what they’re looking for in a match, until the very end.

You will get to the end of the interview, and the person will say, “Do you have any questions for me?” The questions that everyone recommends you ask are questions that would help you know what the company is looking for in a new hire: Questions about the goals and philosophies of the company, about the parameters of the position you’re interviewing for, about the expectations for the person they hire.

The answers to these questions would help you to explain why you are the ideal candidate for the job. So why ask these questions at the end? Ask them as close to the beginning as you can.

The first time I saw this in action was when I was interviewing a candidate. I started with, “So, why don’t you tell me a bit about yourself.”

She said, “Well, first why don’t you tell me a bit about the job so that I can tailor my answer to your particular needs right now?”

I was surprised, but it made a lot of sense to me. I told her about the job. And I ended up making her an offer.

So don’t hijack the interview, but try to ask a bit about the position at the begining of the inteview and then you, too, can tailor your answers to the requirements of the job. With this strategy, coming up with questions will be easy because you will naturally want to know what the hiring manager is looking for so you can be that person:

What would the first three goals be for the person who takes this job?

What are the biggest hurdles to overcome in this position?

What type of person do you think will be most successful in this position?

If you ask a variation of these questions toward the beginning of the interview — even if you ask only one or two — you’ll be in a much better position to ace the rest of the interview.

While it is bucking convention to ask questions toward the beginning and not the end, consider that you will look more authentic doing this. After spending the whole interview convincing the person that you are a good fit for the job, why would you ask questions about the job at the end? Presumably, you already talked about why you are a good fit.

So when you get to the end of the interview, and the person says, “Do you have an questions for me?” You can feel free to say, “No, I think I asked enough questions at the beginning of the interview to understand how I will fit in well in this position. I’m very excited about working with you. I think we’re a good match. Do you have any reservations?”

Business 2.0 reports in it’s best-of-the-year roundup: “Last May The BBC invited technology expert Guy Kewney to its studios for an interview about Apple’s iTunes Music Store. But when the cameras start rolling, the BBC correspondent found herself talking to the wrong Guy – Guy Goma, a computer technician who was waiting in the lobby for a job interview.”

Check out this hilarious video of the interview:


(He did not get the job.)

Hat tip: James in London

Giving advice about careers is easier than taking it. People are always calling me on this — spitting my advice back to me at my most vulnerable moments. Like when I was late delivering my column five weeks in a row, and my editor said, “Remember that time you wrote about how being late is for losers?”

So I work hard at learning to consciously incorporate my own advice into my career.

The first time I did this was in an interview. I had just written a column about how the best way to end an interview is to say, “Do you have any reservations about hiring me?” If you say this at the end of an interview it gives you a chance to combat any misgivings — otherwise you just leave them there, untouched.

I remember sitting in the interview thinking to myself, “You should ask the question,” then I thought, “No. The question is so pushy and sounds like it’s right out of a book.” Then I thought, “You have to do it. Do it. Do it!”

So I asked the question and the moment unfolded like a textbook: The interviewer told me she was worried about my job hopping. I explained to her why I am a dedicated employee who delivers outstanding results wherever I go. And I got the job.

Now, I take my advice more often, though it’s still hard. Last week I was writing an email about a job I want, and I wrote, “Just checking to see if you had a chance to read my proposal.” Then I thought, hmm. That is not very positive and inspiring. So I changed it to, “Please give me a call so we can discuss how I can make your company launch a success.”

The second phrasing sounds a little crazy because I never talk that way to friends. But I really do stand by my advice that direct mail philosophies work, and requesting a specific action and providing a specific benefit are very important — Tell people what you want from them so they can give it to you. (Update: it worked. The person called, and I got a great partnership deal.)

Each of us has an advisor inside of us that we can listen to as a way to do better in this world. Hiring a career coach has helped me a lot, but my experience tells me that it’s also important to develop your own, inner coach. Here are four skills I have developed for coaching myself:

1. Talk to an imaginary coach.
If you pretend you’re talking to someone else then you have to explain what you’re doing in much more detail than if you were mulling it over in your head. The result is similar to writing down a problem – more clarity about the problem leads to more clarity about the solution.

