‘Tell Me About Yourself’

Four words, simple but so revealing: “Tell me about yourself.”

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Four words, simple but so revealing: “Tell me about yourself.” It’s an icebreaker for starting conversations from job interviews and client meetings to your first time meeting anyone. This open-ended question invites responses that can take any number of directions—as long as that direction leads to making a connection.

Of all the responses I’ve heard over the years, the best and most memorable was “I’ve climbed the highest mountains on every continent, including Everest.” Obviously, it’s a rare person who conquers the Seven Summits, considered the pinnacle of mountaineering. But that’s not the reason this answer stood out from all the rest.

By responding this way, the person told me she is adventurous and insatiably curious—clear indications of having learning agility, which Korn Ferry considers to be the number one predictor of success. I could also see that she is disciplined and goal-oriented—an indication that she’s largely intrinsically motivated. Anyone who spends years conditioning and training to climb the highest mountains in the world is clearly driven by achievement.

But that’s not all. When I asked her, “What did you think about when you reached the summit of Everest?” she didn’t wax philosophical or dwell on the fact that she’d done something most of us couldn’t even contemplate. Instead, she smiled and said, “How the heck am I going to get down?”—showing her ability to engage others with humor and humility. (No surprise, this candidate recently joined our firm.)

You don’t need to be a world-class mountaineer to stand out in an interview or any other encounter with a person who wants to get to know you. Your response to “tell me about yourself” should be grounded in your ACT: being authentic, forging a connection, and giving others a taste of who you are.

By sharing a very short anecdote or brief bit of personal information—30 seconds or less—you allow someone to get to know you. For example, when someone asks me about myself, I tell them that I was raised in McPherson, Kansas, went to college in California, and have five children. I can’t tell you how many times my small-town Kansas background makes a connection.

Unfortunately, most people don’t approach “tell me about yourself” as an invitation. Instead, they can’t wait to dive deeply into the details of who they know and what they’ve done. One person I interviewed didn’t even wait to be asked. The minute we sat down together, he ended all small talk and launched into a canned speech name-dropping who he knew, where he had worked, and what his titles and responsibilities were. He repeated everything that was on his resume—a copy of which was on the table where we sat. In his 12-minute filibuster, he said nothing that indicated who he was as a person. And when the interview was over, I felt I didn’t know him at all.

A lot of people, I’ve noticed, struggle with making a real connection. I even experience it while walking my dog Charlie. Over and over, people come up to Charlie, asking “What’s your name?,” “How old are you?,” and “Can I pet you?,” without a word or eye contact with me—even though I’m standing there at the other end of the leash.

It’s symptomatic of a much bigger problem: people don’t know how to make a first-time connection with others. It’s so easy with a dog—and no pressure with a baby in a stroller, either. They’re happy with everything you say. But when it comes to breaking the ice and starting a two-way conversation with someone they don’t know, many people freeze up, clam up, and back up into a corner.

The fear is understandable—nobody really gets out of sixth grade. Back when we were 11 or 12 years old, our biggest worries were: Are the other kids going to like me? Will they want to be friends with me? Will they want me on their team? Now tell me—has anything really changed? Meeting someone new, whether socially or in business, brings up those same fears. The more vulnerable you feel, the more tempting it is to avoid reaching out to someone new.

Don’t worry about having a killer opening line like you’re Chris Rock or Dave Chappelle doing stand-up. Just go back to the basics. Everyone has something interesting to say.

There are many aspects to you, and how you respond to “tell me about yourself” can and should vary from conversation to conversation, based on the context. I’ve interviewed Navy SEALs, fighter pilots, and professional athletes, some of whom have discussed their backgrounds in detail and others who focused on something else instead. Neither is right or wrong. Go with your gut as to what feels most appropriate and meaningful in the moment.

So the next time someone prompts you, “Tell me about yourself,” just remember: it’s an invitation, not a pop quiz. All it takes is a very brief story to give a little insight into who you are as a person.