How to Answer the Question Always Asked in Job Interviews

“Tell me about yourself.” It’s one of the most deceivingly tricky questions asked by a majority of hiring professionals. And it’s not just asked in job interviews, but also at networking events, business meetings, first dates — you name it. All the more reason to have a solid answer to fall back on.

What’s more, considering 49 percent of the 2,100 hiring managers surveyed by CareerBuilder know whether a candidate is a good fit within the first five minutes of an interview, it’s crucial to have an answer prepared. But what seems like a simple question can spur a lot of unnecessary talk and irrelevant details.

To help you create an elevator pitch that can be used in a variety of situations and, most importantly, the job interview, here is a five-step plan on how to pitch yourself to others — without going off topic:

Step #1: Create a timeline.

The best way to avoid venturing off-topic when answering such a general question about yourself is to prepare ahead of time. To do this, create a brief timeline of events, ranging from your educational accomplishments to jobs you’ve held. From here, you can then craft an elevator pitch that flows naturally.

Consider using the past-present-future formula when creating your pitch. Start with the past — where you interned while at school, what you graduated with, where you previously worked, etc. Then, segue into the present, and discuss where you are now. Last, but certainly not least, finish with the future — why you’re excited about this opportunity and what you hope to gain or accomplish.

This formula can help you present the most important information in a way that’s easy to follow and digest, whether it’s for a job interview of a first date.

Step #2: Tell a story.

The key to a successful elevator pitch is to hook listeners and keep them interested. To do this, tell a story. Instead of simply telling your audience about your past accomplishments and goals for the future, show them your skills, achievements, and passion by providing relevant examples.

For instance, instead of saying, “I’m a team player,” reference a time when you collaborated and worked with your peers to achieve a common goal. After all, actions speak louder than words.

Step #3: Time yourself.

With so many hiring managers needing so little time to make a decision about your capabilities, it’s best to keep your elevator pitch short and sweet. Present detailed information about yourself in a short amount of time by sticking to the highlights you referenced in your timeline (see Step #1).

Once you’ve determined the most enticing points of your background and story, aim to make those points in under two minutes. Practice giving your answer aloud and time yourself. Too long? Try Step #4.

Step #4: Cut the fluff.

To keep your audience’s interest, cut anything that may be considered unnecessary. To do this, tailor your general elevator pitch to fit the particular role you’re applying for, professional you’re speaking to — you get the idea. Use the company’s job description to guide your speaking points and just address the skills, knowledge, or experience it references.

To further cut down your elevator pitch, practice it with a colleague and have them identify any excess or irrelevant information. Sometimes the best way to perfect something is to request a little help from a third party.

Step #5: Make it about them, too.

You’ve created an elevator pitch that’s interesting, informative, and to the point. But instead of solely focusing on your interest in the position or person, make it about them, too. Be sure your pitch shows your passion for the company or individual.

Show why you want to join their team, be their mentee, or whatever the case may be. If it’s for a job interview, for instance, use the company’s mission and vision statement, clientele, press coverage, or social platforms to support your case.

What are some other things to keep in mind when creating a successful elevator pitch?