How to sell yourself in an interview (during COVID-19 and always)

It’s not the easiest time to find a job right now, but according to recruiters there are still plenty of companies that are hiring. So there is hope! And when you’re interviewing to work with a company or entity that truly excites you, it can be tempting to think that enthusiasm will cinch the Q & A discussion. And it might— being personable, friendly and excited by the work can get you far, says Trish Chua, a Seattle-based creative/digital recruiter and career advisor who manages a consulting program for UX/UI designers and project managers at The Creative Group. “Across any industry, people want to sit next to somebody that they like. If you can show yourself as somebody that that other person envisions being able to tolerate, that’s a huge plus. Sometimes that’s even more important than a person’s ability to fulfill the requirements of the job,” she says.

But Chua has spoken with hundreds of jobseekers at transitional points in their careers. (They may have recently relocated, or had a role that ended unexpectedly, layering stressors on top of their desire to work well and find something new. “They’re sometimes struggling and can have a hard time articulating what they’re good at or what they’re looking for,” she says.) And the insights she gained about the candidates’ abilities to market themselves are just as relevant during the era of COVID-19 as they are during less trying times.

“Women, especially, are not always encouraged to talk about their strengths or their achievements. When you sit down and think about those things ahead of time, I think it’s a little bit easier to recall them in an interview,” she says.

You’re in the building — which, Chua reminds us, means you’ve already done something right — now, are you prepared to talk about your strengths? We’ve put together some tips for assessing and isolating your strongest qualities, and pairing them with clear communication for that win.

First: Identify your strengths

How can you highlight your strengths if you don’t know what they are? It might help to think like a project manager. In strategic planning, the SWOT analysis is a technique used to help identify strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats related to business competition. By asking yourself questions about your strengths — characteristics that give you an advantage over others — you can locate your meaningful contributions and determine your competitive advantage. Common questions for the Strengths portion of a SWOT analysis, adapted for personal questioning, include:

  • What do I do best?
  • What unique knowledge, talent or resources do I have?
  • What advantages do I have?
  • What do other people say I do well?
  • What resources do I have available?
  • What is my greatest achievement?

Take some time to assess the answers. Next, consider whether they’re professional skills — such as proficiency in Excel, Python or building wireframes — or personal “soft” skills, such as loyalty, willingness to learn, dependability and adaptability.

“[Candidates] might be thinking about their coding abilities or their ability to illustrate, but the ability to work with lots of people, or across a lot of teams, those things are really valuable too,” says Chua.

“Communication within your peers and being dependable that way, and genuine and transparent. Being able to mesh, and accommodate the people you’re working with. I really feel that goes across every level of a person’s career.”

Jan Bruce, CEO and co-founder of human capital management platform meQuilibrium, writes in Forbes that soft skills are considered a critical priority for businesses today. Problem-solving, emotion control and purpose are just three she identifies as essential to a resilient workplace. What’s more, the University of Michigan reports that soft skills boost productivity. “Workers with well-honed soft skills tend to work at better firms and fetch higher wages. Employer surveys suggest that this set of skills is just as highly demanded as technical know-how.”

Reach out to one or two trusted former coworkers, managers or mentors who can speak to your advantages. To drill down into what’s unique about your soft skills, in particular, ask them if your strengths lie in something about your personality, such as your professional demeanor or collaborative nature, or in your time management practices, such as your efficiency or thoroughness. Are you someone who fosters camaraderie? Are you comfortable interacting with people at all levels, from associates to supervisors to directors? Do you have experience on the ground level? For instance, someone who’s spent time on the retail sales floor as an associate or manager will have much to offer in the role of product buyer or merchandiser in the corporate office.

Next: Qualify your greatest strengths

Now that you’ve surveyed your strengths, think about the ones that translated into the most value for your clients. Back up each strength you’ve identified with at least one example that illustrates it.

Incorporating numerical figures that show achievements and milestones paints a picture for prospective partners of the value that you’ve added to your past projects and companies. For example:

 “A series of posts I conceptualized and produced resulted in five thousand additional social media interactions in the first month of publication.”

“By using a script I created, support call resolution time decreased from four to two minutes. We were able to manage call volume without temporary support, which saved 500 staffing hours in Q4.”