2. Ask yourself better questions.
If you get stuck doing step one, ask yourself the most cringe-inducing question that someone else could ask you. Then answer them. The quality of the questions you ask equals the quality of the conclusions you draw.

3. Pretend to give advice to someone else.
Pretend someone else is asking you the same question. What would you say to them? It’s easier to give someone else a hard dose of reality than to give it to ourselves.

4. Believe in your ability to make positive change in your life.
You can’t coach yourself until you believe that you’re coachable. As always, believing in yourself is half the battle.


Hiring managers don’t hire the most qualified person. They hire the person they want to work with the most. Whether this is fair is not up for discussion, because the philosophical and de facto practices of corporate hiring aren’t going to change any time soon. However, we can discuss how to get hired when being qualified is a small factor in the decision.

Too many people have had slews of interviews with no offers. To be sure, you need to work at getting interviews, but you also need to work hard at turning an interview into a job. The skills to turn an interview into a job have little to do with having the skills to do the job. People use resumes and phone screens to make sure someone has the skills to do the job. When you get to the interview, it’s usually about other things — such as the unquantifiable but all-important likeability factor.

Here are six steps between landing the interview and actually doing it that will help you get an offer.

1. Research the company. Comb through every section of the company’s site and memorize it as if you were cramming for a test. Unlike a test, though, you won’t have a chance to spout the six facts you learned about the company during the interview.

Rather, there will be a random, fleeting second when a relevant fact you gained from the site will be the perfect answer to something the interviewer says. To find the right comment for that fleeting moment, you’ll need wide knowledge and good judgment. The overall goal is to seem as though you are intimately aquainted with their area of business and you monitor the company independently of your desperate need for a job.

Favorite places to do reasearch about companies: TechCrunch (for startups), TechDirt (gossip for intellectuals), Fortune (to know what everyone else knows).

2. Get the right outfit. Corporate America has a uniform; wear it. People like to hire people who look like them, and clothing is the easiest way to make this impression. An interview is not the time to dress to express your true self. In fact, no one needs to know your true self at the office. You will fit in and work best with others by keeping eccentricities to a minimum. Each company has a variation on “the uniform,” so loiter near the office ahead of time and spy on its workers to get a sense of the corporate dress code.

3. Prepare stock answers. Most interview questions are standard, and surprisingly enough, have standard answers. Take the question, “Why did you want to leave your current job?” The correct answer incorporates phrases like, “I am looking for a company like this one,” and “Your company offers a unique opportunity that is a perfect fit for me.” Learn these answers before the interview and be prepared to deliver them with a special flair, so they don’t seem rehearsed.

There are three or four good books that list interview questions and how you should answer them. The one I have used successfully is, The Complete Q&A Job Interview Book, by Jeffrey B. Allen. Also, Perri Capell points out that your answers should always be on message — speaking to most important points you want to make about yourself.

4. Go to the gym. Taking charge of the first 15 seconds of an interview is critical. An interviewer will judge you first and most significantly on non-verbal cues, and having a great interview outfit alone may not be enough to make the best impression. This is because thin, good-looking people are more likely to get hired than overweight, less attractive people.

If you have scheduled the interview already, it’s probably too late to drop forty pounds. But go to the gym anyway. By using your chest and back muscles to life weights, you’ll stand up straighter in the interview – which shows poise and self-confidence. Also take a ride on the treadmill. The more energy you expend now the more relaxed you’ll be at the interview, and being calm will help you seem more confident.

5. Prepare to close the deal. Leave nothing open-ended when you walk out of the interview. This means saying at the end, “I would really like this job. Do you have any reservations about hiring me?” This is scary to say because the interviewer might have reservations you can’t overcome. But closers get the contracts, and you need to be a closer in interviews. Risk hearing any reservations about hiring you because it’s better to confront them and fail than to never try. You have nothing to lose.

When I tried this, the hiring manager told me her reservations (which were large). After I countered them one by one, she was so impressed that she offered me a job on the spot. But I also had done my homework. I knew what I wanted from a job and what were dealbreakers. And I had prepared extensively for the interview. Which leads me to my last point….

