“I just don’t know how to sell myself!” It’s one of the most common complaints that I hear in my job interview coaching practice.
I love hearing these words because I know I can help these clients make a dramatic improvement in their interview game pretty quickly. They tend to be people who are successful and confident and poised, but just a bit too modest when it comes to talking about themselves.
Take Lawrence for example. He is an accomplished IT professional with an impressive resume and no problem getting up in front of a room full of colleagues.
However, he hasn’t interviewed in a while and he’s always been a fairly humble guy.
In our first practice interview, he managed to avoid talking about his most impressive accomplishments and to stumble and mumble when asked about his strengths.
After one session, Lawrence went from modest and forgettable to irresistible (well, he got the job offer that he wanted anyway).
Why You Aren’t Getting the Offers That You Deserve
If you can relate to Lawrence, you’re definitely not alone. Some of my most impressive clients have suffered from this same discomfort with self-promotion. Most were going on lots of job interviews and never getting offers (a few weren’t even getting called in for interviews because their resumes weren’t doing them justice).
The truth is that most people aren’t used to talking about themselves, let alone “selling” themselves. In daily life, we are rarely called upon to list our strengths or detail our accomplishments.
In fact, many of us grew up with the conditioning that it’s obnoxious to brag or call attention to our achievements. This is just good manners when it comes to cocktail parties, but it will definitely hold you back in job interviews.
A job interview is unlike any other form of interaction. The interviewer wants you to communicate what makes you stand out from other candidates. His job is to pick the best candidate.
It’s impossible to get a full and complete picture of any human being from a 30-40 minute conversation, so the interviewer has to rely on a limited set of data — what you tell him in the interview.
As a result, great candidates often get passed over for people with worse qualifications but the better presentation.
The good news is that it’s very possible to learn to “sell yourself” in a way that will still feel authentic. It’s not about trickery or false representation — it’s about understanding what your key strengths are and being able to communicate them in a concise and compelling way.
Approach it Like a Marketing Challenge
It can be useful to approach it as a marketing challenge. Amusingly enough, some of my most modest clients have been marketing executives who were brilliant at marketing but struggled with applying this knowledge to promoting themselves.
An interview is a conversation, yes. It’s an opportunity to get to know a potential manager or colleague and discuss a potential opportunity. You want to be likable and authentic.
However, don’t forget that the interview is also an exercise in positioning yourself for the position. You want to convey what sets you apart from the competition and how you could benefit the organization if hired.
Some products are all marketing and little substance. You may know a few people like this. That’s not the approach that I’m recommending.
I’m talking about putting your best foot forward, about knowing your strengths and communicating them in a memorable and persuasive way.
So now that we’re running with this metaphor of you as the great product and the interview as your marketing opportunity, let’s look at how to approach your interview like a marketer.
Step 1. Analysis
Any good marketer understands the value of market research. Who is your target audience? What are they looking for? What does the competition offer? How can your product solve the customer’s problem and/or improve the customer’s life?
Take a good look at the job description. Where are you a great match? Which of the top requirements do you bring to the table? Can you claim expert status or impressive accomplishments that can separate you from the pack?
Sometimes it’s difficult to analyze yourself clearly (especially if you have been job hunting for a while and are feeling bruised by the process). This is where a trusted mentor or coach can help with some objective feedback on what to emphasize and what to downplay.
Step 2. Hone Your Speaking Points
Be proactive about what you want to convey in your interview. Based on the analysis conducted in Step 1, you should have a pretty good sense of the key selling points that your interviewer will be most interested in.
Now it’s time to frame these selling points so that you can communicate them concisely and powerfully.
I’m not advising you to write a script and I’m certainly not advising you to make stuff up.
However, it’s useful to do some preparation around what you want to say and how you want to say it. In fact, this is particularly important for those who consider themselves a bit modest or uncomfortable “selling” themselves.
If you have a history of being too modest in interviews, it’s going to feel weird at first. If you wing it, even if you’ve analyzed your fit and told yourself that you’re going talk yourself up to more, I can almost guarantee that you will hold back because it won’t feel natural.
That’s why it’s so important to think about the approach and language that will be most natural for you — that will still feel like YOU, just more confident and articulate about your positive qualities. The process of writing down your speaking points will make a tremendous difference.
Sit down and list your top selling points. What do you want your interviewer to remember about you? Aim for at least five main points —these can be areas of expertise, key accomplishments, education or training, soft skills, personality qualities, and/or other strengths.
For each of these, write a proof statement. This proof statement can be a brief example or a more general statement about how you have demonstrated that strength in the past.
Example selling point #1: Management skills/experience
For a management role, you’ll want to demonstrate that you can successfully lead others. If this is one of your strengths, highlight it with specifics:
Proof Statement A (specific example): In my current role, I have built a great team that has grown from 3 to 14 over the last five years. Early on, I learned a lot from my mentors about how to hire the right people and coach them to success. Now I’m proud to say that my team has been acknowledged as the most productive and cohesive group in the division. Now my bosses send young managers to me to mentor!
Proof Statement B (general description): I love being a manager and I believe it’s one of my greatest strengths. I have managed customer service teams at both large and small companies for more than four years, so I know how to get the best out of customer service professionals.
