by Theodore May

How would you describe yourself?

May 23, 2018
CareersIT LeadershipIT Skills

Or why actors don’t like to read their own reviews… and business presenters shouldn’t either.

young executive in office atrium reflecting thinking
Credit: Thinkstock

A recent career advice column at The Ladders featured and article by Madeline Mann via Quora, calling out four words that you should never say when being interviewed for a job. The offending words are all generally preceded by “I am [a]…

  • Perfectionist
  • Multitasker
  • Person-person
  • Intelligent

This is good advice and the article is worth checking out. There are good reasons to avoid these words, and it should not be that hard to do. If you think about it for a minute, how many legit job descriptions have you seen that call for an intelligent, multi-tasking, perfectionist who’s a real people-person (a wedding planner?)  

It may just be the way I was raised, but I think you should always try to avoid qualitative adjectives when describing yourself. In fact, I think you should try to avoid describing yourself entirely in any professional setting. Although it may seem counter-intuitive, a job interview is not really about you. It’s about a job that needs doing.

Focus instead on externals: what you have accomplished, what you’re most interested in, and what contributions you are ready to make. When asked, “How would you describe yourself?” I would answer that I see myself as someone who has done the following things, is interested in doing what this job requires, and someone who is ready to make a significant contribution. I.e. I would describe myself as someone who wants to get the job done. And answer in a way that demonstrates rather than describes or claims the virtues we look for in an employee or colleague.

It’s not about you

The same holds true for presenters in a business presentation. Suffice it say that presentations and interviews have a lot in common when it comes to performance.  They are both typically live performances (although online interviews and presentations are becoming more common.) And even virtual presentations and remote interviews require an understanding of the basic principles governing live performances.

One key commonality is that, as has been previously observed, an interview is not really about you and neither is a presentation. An interview is about filling a job and a presentation is about the information a presenter has to impart to their audience, that members of the audience need to do their jobs. In that context, these words-to-be-avoided describe qualities that are not helpful to that mission.


What can go wrong will go wrong in a presentation. What’s most engaging or valuable is often something that is unplanned; an unexpected contribution from an audience member; or a new analogy you discover while making a key point. As a presenter, you don’t want to be a perfectionist, you want to be a catalyst for change and any attempt to exercise perfect control over the environment or the audience will end in frustration. You can only hope to create favorable conditions, present bold ideas, and then facilitate active response from the audience. And that’s a good thing because what we want from an audience are active and creative responses.


A presenter needs to concentrate on one thing and one thing only: successfully delivering their message. Have a single clear objective and then reach your audience, transform their thinking and move them to action. Multi-tasking is distracting and disengaging and devalues your message. If you’re multi-tasking, you’re inviting your audience to do the same and you will fail in your objective.


A business presentation is, first and foremost, about insight and ideas. It’s not about you and your audience. If you treat your audience as you would guests – welcome them and show them respect and extend them courtesy – it doesn’t matter how facile you are in public or how comfortable you feel. What’s most important is that you not waste their time and that you give them something of value. The relationships you are trying to establish are (1) between the audience and the ideas being presented, and (2) between those members of the audience who are going to be asked to implement those ideas.


Presenters often wish they were funny or entertaining. They’re afraid of appearing flustered, inarticulate and unprepared, and by extension, unintelligent. But how intelligent you may feel or appear to the audience is less important than the INTELLIGENCE that you are offering them. Remember, it’s not about you. It’s about the information the audience needs to do their jobs. 

Be action oriented

Actor’s will famously tell you that they hate to read their own reviews. (Painfully, they tend to remember the bad ones more than the good ones.) As a presenter, don’t worry about your reviews; about the words others use to describe you. Don’t worry about the words you would like the audience to choose to describe you: a perfectionist, a multitasker, a person-person, intelligent. Or, funny, entertaining, brilliant, articulate…  We are not here to entertain the audience.

In business, we are action-oriented. Focus on your objective and what you need to do in order to achieve that objective.

All you need to worry about is did my message reach my audience? Did it make a strong impression? Did they get it? (Did I repeat the key ideas more than once.) That’s getting the job done.