The Mistake Most People Make Within the First 5 Minutes of an Interview

Updated 08/07/17

Less than a minute into my phone interview with Peggy Klaus, executive coach and author of Brag! The Art of Tooting Your Own Horn Without Blowing It, I made the very mistake I'd been hoping to chat to her about. "Tell me about yourself—what do you do?" she asked, a disarming question for any interviewer, given that I usually lead the conversation. Slightly taken aback, I blurted out my title and a few tidbits about my role as a writer and editor. Without realizing, I'd just committed the key mistake she's written about at length.

"Brag is a four-letter word, even in the age of social media, selfies, and narcism," says Klaus, a communication trainer who coaches C-suite executives. "But it's about being able to talk about yourself with pride. That is something all of us should be able to do." In her experience, it's not necessarily a skill we're born with—it's something that needs to be learned and practiced, and it can transform your career.

Struggle to talk about your achievements without deflecting? Ahead, she shares the most common mistakes people make—and the tips to take ownership of your success.

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Using "We" Instead of "I"

"It's important and positive to use we when it's appropriate—in the workplace, so much teamwork goes on, and you need to acknowledge the people who help you," says Kalus. "Here's the caveat: Women use it too much. People leave themselves out [of the conversation]. You're doing yourself a huge disservice if you do not acknowledge your part."

This is particularly crucial when it's time for your performance review. "Women get duped by this team rhetoric. They go in and don't talk about themselves. Men go in and look for a bonus, title, and promotion by outlining their own achievements," she says. "There is no 'I' in team, but there's a 'u' in bonus."

Leading With the Least Important Point

Learning to hone your elevator pitch is nothing new, but Klaus says one recent encounter reminded her that it's still an issue, even for those at the peak of their career. "Nothing came as a bigger shock to me than last fall when I did a workshop with 45 executive women—founders, owners, C-suite—about branding them for corporate boards," she recalls. "I asked one woman to tell us about herself and what she does. "She talked about the company she works for, then she stopped for 10 seconds, and there's a deadly pause. She said, 'OMG I forgot to mention that I founded the company.' If women at that level in their career cannot represent themselves with joy and fullness and delight, then we're really in trouble."

Not Knowing Your "Brag Nuggets"

If you struggle to talk about your position at a company beyond the job description, start by articulating your "brag nuggets," says Klaus. "You want to talk about your accomplishments in a conversational, storylike manner using a few key pieces of information that I call 'brag nuggets.' It could be an accomplishment or simply something a co-worker said about you," she explains. Delivery is also crucial. It should be "said with delight, passion, and sense of urgency." Something quick and straightforward, such as "I led X project, which earned a Y award," is ideal.

Racing Through a Laundry List

If "brag nuggets" are a tightly edited list of achievements, a laundry list is the opposite. When we haven't taken the time to identify these points, they can turn into a long, rambling list that's enough to make anyone's eye glaze over.

To avoid this, Klaus recommends trying this exercise. "In workshops, I pair people back to back with someone they don't know. When I blow the whistle, they turn around and tell their partner what they do and at least three things they're proud of and why."

Watch out for these red flags that you need to work on your pitch: "If there is very little facial animation, vocal variation, and eye contact and they deliver a laundry list, it's a real baseline indication," she says.

Talking About Family First

Our career is just one facet of our lives and identity, so it's pretty normal to mention your S.O. or kids when asked to talk about yourself. For the sake of this exercise, though, Klaus says it's important to lead with your career achievements, not your family. "When you involve personal information, women find it too easy to brag about their children or partners and not talk about themselves," she points out. "There's nothing harder than being a parent, but it doesn't always serve you well in a professional situation."

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Want to delve a bit deeper and learn to talk about your career without hesitation? Follow Klaus's "Take 12" self-evaluation questionnaire to get started:

  1. What would you and others say are five of your personality pluses?
  2. What are the 10 most interesting things you have done or that have happened to you?
  3. What do you do for a living, and how did you end up doing it?
  4. What do you like/love about your current job/career?
  5. How does your job/career use your skills and talents, and what projects are you working on right now that best showcase them?
  6. What career successes are you most proud of having accomplished (from your current position and past jobs)?
  7. What new skills have you learned in the last year?
  8. What obstacles have you overcome to get where you are today, both professionally and personally, and what essential lessons have you learned from some of your mistakes?
  9. What training/education have you completed, and what did you gain from those experiences?
  10. What professional organizations are you associated with and in what ways (member, board, treasurer, or the like)?
  11. How do you spend your time outside of work, including hobbies, interests, sports, family, and volunteer activities?
  12. In what ways are you making a difference in people's lives?
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Have you mastered the art of career bragging? Share your tips below. 

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