By Linda S. Jevahirian
Originally Published in Michigan Lawyers Weekly January 2012
“Tell me about yourself.”
It’s one of the most powerful interview questions a paralegal or legal support professional can hear, yet one of the toughest to answer.
You get stumped because you do not know what the employer wants to hear, what is appropriate to say, or how long you should speak. You feel like you have lost control because the question sends you in so many different directions.
Actually, it is an opportunity to focus the discussion on your strengths, and to avoid topics you are less knowledgeable about.
Employers ask this question for a number of reasons. They want to hear how you speak, get a feel for your style, understand how you organize your thoughts, and establish what you know about the job and the company. It is also a friendly and productive dialogue that guides the interviewer toward further inquiry.
Be sure to communicate professionally and diplomatically using “interview speak.” “Casual speak” is easy to default to because we use it on a regular basis. It works well in social situations. ‘Interview speak,’ on the other hand, is formal business talk. Using proper speech with an optimistic tone will improve your presentation.
It is easy to forget a name the instant you hear it, but you can almost always remember what someone is wearing, what color their hair is, or how they obnoxiously wave their hands when they talk. From the moment an interviewer lays eyes on you he is focused on your body language, including the way you hold yourself, the way you walk, the way you sit, and the facial expressions you use. Positive body language is the way we convey confidence. Practice in front of a mirror until you are comfortable.
Disorganized thoughts are the bane of any interview. A good reminder is English 101. Present information with a topic sentence, a short explanation and a summary remark. Using a chronological format is equally important. Following these basic rules will make it easier for the listener to absorb and to remember what you say.
Always link your response to the job description. Even though the question is directed at you, the final solution is about the employer. By connecting your knowledge and experience to what the position requires of you will keep the interviewer interested, and at the same time establish your worth.
Whatever you say may be used against you. Any information you share is fair play for further discussion. If you do not want to provide additional details, don’t bring it up. Which leads me to the next topic. The answers that are most likely to bomb the interview immediately.
If you respond with any of the following answers start watching the clock because the interview will be over in a matter of seconds:
“Wow, that is a big question.”
“What do you want to know?”
“Should I talk about work or personal things?”
“I have three children and a husband who travels so I am only interested in this job if the hours are flexible.”
Never answer a question with a question, and never volunteer personal information or ask for flexibility until the employer has indicated a serious interest in hiring you.
Inappropriate answers are almost always the result of poor preparation. Like all interview questions, this one requires rehearsal.
Start by writing down some basic information about yourself. Begin with where you were raised and include all your education, work, and volunteer experience up to the present time.
Be sure to include the people and events that have influenced your career, your proudest achievements, and your short and long-term goals. Embellish the first draft with as much detail as you want.
Assemble the information into a story using ‘interview speak’ language. Keep a copy of the long version to practice additional interview questions. For this purpose, edit the story until you have a 60-90 second response that includes the most important highlights of your past, and the ones that are most likely to be sought by the employer.
Make sure you tell the short version. Too much detail will cause you to ramble, and the interviewer to drift. Use the time to showcase the main points.
Make it interesting. Feel free to use catchy words, facial expressions and a little bit of (tasteful) humor. Be upbeat and excited about what you have to say and never put any doubt in the mind of the interviewer. Putting yourself down or dismissing your positive attributes will lead the employer to think that you lack confidence. Elevate yourself with proud statements, but never brag.
One way to spice up a narrative response is to illustrate your answer with a portfolio. Diplomas, certificates, awards, writing samples, reference letters and anything else that demonstrates your education and experience are colorful ways to keep the listener interested. Got bad grades? Eliminate the transcripts until they are absolutely necessary.
Finally, answering the question, “Tell me about yourself” should be a way to get your focus off your nerves and on to the task at hand. Take advantage of the opportunity to put yourself in the best light possible and have fun talking about yourself.
You are the best you’ve got. Use yourself wisely.