6. Practice, practice, practice. Maybe your friends will be helpful in a mock interview situation. Even if your friend does a terrible job pretending to be an interviewer, you get practice interviewing with someone who doesn’t know how to do their job. You can bet, though, that someone in the career counseling office of your college knows what they are doing in this regard. Career centers are evaluated based on the career success of their graduates, so most centers are happy to field your phone calls, no matter how long ago you graduated. Ask someone there to do a mock interview with you. The feedback you get will probably be very useful.

The way you talk about yourself is very powerful. Whether or not you are conscious of it, the way you tell stories of your life frames how people see you, and how you see yourself. So you may as well do this consciously, and also be conscious that people get the most tripped up in their storytelling when they are talking about uncertain moments in their career.

“The stories we tell make an enormous difference in how we cope with change,” writes Herminia Ibarra in the Harvard Business Review. Crafting good story is essential for making a successful transition to your next point. Yet most of us do it badly — we can’t figure out a story arc, so we just start listing the facts of our career. But if you can’t tell people why your prior path and your new path are part of one story, then you probably can’t see it yourself, and that leads to feelings of being confused, lost and insecure — all the feelings that are typical of an uncertain life but do not have to be.

“Creating a story that resonates helps us believe in ourselves. We need a good story to reassure us that our plans make sense — that, in [making our next step], we are not discarding everything we have worked so hard to accomplish. A story gives us motivation to help us endure frustration, suffering and hard work,” says Ibarra.

For example, when someone bugs you about how can I trust you to stay at this company when you’ve changed your mind before, you can come at that person with a story. Don’t hide things because coherence is important. When you’re telling a story about yourself, coherence is the key to making the listener trust you. If you can make your story of change and self-discovery “seem coherent,” writes Ibrarra, “you will have gone far in convincing the listener that the change makes sense for you and is likely to bring success — and that you’re a stable, trustworthy person.”

Most importantly, coherence goes a long way in convincing yourself. “Think of the cartoon character who’s run off the edge of a cliff, legs still churning like crazy, he doesn’t realize he’s over the abyss until he looks down. Each of us in transition feels like that character. Coherence is the solid ground under our feet.”

The first way to envision yourself in a new phase of your life is to tell people about it. But there is another benefit to meeting new people: You can see yourself in a different light. Ibarra writes, ” Strangers can best help you see who you’re becoming, providing fresh ideas uncolored by your previous identity.”

The best reasons for wanting to change what you’re doing are grounded in character — they talk about who you are, what you are good at, what you like. Bad reasons are external, like getting fired. Giving external reasons for making change make you look like someone who is a fatalist. You need to show that you are taking charge of your life, not just reacting to what comes along.

More is good, though: The more detailed and more varied your reasons are, the more acceptable your next steps will seem to other people.

You feel comfortable telling it and the other person gives you positive feedback in the nonverbal cues department. When you are practicing, the best people to try it on are people who don’t know you. They don’t bring any preconceived notions of who you are to the conversation, so you can tell them whatever you want. In the conversation with a stranger you can try out being your new self, and you can tell if you ruin your clean slate with a terrible story.

Storytelling takes practice, but everyone who is making a big change in their life has everything a good story needs. You are the protagonist, and there is intrinsic conflict in that something changed in your world to make you want to change jobs. The journey of your story is your search for your next job.

If you’re feeling lost on this read John Gardner’s book, the Art of Fiction. Maybe you think it’s totally over the top to read 200 pages about story telling so that you can tell a one-minute story. But this is your life. And you are going to get through all the tough parts of your life by telling stories, intentionally or not. So why not take control of things and get good at talking to yourself about yourself?

The idea of having a perfect online identity is not realistic. Instead, maybe you should focus on making your offline identity one that you’re proud of.

First of all, no one is getting away with anything online. Today recruiters are expert and tireless Internet researchers when it comes to scoping out candidates. I just read a story about someone interviewing for a job who was asked about his wish list on Amazon. I would never have thought of that. (In fact, I can’t even figure out how to find other peoples’ wish lists on Amazon.) The list of ways to snoop feels infinite. And the list of ways to fix snoopable problems seems very limited.

