Job seekers often ask a question about when to use the tell-me-about-yourself pitch—like in an interview—and when to use the elevator pitch: like in a networking situation. The confusion arises because some people don’t understand the purpose or objective of each of the two pitches.

How to properly answer when asked, “Tell me about yourself.”

Commonly, a job interview starts with an icebreaker, and once the interviewer is ready for business, he or she will say to the candidate, “Tell me about yourself.” Why does the interviewer ask that? After all, the candidate has been invited for the interview, has already been vetted and highly scrutinized, and has been selected from a long list of qualified candidates that got whittled down to a handful.

The true reason for the request is that the interviewer has to formulate an opinion about the candidate. Among other things, the interviewer is evaluating the candidate’s body language. Is it positive, is it full of confidence, and is there good eye contact? Or are there negative vibes such as slouching in the chair, often not looking at the interviewer, and at times, appearing so scared that the candidate’s body freezes like a sculpture whose lips are the only things moving. How about tone of voice? Is it unpleasantly loud? inaudibly quiet? Tone of voice is a highly important contribution in the interviewer’s decision-making process. Is the candidate a fast talker? an unpleasantly slow one? Maybe there’s a strong foreign accent to the point that the interviewer just can’t even make out what the candidate is saying. And last, the interviewer evaluates the content in the candidate’s delivery via the words the candidate uses. Do the words constitute proper English with good grammar, and are they mainly logical and in context?

Here, a good answer to “Tell me about yourself” catapults the candidate to the top of the list. A bad answer digs the candidate into a hole from which it would be challenging to reverse the interviewer’s poor opinion.

So, what’s hidden behind the question?

Think for a moment. Why are you interviewing? No, it’s not because you need a job. It’s because the interviewer is in the process of identifying which one of several good candidates seems to fit the company’s organizational culture, has the specific skills sought, and can prove noteworthy accomplishments viewed by a third relevant party.

Understanding the question behind the question

The real question is, “Tell me about yourself as it relates to your ability to help me solve my problems.” That’s the real question. Anything else in the answer is superfluous and irrelevant to the interviewer.

What’s the right answer?

The correct answer will contain a brief overview of what makes you a professional, such as your title, size of managed budget, number of direct reports, scope of your function, and anything else that is relevant. Remember that the answer should be short and focused; otherwise, the interviewer’s mind starts wandering. Next tell a brief success story with an example that has a very positive ending viewed by a third relevant party such as your boss or an important customer.

And now the differentiation

As soon as you’ve finished your delivery—and in the same breath—ask the interviewer, “Now that you know about my professional background, may I ask you a question? What would the hired candidate focus on in the first few weeks on the job?” That question begs an answer. And the interviewer’s answer will likely identify an area of importance to the interviewer.

The closure

Based on what you learned from the interviewer’s answer, offer an example from your past experience wherein you can prove you have the skills needed and that your success was recognized by a third party.

The elevator pitch

Different from the tell-me-about-yourself pitch, the elevator pitch has a different objective. Here brevity is very important; otherwise, you lose your audience. Within 30 seconds or so, you have to frame yourself by communicating who you are, what you do, and what you’re looking for. The key to success here is to be memorable and, even more important, to elicit from the listener a follow-up question. If you fail to do that, it means you’re boring, and that leads nowhere. The mistake people make is to raise the expectation that by delivering an elevator pitch, they’ll get leads and referrals. But very seldom does such a result occur. The true objective of the elevator pitch is to establish or initiate a relationship with someone—a relationship that hopefully can be nurtured to become a beneficial and fruitful one.

And now that you know the difference between the two pitches, start practicing them. The more you do, the more comfortable and natural they’ll get.