Example selling point #2: Hard worker
A strong work ethic is a great asset and a desirable quality for almost any position.
Just keep in mind that interviewers hear this “hard worker” claim a lot and may not see it as a huge differentiator. If you choose this as one of your interview selling points, make sure you have a great example or proof statement that shows how you personify this quality.
Also, be sure to supplement this one with additional selling points that are more specific to the role and set you apart more clearly.
Proof Statement A (specific example): In my previous position, I put in many late nights to ensure that our monthly client newsletter went out on time — and that it met the company’s high quality standards. Because of layoffs, we were understaffed and I volunteered to take on many additional tasks beyond my role — I wrote stories, edited for our other writers, oversaw layout, and served as the final proofreader to ensure no mistakes made it to press. The issue was a huge success and resulted in lots of positive feedback from clients and from senior management.
Proof Statement B (general description): I have always been that person who’s first in the office in the morning and last to leave in the evening. I’m the guy who taught himself programming so that I could be more valuable to my team on our site redesign project. I’m not happy unless I know I’m giving my all.
Step 3: Practice Until It Feels Natural
Just like you would practice for an important speech or a big performance, you must practice for your interview. Most people know this is true, but my experience shows that few candidates actually put enough (if any) time into effective practice.
Practicing is especially important for those inclined to modesty (anyone who feels skittish about the idea of “selling” themselves!)
In Step 2, you outlined your main speaking points in writing (remember, not word for word).
To make sure you can deliver this crucial information in a compelling and natural way, you’ll need to speak those selling points out loud (with your notes at first and eventually without them).
I can’t emphasize the value of practice enough. The process of practicing can feel awkward (check out Big Interview for a way to practice on your own with minimum awkwardness), but it allows you to work out the kinks BEFORE you walk into the interview.
As you practice, you’ll likely make tweaks to the content and how you deliver it. Your answers should come out a little bit differently each time, but still, cover the selling points that you’ve identified as most important.
This practice will also make you more comfortable with saying positive things about yourself and help you own your strengths in your own voice.
Finally, practice will help you with remembering what you want to say — even if your nerves act up when the pressure is on in the interview.
When to Sell Yourself in an Interview
Once you know your selling points and have a sense of how you want to describe them, you need to get proactive about finding opportunities to pitch yourself during the interview.
Unfortunately, there are many untrained interviewers out there who ask lame questions and/or don’t really give candidates a chance to talk.
Here are some questions that provide useful openings for pitching your selling points:
1) Tell me about yourself — Most interviews open with this question or a variation (Walk me through your resume/background, etc.). This is an opportunity for you to start strong and steer the interview discussion to your strengths. Our article on answering the dreaded “Tell me about yourself” interview question will help you craft a great answer that incorporates your selling points.
2) Your strengths — Any question about your strengths is an invitation to share your selling points. Variations on “the strengths question” include:
- Why would you be a good fit?
- Why should we hire you?
3) Your role descriptions — Any decent interviewer will ask you about your most recent positions. Instead of just rattling off your duties, weave in examples that show off your key qualifications.
4) Your behavioral stories — Most interviews will include some behavioral questions (any questions that start with “Tell me about a time…” or otherwise prompt you for specific examples from your past). I work with all of my clients to prepare at least 3-5 strong stories that showcase their strengths and achievements. These stories can be used for answering behavioral questions and also for weaving into the conversion in other ways (see points 1-3 above).
More Self-Promotion Tips for the Modest and Shy
If you’re trying to craft your selling points and still struggle with feeling comfortable saying nice things about yourself, I have some tricks you can use.
1) Stick with the facts. Instead of stating an opinion about yourself (awkward sometimes), present some nice objective facts that demonstrate your point.
Instead of: I’m a very strong writer. Try: I’ve been published by Publication X and Z and was very excited to be selected for Writing Prize ABC during my senior year.
2) Quote somebody else. Sometimes it can feel less “braggy” to quote somebody else’s positive opinion of you. Truthfully, this approach can lend additional credibility even if you’re perfectly okay with tooting your own horn.
Instead of: I’m a very effective project manager. Try: My manager told me that I am the best project manager at the company and the CEO specifically requested me to lead our highest-profile client engagement this quarter.
3) Push yourself out of your comfort zone. Give yourself permission to brag. Try writing your selling point bullets as if you were a brazen self-promoter. You can always dial it back later if the results feel obnoxious. However, I have seen many clients benefit from pushing themselves a little.
4) Get feedback from a trusted (and objective) advisor. Try it out loud with a friend or coach and get some honest feedback. You’ll likely find that you’re too close to the topic to evaluate without some outside perspective.
Look for an advisor with some knowledge of the interviewing process (many of your friends and family members probably have experience interviewing candidates).
Ideally, you also want someone who can maintain some objectivity about you (often a parent or significant other will have trouble with this aspect) and can give feedback that’s both candid and constructive.
If you follow this advice, you can follow my client Lawrence’s example and dramatically improve your job interview performance. You can learn to “sell” yourself without feeling like a sellout.
As always, my goal is to make you so good at interviewing that you won’t have to interview anymore.