Previously, I wrote a blog post about the importance of having a sticky message, that is, how to be memorable when telling your story. I thought that I would build on the theme of how to answer interview questions by sharing some examples from successful CEO’s. By the time they become CEO’s, most executives have told their story so many times that they have it down and you quickly get a great feeling for who they are as a person and as a leader. They absolutely know how to answer “tell me about yourself” questions.
If you are just embarking on your career, you need a sticky message too, but you may be challenged to figure out what it is. Knowing how to tell your life story succinctly (e.g. how to answer “so tell me about yourself”) is critical when interviewing. When working with my clients, I help them to mine their life experiences to find their unique story. Nearly every interview starts off with the question: “so tell me about yourself”. Universally, this is the most hated, loathed and feared question by college students. Most students simply do not know how to answer it. Often, they are quite uncomfortable talking about themselves. The story of “you” not only should be memorable, it should help you get that coveted job or internship. To do this, interweave your strengths, values and uniqueness into your story. You want your message to be so sticky that your interviewer will remember you not just for 3 hours, but for 3 months.
To help you find your sticky message, I am sharing excerpts of stories from interviews with CEO’s conducted by Adam Bryant, author of the column “Corner Office”, and Susan Dominic, both reporters at the New York Times.
“I have a picture of me in kindergarten, wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase. In junior high, when they said girls should take sewing and cooking, I signed up for arc welding and fly tying.” Saundra Pelletier, C.E.O. Evofem, Inc. and WomanCare Global
Why this works: Saundra vividly describes an image that the interviewer can picture and won’t quickly forget. She demonstrates with both her examples that she is motivated to follow her own path, take risks and go beyond what is expected. She clearly knows how to answer interview questions.
“For my first two years at Harvard, I cleaned bathrooms. That was my work-study job — Monday through Friday, two hours a day, cleaning bathrooms for other students. I may have been the best bathroom cleaner that they ever had. A lot of students might be a little embarrassed by it. But I was, as I say to this day, proud to be a scrubbie. Somebody had to do it, and I did it well.” Roger Ferguson, TIAA-Cref
Why this works: Roger’s story tells a lot about him and his values. His story demonstrates both his work ethic and his pride in making sure that any job he did, including cleaning bathrooms, would be done to the absolute best of his ability. Both great qualities employers are looking for.
“When I was fourteen years old, I took apart my step-mother’s bike and left all the parts in a bucket.” Megan J. Smith, Chief Technology Officer, The Obama White House
Why this works: Megan’s story demonstrates her curiosity and desire to understand how things work and depicts her as an active, hands-on learner.
“I grew up on a wheat, barley and beef cattle farm in Idaho. Probably more than most kids, I had an opportunity to do big things early on. When I was 6 years old, my dad needed to get a tractor and a pickup home from five miles away. He put me in the pickup, put it in first gear, and I drove it home with my 5-year-old sister in the passenger seat. He drove the tractor behind us.” Brent Frei, Executive Chairman and Co-founder of Smartsheet.com
Why this works: Brent’s story is almost shocking (today, who lets a 6-year old drive a truck by themselves?), so it’s sure to be remembered. It also demonstrates that he was responsible, took direction well, was unafraid of new experiences and that his father had confidence in him from an early age. Again, they are all desirable traits which were instilled in him from a very young age.
All of these are great examples of how to answer the “tell me about yourself question”.
It might take some time and thought to mine your sticky message. I had a client who passionately wanted to be in investment banking. It took several interviews with him before we uncovered his story. When he was in fifth grade, he asked for stock in Nike, because it was his favorite brand, and he’s been passionate about the stock market ever since. So, if you are having trouble finding your sticky message, ask a friend to interview you and don’t stop until you find your “memorable” moment, whether it’s a bucket of bike parts or your welding capabilities.
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