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By Matt WojciakowskiJuly 29, 2014

The secret to finding a job: Crafting an enticing pitch

Nailing a tech job interview is about more than whiteboarding. You need to have a good pitch. Incorporate these essential ingredients in your 30-second pitch to make a great first impression and land a job interview.

Most job seekers know that they will encounter the conspicuously ambiguous question,“Tell me about yourself.” Surprisingly few, however, prepare for this open-ended screening. Some walk through their life story and share childhood exploits. By the time that they relive high school, they freak out and wrap it up. Other job seekers take this golden opportunity to rehash their resume bullet points in a manner as personal as a telemarketing phone call. My personal default is the deer-in-headlights, “Um, where do you want me to start?”

These essential ingredients will help you make that all-important first impression when you’re job hunting. By combining these ingredients, you’ll produce a vital part in representing yourself to potential employers: your pitch.

1) Keep it to 30 seconds

The attention span of the average iPhone-checking, Twitter-scanning, Facebook-updating listener is just 30 seconds. How does one sum up their experience in 30 seconds? First, remember that you are just getting the conversation started. Your pitch does not need to cover your entire career history or establish your expertise on data structure optimization. Your pitch should aim to get enough interest that someone wants to know more. Your pitch should be a front-page, concise-yet-conversational advertisement that invites your listener to ask more about one of the interesting topics that you mentioned.

2) Start with a pitch list

A killer pitch that addresses how super interesting you are and why you are the perfect candidate for an opportunity can be a great job search tool, but those of us who aren’t Sales and Marketing experts may need help with this. Start by making some lists. List out your top three:

Strengths—what you are good at, what you really enjoy, and what you consider a valuable talent. Accomplishments—related experiences, problems you have solved, deadlines you have met, or numbers you have achieved Adjectives that describe you—traits that make you unique, ways that others describe you, things you most like about yourself, or your passions Reasons why you want to do this work—topics that you find most interesting, contributions that you hope to make, aspects that you think are fun.

Explore these lists and examine whether you see a theme emerging. Are you the creative ideas guy, the problem-fixing gal, the go-to team leader, the expert (fill-in-the-blank)? Distill these lists down to the three core strengths that advertise a brand that is uniquely you.

3) Make it memorable by finding your hook

Busy people need help remembering. A strong pitch will leave someone with a firm sense of 1. Who you are, 2. What you do, and 3. Why you would be valuable. The key to helping someone remember you, your name, and why you are someone valuable to know is a fantastic hook. To better understand how to incorporate a memorable hook in your pitch, take a look at one of the most memorable speeches of all time that reaches to the core of who we are as people: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a Dream.”

photo of MLK

One key to Dr. King’s speech was that he actually had a dream for the future. Developing a clear sense for who you are and what you want is step number one. Once you know that, there are a few simple ways to draw others in…

Vivid

King helped us visualize abstract concepts in his speech, such as poverty—an obscure idea that can be hard for someone to create an image of in their mind. King painted pictures with his words by highlighting similar or contrasting topics. He describes a lonely island of poverty, a vast ocean of material prosperity, flames of injustice, a rock of brotherhood, a whirlwind of revolt, and an oasis of freedom. Can you visualize any of your strengths or unique values? “In the ocean of JavaScript programmers, I am the neon yellow speed boat blasting past all of the tranquil sailboats bobbing around on the water in a blur of productivity.”

Relatable

King used metaphors to make the abstract concrete. He placed ideas in the context of history to make the unfamiliar familiar. He made the intangible tangible, so that we can identify with his thoughts. He made the complex simple, creating a powerful and memorable connection for the listener to associate with. In his “I Have a Dream” speech, King refers to the Declaration of Independence, the Emancipation Proclamation, the song “America (My Country, ‘Tis of Thee),” Abraham Lincoln, and even the Bible (paralleling the Civil Rights movement to the Exodus story). How can you help someone relate to your pitch? A Front-End UX Design & Development student recently shared, “Since I was a kid, I have loved Legos. I love building things that are both beautiful to look at and practically useful.” I also played with Legos as a child and will forever remember him as the Lego UX guy.

Provocative

Despite what shows up in much of our popular culture today, it does not need to be inappropriate to be provocative and intriguing to your audience. Even those who did not share King’s dream wanted to hear what he had to say. King began his speech with a bold statement: “I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.” King exercised confident humility. He did not say, “I will deliver the greatest speech today.” He expressed gratitude for the chance to join everyone else at the Washington Monument, declaring that their cause would make an impact.

4) Reel them in with a provocative statement

There are many ways to make a bold and provocative statement without being arrogant:

  • Questions - Try challenging your listener with a question: “Would you know what to do in a sinking ship?” then proceed to tell them your story of pitching in to bail out the sinking ship.

  • Statistics - Shock your listener with a number or statistic: “Did you know that average open rate for email sent from a business is only 20%?” then proceed to explain why the social media app you created functions as a better marketing communication tool.

  • Revelations - Tantalize your listener with a reveal: “You can imagine my surprise as a teenager when I was told I have a learning disability” then explain how you have addressed or overcome your challenges and found your own unique path to success.

  • Teasers - Allure your listener with a Teaser: “I have a secret that I need to confess to you…” then explain how your love of computer science was born when you successfully hacked into your middle school server to change your grade for gym.

5) Get comfortable with it (like wearing your favorite sneakers)

Did you see what I did there? Are you visualizing your favorite old shoes now and associating how comfortable you feel wearing them? The key to a successful pitch is not only helping people remember you and associate you with something. A huge reason why someone will ultimately hire you is because they like you and connect with you. A good pitch is no substitute for developing a relationship with a person. The best job seekers are so comfortable with their pitch that they can easily improvise (and leave out the part about their old shoes). Few people know that the prepared text to King’s dream speech did not contain the section that started with “I have a dream”—the phrase that most of us remember. This inspirational piece was actually an improvised response prompted by Mahalia Jackson’s cry: “Tell them about the dream, Martin!” King was a comfortable speaker because he cared. He looked at his listeners, connected with them, and demonstrated enthusiasm, passion, and confidence. The dream speech was also not MLK’s first speech. He had a lot of practice.

Practice makes confident

Perfection is not the goal of your pitch. You should practice your pitch, not rehearse it. It should be as easy and comfortable as talking to a friend about your favorite television show. You should know the content that you want your listener to come away with, but be able to make it a back-and-forth conversation. Practice your pitch conversationally with friends and family. After a few minutes, ask them to name three bullet points about you that they would take away from the conversation. Then try it with someone who does not know you very well. If the take-away points after you tell someone about yourself are not what you hoped that they would be, then you know to keep tailoring your pitch to present your best self. The best part is that a good pitch does not lose value after you land a job. A solid, self-aware pitch can open up all sorts of opportunities.

So… tell me about yourself.