In his novel, Timequake, Kurt Vonnegut asks, “What’s the white stuff in bird poop?” And of course the answer is, “That’s poop too.”

Obviously, that’s not the question you’re going to be asked in every job interview, but it could be a metaphor for the process. Every communication that happens during your recruitment is part job interview. Even the stuff on the peripheries, how you answer the phone, your voicemail message, greeting the receptionist, shaking hands, saying good-bye, following up: these are all part of the job interview.

There are no casual interactions or small talk that don’t actually count. (That’s poop too – it’s all the same stuff.)

The most common job interview question

So when the employer invariably says some form of “So, tell me about yourself…” at the beginning of the interview, this isn’t idle chit chat. It’s a job interview question. This is the one question that you are sure to be asked in almost every interview you ever do. It’s an important one.

So don’t waste the opportunity to steer the conversation in the right direction by talking about your personal life or pastimes. This conversational-sounding, ice-breaking question is your opportunity to start off the interview on a strong note and to powerfully demonstrate how you are the person for the job.

Employers don’t only want to know that you can do the job – they also want to know if you will like doing the job – so that you’ll stay at it long enough to make it worthwhile hiring and onboarding you.

For example, if you are applying for a desk job, but all of your interests are about in being in the field, meeting people face to face, and interacting with large groups, you won’t likely be hired. That’s because even if you have the skills to actually perform on the job, employers don’t want to waste time hiring and training someone who isn’t going to be happy or stay very long.

Employer surveys show that one third (33%) of interviewers know within the first 90 seconds of an interview whether or not they will hire someone. First impressions count.

In fact, employers decide four crucial things about you within four seconds of meeting you.

The best way to ace an interview is tailor your answers to be as specifically relevant as possible to the challenges of the job at hand.

The only way to successfully do this is to know as much as possible about the job, the company, and the industry in advance. This way you can practice describing your past work experience and accomplishments in a way that is meaningful to the employer. “Here’s what I have achieved in the past, therefore here is what I can do for you…”

Look the employer up online. Read their website. See if they are mentioned in articles on other sites or in news stories. Talk to people in your network who may have company or industry knowledge.

Think about what the future of the industry is and what the challenges of the job might be. Be prepared to explain how you can help with those challenges and to demonstrate how your qualifications make you uniquely suited for the job.

Employers are always more impressed with candidates who are knowledgeable about their company and who can show why they want to work for them specifically. (Rather than a candidate who is just looking to land a job, any job will do.)

Be relevant

So when you’re asked that opening question, “tell me about yourself,” be relevant to the job. Tell them about yourself in a way that highlights your background and interests so that they make you seem like a natural fit for the role.

I’ve shared this story before because I think real-world examples can help illustrate the point. Although I have many interests including travel, literature, and blues music, when the VP of HR for a career website asked me to say a little about myself in the interview for a recent job, I didn’t talk about those things. Instead, I said something like:

    “I am a writer and editor who has really enjoyed working on the Web for over ten years. I love the interactivity of getting to know an audience and building increased engagement with them. I especially love the idea of working for this company, because not only does this mean bringing the latest news and information to a vast audience of Canadians, but it also means having the chance to really help people. Learning to communicate your potential in a resume, winning the job in a tough interview – we can help people with challenges like these, and that has the potential to improve lives. I would love to be a part of that.”

It’s true, I do love being a part of that. It’s not that I was lying by not mentioning the other interests, it’s just that I chose to focus on what would matter the most to the employer in front of me.

Make all of your communications professional and all of your answers pertinent. Because everything is part of the screening process and nothing is off the record.