From the moment you started interning when you were still in school, everyone thought you were a star in the making. Your photocopies were perfection, with never a smudge, and your coffee-making skills were exquisite—there was always the perfect amount of milk! Nowadays, it’s all about your innovative ideas, your team spirit and your accuracy. But how do you talk about your professional attributes and achievements without sounding arrogant? During a delicate situation like a job interview, bringing up your successes while still sounding modest is a bit of a balancing act. Here are a few tips to help you accomplish this important yet challenging feat.
1. Talk about your failures too
Each project and every success comes with its own difficulties or even failures. Bringing them up shows that you are capable of overcoming obstacles and that you can take a step back and put things into perspective. If you never seem to make any mistakes, it might look like you have not faced any real challenges. It is proof of your maturity and humility. In a recruiter’s eyes, candidates who are genuine and are prepared to show their vulnerability can be expected to be open to advice that will help them to fit in with the company culture and to improve as time goes on.
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2. Talk about other people
First impressions are crucial during a job interview. When you talk about your experience, the recruiter may make up their mind quickly as to whether you can work in a team. So it is important to mention other people when talking about your professional history. You can, for example, mention your boss’s “astute advice” that helped you to build your managerial skills, or how you learned from observing your colleague in the sales department’s negotiation skills how to “develop your own powers of persuasion”. It will show that you have empathy and are not pretentious.
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3. Pull out some facts and figures
Recruiters feel about figures the way Londoners view jellied eels and Northerners see mushy peas: they are sacred. Describing a “remarkable outcome” and “unprecedented growth” is good, but it is still subjective and imprecise. If your results were as exceptional as you say, the recruiter will be able to tell for themselves. If they can’t, you should spell it out for them: “Putting this new strategy in place reduced the number of returned products from 15% to 9%. The sector’s average has been at about 13% over the past five years.” Be specific.
4. No False Modesty
“Obviously I have had some difficult times. I was so in demand following the success of my last project, I couldn’t keep up with all of my colleagues requests for advice.” This practice of seeming to disparage yourself, while really aiming to show how impressive you are, is known as “humblebragging” and it tends to backfire on candidates. According to studies at Harvard University, it makes one look unpleasant and fake. False modesty is even less appreciated than outright boasting.
5. Do not compare yourself to others
To highlight their own achievements, some people compare themselves to others. What’s the risk? You may create a bad impression. Basically, this would involve you more or less belittling your former colleagues. This might not be your intention but this is how it could come across. In a series of experiments conducted in 2012, psychologists showed that “asserting superiority” (using sentences such as, “I am the best salesperson in my company”) left a negative impression, whereas describing improvement (“I am much better now than I was a year ago”) was perceived in a much more positive way. Remember: avoid comparing yourself to others and point out your successes by highlighting your personal progress.
6. Pick the right time
Every culture places some emphasis on humility and modesty. While the US embraces self-promotion, Asian countries are less keen on it. In the UK, recruiters generally prefer the candidate to show some modesty. It’s not a good idea to start listing your achievements if you haven’t been asked. Wait for the interviewer to ask you about any projects and accomplishments of which you are proud. It’s their job to ask you about them, so the subject will come up at some point. You could use the opportunity to expand on a couple of your strong points mentioned on your CV, your cover letter or your LinkedIn profile – they are what got you the interview in the first place.
7. Do all of this with enthusiasm
Recruiters love authenticity during an interview. So instead of talking about your professional strengths, show off your enthusiastic side. Tell them about a professional or personal project that you are passionate about. Your achievements will come to light naturally without sounding like you are trying to sell yourself or even worse…bragging. Rather than telling them that you are captain of the local football team in your spare time right away, why don’t you tell them about your last match and the sense of solidarity and the joy you felt during it. There is a good chance that they will end up asking you how long you have been playing. Then it will sound much more natural to say, “I’ve been playing for the past 10 years and have been team captain for two.”
As difficult as it is to talk about how successful you have been without going over the top, it isn’t impossible. The key lies in coming across as genuine while putting the elements that have contributed to your achievements into perspective. And if despite all your efforts, you do slip up—don’t panic.
If you catch yourself bragging, you can try to get out of it by making fun of yourself. “Oops, I might just knock you out with my big head! Forgive me, I’m just so proud of this project that I don’t always know when to stop going on about it.” Sometimes, if you notice yourself slipping into smugness, this is the best way to disperse any negative feelings aroused in the interviewer before they take hold.
Translated by Mildred Dauvin
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