If there’s someone in your life who is glued to their computer each night, posting career-killing commentary, maybe you should forward a link to this Wall St. Journal article by Vauhini Vara chronicling one man’s struggle to get his page removed on MySpace:

“He emailed MySpace, begging the site to take down his old page. Nothing happened. He sent at least eight more urgent messages to the site, including a note to MySpace co-founder Tom Anderson. Finally, he received a cryptic email telling him to write his user name — “craigisanidiot” — and password with a marker on a piece of paper, to take a photo of himself holding it up, and to email it to MySpace along with a note saying, ‘I wish to be removed from MySpace.” (Note to the concerned: It worked.)

A pseudonym will not save you. A majority of bloggers use pseudonyms, but people will find out who you are. The first weekly column I wrote was about my job while I was in my job. I used a pseudonym and presumed I was safe. I wrote about my CEO’s pharmaceutical cocktail and diagnosed him (correctly, I still think) as manic depressive. I described the scene of my boss sexually harassing me. I documented my expensive and useless business trip. It turned out, pretty much the whole company had been reading my column.

If you are going to be anonymous, take a tip from Waiter Rant, who never reveals his restaurant but never disses it either, or Your HR Guy, who writes funny human resources scenes, but publishes his policy of not getting fired for his blog.

But don’t go to the other extreme. If you get too careful, you’ll be like college student Matthew Zimmerman, and find yourself unable to write anything. (Don’t worry, he got over it.)

The BBC News tells us How to Blog and Not Get Fired, but it seems much harder to give advice on how to blog and still get hired. When it comes to recruiters, a blog is like a lighthouse: You don’t know how many people have been repelled because they never show up.

At some point, you just have to be yourself. Figure out your best self and be that — online and offline — and then no one will be surprised.

The people entering the workforce today did not grow up posting every little thing that happened to them. But in five years, those kids coming to work will have no way to cleanse the Internet of their posting transgressions from when they were fifteen years old.

There will have to be new standards for what is okay to have online. It will have to be okay to say, “Oh, yeah. I remember when I posted that. Stupid, huh?” Interviewers will have to judge people by what they are doing right now, or else they won’t be able to hire anyone.

So for now, take a look at that wish list you made. Does it make you look like a moron? Instead of getting rid of anti-social items and replacing them with crowd pleasers, ask yourself why you want to read books that reflect poorly on you. Ask yourself who you are.

Karen Salmansohn writes about the idea of congruence: “Be yourself wherever you are, whether at work, with your partner or with friends. When you compartmentalize yourself to be wildly different in different circumstances you can start to feel out of whack. Create a life that is congruent with the person you truly are.”

The impact of incongruence is big: You’ll have an online persona that conflicts with your work persona. You’ll have huge stress. When I was making fun of my co-workers in my column it was because I was a fish out of water in that office. When your impulse is to write mean things about the people you work with then you probably shouldn’t be there.

Research published in the Harvard Business Review (paid) shows that in order to be a great leader, you need to make your work consistent with your core self. When you can be authentic in your job and authentic when you blog that’s a step toward living congruently and you will be priming yourself for success.

Most people who want career coaching from me set up an appointment. My brothers send random emails that they tag as urgent. Here’s one my brother sent at midnight last night:

“Why don’t you ever write about how to interview someone? What do I do when someone goes on and on about himself and I don’t care. Should I cut him off? I only have thirty minutes to do the interview.”

Answer: The most important thing to find out when you interview someone is if you like the person. You can teach someone to be competent in the skills you need, but you can’t teach someone to have an appealing personality. No matter what the person talks about for thirty minutes — really, much fewer than thirty— you can figure out if you like them.

Which leads me to the first thing you can do to be better at interviewing:

1. Learn how to conduct an interview.
You need to understand what is driving the interviewer and how he or she is thinking. So know enough about the interview process to put yourself in your counterpart’s shoes. If the person is bad at interviewing, you can run the show. If the person is good, you have to figure out how to meet their agenda, make your points, and still be likeable.

2. Learn from other peoples’ mistakes.
The best way to see people making errors in interviews is to interview them yourself. But you can also read about other peoples’ interviewing incompetence. Jobaloo shows how candidates misread a seemingly innocuous question. And CareerBuilder lists some examples of extremely bad judgment.

