Interviews require you to strike a balance between revealing who you are as a real person, and making yourself seem as amazing as possible. While enthusiasm helps, coming off as desperate is uncomfortable for everyone involved. But playing it too cool for school can also seem a tad obnoxious.
If you're great at thinking up things on the spot, you could totally give a smooth, confident answer. But if you tend to be thrown for a loop when the spotlight is on you, you might draw a blank if you haven't thought through or rehearsed what you'll say in advance. For example, your interviewer says, "So, tell me a little bit about yourself." You answer:
Think about this seemingly easy question as the job interview version of creating a no-makeup makeup look: You're not going for an overdone, over-rehearsed answer that leaves you sounding robotic. The key is to sound natural, but prepared.
"Let the interviewer see you by how you speak about your experiences and relationships with others. It’s very insightful when a candidate asks thoughtful questions about the job that reveal a knowledge of the company and industry and genuine interest in the position," says Kim Ruyle, the president of Inventive Talent Consulting, and an SHRM Talent Management special expertise panelist.
He advises that people not to rehash their résumés during their interview. (The interviewer should already have a copy, so going through every — unless someone specifically asks you to do so — is a waste of time.) Instead, he suggests, say something like: "Rather than summarizing my resume, let me see if I can add some color to it by telling you about …"
That might be an accomplishment you're proud of, which can be explained more thoroughly in person. If you're feeling bold and know how to spin it the right way, Ruyle says you might also share a previous failure, preempting that question yourself.
It's okay to mention a personal anecdote, as long as you keep the overall focus on who you are as a professional.
"Keep these anecdotes brief but not devoid of emotion," he says. "Identify your role in achieving an accomplishment but be sure to recognize the contribution of others. Be frank about your disappointment in a failure but share specific things you learned, and how you’ve recovered from that failure to apply what you learned."
He adds that it's okay to mention a personal anecdote, as long as you keep the overall focus on who you are as a professional. For instance, he says, you might say: "I balance my work life by occasionally competing in triathlons." Or: "When I'm not working, I volunteer as a ______, which gives me an outlet to build on some of the skills I've often put into practice at work."
The most important thing to do, perhaps, is read the room, whether you're doing a one-on-one interview or are speaking to several people. If you get a sense that your interviewer is distracted or short on time, try to bring the energy yourself, but don't meander. If you sense that there's a bit more latitude to be conversational, do so in a respectful way.
"Know your audience!" says Paula Harvey, the vice President of Human Resources at Schulte Building Systems, and a talent management special expertise panelist at SHRM. "I am always me, so I do tell business professional anecdotes. My fellow execs told me the reason I was chosen over three other candidates 18 months ago is because I was so relatable. But I understood my company's culture before I went to the interview."
Remember: company culture can play both for you, and against you — particularly if you aren't seen as a "culture fit." Getting a handle on what a workplace is really like, early on, is important.
Harvey says that she has seen people describe themselves well a "sincere," "hard working," "positive," "innovative," and "fun" — things that are important to her company. On the flip side, some interviewees have poorly described themselves as needing one thing, and one thing only: a paycheck. "A bad example is saying I just need a job, and I don't care what it is. We don’t need bodies, we need motivated humans," she says.
Finally, there is one thing Harvey wishes more interviewees would say: "I want to make a difference." If you genuinely feel that way, but have shied away from articulating something genuine for fear of seeming too corny, or too earnest — put it out there. That could be just the descriptor your interviewer is hoping to hear.