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.