3. Know your agenda.
What is the image you are trying to convey in the interview? Match that to the kind of job are you trying to land. You should have three points about yourself that you aim to get across in the interview. Before I became a full-time writer, mine were: great at executing a plan, a manager who everyone loves to work for, very reliable. I wanted those points to come across because I wanted to be hired to a position where I would have a lot of responsibility to execute a visionary plan and manage a large team.

4. Practice.
You can find tons of lists about how to interview well. Take a look at them and you’ll notice that they are all about practicing: Avoid too much information, cut the puffy stuff, know your strengths and weaknesses. These are all things you can practice. If you think you can wing it in an interview, you’re wrong. There are no questions that cannot benefit from preparation, so any question you look unprepared for makes you look clueless about the interview process at best and lazy at worst.

5. Be comfortable with silence.
People who can remain calm during silence look powerful and comfortable with themselves. People who have to fill silence end up saying stupid things. Part of your interview practicing should be to sit, saying nothing, so you are comfortable when that happens in an interview.

The interesting thing about preparing to ace an interview is that most aspects of preparation carry over into the rest of your life. When you know who you are, and how to convey that to other people, when you are comfortable with a pause, and you are good at reading another person’s agenda, you will function better in all aspects of your life.

I am a big advocate of blogging to give yourself an advantage in your career, but, as Seth Godin says, you need to have “candor, urgency, timeliness, pithiness, and controversy,” (by way of Global PR Week.) In short, you need to have something to say that will interest other people.

I believe that each person has interesting things to say, you just need to learn how to say them, which takes practice. This applies to both blog entries and job interview questions.

Take, for example, the most ubiquitous question: “So, tell me about yourself.” To answer that question well you have to be a good storyteller. You have to sift through all the information you have to find the pieces of information that are interesting to your audience. The same is true for a blog. You need to learn how to be interesting. But you have to do it more regularly than you interview.

If you’re looking for encouragement, Claire Adler writes in the London Guardian, about people who have “typed their way to the top.” Adler shows wide range of routes to blogging success, (and, BTW, she quotes the Brazen Careerist blog, hooray.)

On the other hand, The Flack gives a summary of the people who should not be blogging. Tucked inside that summary is a link to a New York Times article quoting Nick Denton, the man who made millions from blogging, saying for the millionth time that we are in a blogging bubble. Every time he says that I am encouraged because if there’s a blogging bubble then there’s still money to be made before it pops.

Overheard at synagogue: “I would like to grow up and become a rabbi like you, but my dad doesn’t think women should be rabbis.” From the head rabbi’s seven-year-old daughter to the assistant rabbi who is a woman.

Religious groups seem to be one of the last standouts — along with coal mining and construction — where people feel free to openly declare that women should not hold top jobs. Don’t get me wrong, people in other fields are thinking it. But they know to talk in low voices.

Yesterday, the AP reports, “Jefferts Schori, bishop of Nevada, was elected Sunday as the first female presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, the US arm of the Anglican Communion.” She has an advantage over other women rising in religious organizations in that she has worked as a pilot and an oceanographer, other fields that are male dominated. Sharing ideas across industry lines is critical toward diversifying leadership in any given industry. In this sense, Schori is a one-woman meeting-of-the-minds.

But Schori is unique in that more than other fields of business I know, women in the pulpit have separated themselves from women who are breaking down gender barriers in other professions. While women in engineering, for example, align themselves with women in marketing and mentor each other, women in the pulpit are less likely to see themselves in the same boat as these other women.

But they are in the same boat: Religious organizations have office politics and salary issues; there are issues over who gets their own secretary and there are issues with sixty-year-old men who think they’re still working in an era where it was legal to specify gender in a help wanted ad.

The good news is that there are “more liberal attitudes toward women in leadership positions among those in younger generations,” and the gender divide is decreasing quickly among younger workers. Example: A female rabbi I know was interviewing for a job in a large synagogue. A male congregant stood up and asked, “How can you do such a demanding job as this one and take care of your kids?” A younger male congregant stood up and said, “That’s an illegal question. Don’t answer it.”

No matter what your business situation is, you should keep an ear to the ground about how people in other industries are changing the rules of management and success. There is a large and inclusive base of people who want a flexible and tolerant workplace. Align yourself with those people. You don’t have to do this alone, even as a priest or a rabbi.