Dominate Open-Ended Interview Questions – Speaking to Your Strengths

Open-ended interview questions are a regular component in today’s interview and hiring process. The open structure creates a huge opportunity to set yourself apart, but not always in a good way. For many candidates, these interview questions are a stumbling point and create a good amount of anxiety.

A truly important interview question that should never catch you unprepared is:

What are your strengths?

Articulating strengths brings up a lot of concerns. Specifically, job seekers worry about sounding brash or self-congratulatory. The fear is becoming the interview equivalent of that guy at a party telling everybody about his “sweet new motor boat.”

Today, with information overload, brands are constantly vying for an ever-shrinking amount of our attention. In response, as consumers we have become highly tuned and adept in scrutinizing marketing and advertising messages. If anything sounds off . . . we just don’t listen to it.

With certainty, this scrutiny will be equally present in your next interview. To get this right will take some planning, thought, and a bit of practice. I recommend preparing and internalizing at least five targeted talking points about your strengths ahead of time. Let’s take a look at successfully talking about your strengths and how to make this a leading element in your interviewing skill set.

1. Be Careful With Soft Skills
“I’m a quick learner, I’m loyal, honest, and have an unshakable upbeat attitude!” Possibly, but you may have just described the average Golden Retriever. Your reply to the open-ended strengths question needs to set you apart. Soft skills have their place at times for an entry-level candidate, but past that, a lot of qualities are assumed or implied. Remember, your interview is a competitive situation, you need to stand out and showcasing soft skills rarely will get you there.

2. Finding Your Balance, Bragging vs. Confidence
Pick each word carefully and find the right tone. In a vacuum, something that comes off as bragging loses that sting when you add facts and metrics to shore it up. If adding examples makes something so, adding recommendations will make it even more so. A statement that seems disingenuous at first, can take on a totally different character when you reframe it with, “People often describe me as…” or “I have a reputation with coworkers as…”

3. Speak to the Interviewer or to the Position Itself
Ahead of your interview, using LinkedIn or an online search, take a look at your interviewer, your potential team members, and the company as a whole. Clients often ask, “Will doing this make me look like a stalker?” No, but it will make you look solidly prepared for both the interview and the position. Every company prefers candidates that took the time to become familiar with the organization, understand what the company is about, and ultimately would like to be a part of it all.

As you do your research, look for common ground with your interviewer. Did you both graduate from NYU, speak Portuguese, or support the same non-profit organization? These hook points can quickly change the dynamic of an interview, relieve tension, and add to the possibility of a positive outcome.

Look for important areas to focus your strengths reply on. Is the company in the middle of a major initiative converting their software division from a channel sales model to a direct sales model? Does the interviewer speak to teamwork repeatedly in their profile? If so, you should prepare an example highlighting your direct sales achievements and how you’re a team player.

4. Go Beyond Flat Statements, Tell Your Story, and Back it Up
“Billy, you can’t pour orange juice down the heating vents.” Billy replies, “But, why not?” Even a six-year-old kid knows you better bring the goods. When preparing responses to common interview questions, make sure to use specific examples, tell your story, and back it up with proof and metrics whenever possible. Using this structure is an opportunity to also weave in some soft skills, without the concerns mentioned above.

 

To tie everything together, let’s compare the following responses:

I’m great at breaking into new accounts, I’m a hard worker and my numbers show it. I have led my territory in new business since 2013.

Alternatively:

Over the last three years I opened 47 new accounts in my territory which has generated sales of $18M to date. I was recognized by my company with the ‘Rookie of the Year Award’ in 2013, and last year I was awarded ‘Top 10 Account Executive’. Beyond hard work and dedication to my clients, I’ve had a lot of success leveraging social media to reach decision makers. I effectively use case studies to demonstrate value, and I really understand how to customize solutions that project a significant ROI.

Same candidate, same accomplishments, yet a completely different story. Who would you hire?

Carol Sosalla