Rather than dread the question, think of it as a self-promotional invitation you mustn’t let pass you by. People are not asking for your chronological history, but they do want more than your name, rank, and serial number. Whether you are in a job interview, meeting a new contact while you build your network, or talking with your big boss on a video conference for the first time, this is your moment to shine. It is an opportunity to give your two-minute advertisement about your background, your accomplishments, and the importance of what you do.
Your goal is to turn the question into the beginning of a deeper conversation and a deeper relationship. So keep these three key pieces of your response ready: Engage the audience, establish credibility, and tell people why they should care. Then tailor your reply to the person who is asking. Find ways to connect your experience and expertise to their interests.
Engage the audience
Resist the urge to lead with your title and organization unless you know that will stand out. Instead, give a short, illustrative explanation of what you actually do. Make it an interesting conversation starter. If it points to anything going on in the news right now, even better. Everyone you talk to is different. If you have researched their background or learned something through talking with them that relates, find a way to tie your work to a common area of interest. For example,
- “I’m a cybersecurity expert, helping companies respond to the recent SolarWinds hack and other growing threats.”
- “I’m starting a new advertising agency so we can focus on the more nimble, creative approach I loved when my last agency was still small.”
These introductions give your interlocutor the opportunity to ask questions that lead to an in-depth conversation. That gives you the opening to follow up in more detail about what you do and how it relates to the other people in the conversation.
Now is the time to share what it is about you that people should want to know. Describe highlights from your work experience, life experience, or education that set you apart and demonstrate your knowledge in this area. This might include the inspiration that led you to this line of work, what you studied at your university, a big project you worked on, or places you have lived. What makes you uniquely qualified to do the work that you do? For example:
- “I’m excited that I can combine my engineering degree and my experience running marathons to develop new technologies for prosthetics.”
- “My two years with a management consulting firm in Hong Kong gave me unique insight into the impacts of political swings on the U.S.-China trade outlook.”
Tell people why they should care
Include some version of, “This is important because . . .” At this point, you have offered a conversation starter and discussed your expertise. Now use big picture concepts explain why they should care. For instance:
- “Artificial intelligence is helping us in so many ways and has incredible potential to do more. My work will help protect our privacy in the process.”
- “Working from home in the pandemic is causing a wave of mental health challenges. The online mindfulness programming my company offers gives workers a chance to get away even when they can’t get away.”
The most important part of responding to the inevitable question, “So, tell me about yourself,” is to be prepared. If the brand name of your company or your university will pop, put it out there up front. If your life experience, awards, or projects you have worked on demonstrate your value-added, make sure to include them.
To build your confidence around this response, it’s a good idea to film a practice round on your phone ahead of time—and watch it back so you can adjust if needed.
Remember that the best thing about this open-ended question is the opportunity it gives you to highlight your best features and why what you do matters.
Eileen Smith is a public speaking coach, former diplomat, and founder of Spokesmith. She helps business executives, policy experts, and rising professionals deliver their message in daily and extraordinary events.