The simple request induces anxiety in even the most focused job seekers, and generates almost total mental paralysis in career changers. One of the basic purposes of networking is to trigger as much exposure in the job market as possible, so you're left with the question of what to expose. No matter how benignly expressed, the demand to explain yourself resonates with a number of implicit sub demands:
"Be focused. Be self-aware. Don't ask me to make sense of your life." Others will offer more advice, "Be succinct; don't give me a lot of abstract babble." "What do you offer? What value can you add?" "Explain why you want what you want," they'll ask. However, don't be perturbed by their queries. Market yourself as best as you possibly can without sounding vain or boastful and without being so modest that you fail to communicate your good qualities.
The tell-me-about-yourself request is the real beginning of most interviews, and it's also one of the first hurdles that should be approached in any networking meeting. Knowing the request is coming and knowing how to fulfill it are two different things. Avoid the most frequently given response: "Well, what do you want to know?" This counter question, which throws the responsibility back to the questioner, might be paraphrased, "That question is so stupid I can't even begin to answer it." In networking, it's a particularly abrasive response because you, the networker, asked for the meeting and should have an agenda in mind.
One memorable real-life networking exchange went like this:
Networker: Thank you for taking the time to see me on such short notice.
Contact: You're welcome. How can I help you?
Networker: Well, I was hoping you could help me in my job search.
Contact: (patiently): I'll do what I can. Why don't you tell me a little about yourself?
Networker: What do you want to know?
Contact: What do you want me to know?
Networker: I don't understand.
Contact: Neither do I.
Networker (panicking): No, I mean I thought you were going to help me.
Contact: I'm trying, but I don't know enough about you to know where to start. You're running a job search, right? You're marketing a "product"?
Contact: (voice rising): So what's the product?!
Networker (defensive): If I knew that, I wouldn't be networking with you.
Contact: Look, you can't just come in here, dump your bucket on my desk, and expect me to put it all together for you.
Believe me; it didn't get any better after this initial exchange. The networker thought the contact was hostile and unhelpful; the contact considered the networker to be unprepared, unfocused and unwilling to carry his responsibility for keeping the meeting on track. This would have been hilarious except that there are many valuable lessons hidden within this exchange for the networker. As a networker, you really must be able to do better.
You're probably anxious at this point to start creating a whole series of new antennas, a term for people who are already on your network and who know what you want for yourself. But you can't tune a lot of people to your networking wavelength if your transmission is fuzzy or if no one knows what channel you're on.
Perhaps you have already worked through a detailed self-assessment and vocational profiling and are brimming with articulate self-awareness. Or, perhaps you're among those rare people who are so gifted with innate insight that they know every nook and cranny of their personal profiles. If you fit into either of these categories, the topics in this article may be familiar, but you'll learn some of the vocabulary we'll be using, the issues that will get primary focus, and some methods for making job seekers incredibly self-aware.
Anyone who has lived long enough to reach job hunting age has gained, from experience, some sense of his strengths, aptitudes, hot buttons, soft spots and danger zones. In other words, most adults are self-aware, at least at some semiconscious, nonverbal level. That doesn't mean they can articulate their self-understanding succinctly on demand, however. Before you start scheduling networking meetings, you have to spend time learning to (1) think of yourself as an attractive product and (2) describe yourself clearly as that product.
This is easier said than done. Each of us is a complex amalgam of forces and factors, a unique blend of nature, nurture, education, experience and operative values. When confronted with the need to present an articulate and attractive personal profile, actually, a "product profile", we mustn't forget that we're selling a product to a market. When this happens many of us act like a deer caught in headlights.
What do I put first? What comes last? How much detail do I put in? What do I leave out? How do I organize what stays in chronologically or the most important stuff first? Should I build to a big finish?
The best way to understand how people, networking contacts and potential employers will size you up is to reflect on how you size up other people. When you first meet someone in a business context, what information do you want to know first? What data are essential to describing someone clearly as a product?