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An Easy Formula for Answering the Most Important Job Search Question

02/09/2015 04:40 pm ET | Updated Apr 10, 2015

Imagine you are dining in a restaurant with a friend, and your friend suddenly begins to choke on a piece of food, grabbing for her neck. What do you do?

Did you say the Heimlich Maneuver? Hopefully so. The Heimlich's simplicity makes it easy to recall during extremely stressful situations.

Job searching is not nearly as stressful as seeing a loved one in danger, but having simple rules to follow can similarly improve your performance when stress levels spike - like when an interviewer says "Tell me about yourself." Answering spontaneously may seem appropriate, but a more thoughtful approach can yield better results.

"Tell me about yourself" is the single most important interview question for two reasons: frequency and placement. It gets asked a lot, and it usually goes first. How well you answer dictates whether confirmation bias helps or hurts you the rest of the way.

Confirmation bias is the natural human tendency to reinforce our first impressions. If we like something initially, we tend to keep on liking it, cherry-picking evidence that reinforces our first impressions while discarding the rest. The opposite is also true.

Because of confirmation bias, early interview questions (and even pre-interview small talk) are disproportionately important, since that is when interviewers form their first impressions. If they like you, they'll notice your positives more (and your negatives less), and vice versa. Therefore, effectively answering the most common interview opener - "Tell me about yourself" - is critical.

To help my job seekers do so, I teach them a formula called the XYZ Technique, which describes each stage of their career or education in the following manner: "My reason for a decision was X. What I liked most about that decision was Y. What I wanted to do differently (or more of) was Z."

For example, "My reason for majoring in psychology was that I had always enjoyed learning about why and how people make choices. What I liked most about that decision was being able to own an idea from start to finish - from creating a hypothesis, to designing an experiment to test it, to analyzing the results. What I wanted to do differently was test actual products rather than human behaviors, so upon graduation I joined Acme Creative Products as a Marketing Assistant.

"My reason for joining that organization in particular was X. What I liked most about that decision was Y...," and so on.

It is repetitive, but science shows that repetition is itself incredibly likable. Psychologist Robert Zajonc called this phenomenon the mere exposure effect in the 1960s, when he found that even gibberish words when seen frequently enough were viewed favorably by readers. This is why comedies employ running jokes and popular songs feature repeating choruses. People just really like repetition.

Not only is the XYZ Technique easy to remember, it ensures that your answer is conveyed as a story rather than a list of facts. Presenting your career as a story - especially one with a recurring chorus-like format - reduces the listening effort required by your interviewer, making you more likable. This initial likability sets the stage for a positive confirmation bias during the rest of your interview, improving your chances of a referral or job offer. (Furthermore, stories are up to 22 times more memorable than facts alone, improving your future prospects as well.)

Answering "Tell me about yourself" isn't all you need to do to get a job (getting an interview in the first place is pretty important, too), but having a Heimlich-like formula for answering it well will make your job search both easier and more effective.

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Steve Dalton is the author of The 2-Hour Job Search & Program Director for Daytime Career Services at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business.