Finally: Learn to talk about your strengths effectively

First, get specific. Career consultant Chua says that while some employers seek unicorns, people can’t do end-to-end everything, and focusing on what you really do well is better than hyping yourself as a jack-of-all-trades. “Trying to appeal to everybody can also mean you’re appealing to nobody,” she says.

Proposing that much advice on job interviews is bad and that we can learn from successful journalist interviewers, Sarah Green Carmichael, former co-host of Harvard Business Review‘s podcast Women at Work, spoke to Esquire writer Cal Fussman on the HBR IdeaCast about “The Art of the Interview.”

Fussman, known for his illuminating interviews with leaders in various fields, says that building a sense of safety between interviewer and interviewee fosters trust and leads to answers that are real, unrehearsed and authentic. “It’s [an example of] making people feel at home by not asking them something that they’re just hearing again and again.”

But when it comes to the standard job interview, we tend to prepare for those familiar, sanitized and impersonal questions that take us out of the moment and into our heads. If you’re lucky to be asked non-formulaic questions, keep your composure and the moral of your strength stories in mind.

Fussman suggests that the deepest responses come from second and third follow-up question — something to remember when talking about your strengths. If you mention “efficiency,” be prepared to answer two or three more questions of increasing detail about this strength.

  • Tip: Tell a story. If this doesn’t come naturally, remember the classic three-act story structure of setup, confrontation and resolution. Any accomplishment can be translated into a super-quick (try to keep it under 30 seconds!) story that describes what action you took, what changed because of it and what benefit resulted from it. Or, as Carnegie Mellon structures the story, its elements include “a Background (challenges posed by a change in software and culture), an Action (meeting with the new manager, learning new software), and a Result (creation of a database).”
  • Tip: Use situational questions [Think: “Tell me about a time when…”] as opportunities to tell those success stories. Interview questions fall into three categories, as described by Carnegie Mellon: specific questions, which are about factual information; open questions such as, “What makes you a strong candidate for this position?”; and situational questions. The common ground? Each is an opportunity to highlight your top strengths in your answers.
  • Tip: Increase your confidence. Practice (remotely!) with a friend on editing fidgets, “um”s and poor body language out of your presentation — especially if you’re not 100% comfortable with Zoom. Practice answering potential open-ended and situational questions, or any type that raise your anxiety. Brainstorm coping and redirection tools in the event of a mid-interview mental meltdown.
  • Tip: Calm your nerves to authentically engage. Strive to be personable, but not personal. Maintain professional boundaries, even if the interviewer is very friendly. Try to be fully present. Center yourself before, and during, the interview. Breathe deeply. Speak slowly and intentionally, saving some information for those follow-up questions. Preparation does the most to bolster these learned behaviors.
  • Tip: Visualize a successful interview. Before you go in, think of another recent success you had, even if it was something that seems minor or unrelated to the job search. This acknowledgment of competency will put you in a more positive mind frame, where your strengths will be top of mind, and where you might even visualize that the job is already yours.

“Try to find ways to talk about the things you’ve really liked about your job or things you’ve done, where you’ve had successes,” says Chua. “When I see somebody, even the most nervous person, get into the flow of that in an interview or a portfolio presentation, you can tell what they really like and what they’re really passionate about.”

And in the meantime: Look for opportunities to grow

We’ve gone over how to talk about your strengths. So what about when the interviewer asks about your weaknesses? Again, think like a PM and sub in the word ‘vulnerability’ or ‘opportunity’ to reframe the conversation. These are all places where you can grow. You might say, “I have an opportunity to grow around time management. This year I’ve been integrating Pomodoro, Trello and agile principles to accomplish tasks in a more efficient way.”

But as you consider some of your answers to the “weaknesses” question, take the exercise as a growth opportunity in itself: If you can identify areas where you could be stronger, why not start working on them now? Taking a course or getting a new certification could help quell anxieties related to COVID-19 — or at least take your mind off them, if that’s what you’re after.

In yoga, we sometimes hear “It’s a practice, not a perfect,” which is meant to remind yogis that showing up is what’s important, whether you can curl into crow pose today or not. Maintaining composure as conditions change is a good muscle to build during your job search, application and interview process. Identifying your greatest strengths, keeping them top of mind and learning to communicate them well will keep you in the habit of noticing what you can — and already have — achieved.

This article was originally published in The Riveter by Rachel Shimp.