Why pick you?

Ways not to answer this dreaded question in pitches and interviews.

Why pick you?
Originally posted 3/24/2016

If you've ever pitched an idea to someone or been an interview, you've likely been asked something akin to

Why you?

I, myself, have asked this question to candidates while doing interview loops at Microsoft. Though meant to be open-ended, it can be a tough one to respond to, even if you feel like you know why you are the right fit, or that your idea has merit.

While I have never expected a particular answer to this question, I have seen people falter and dig themselves into holes while trying to articulate their responses. These common pitfalls are not exclusive to inexperienced interviewees. Time and time again, the same mistakes are made by even the most street-savvy individuals, in the privacy of exec offices, and on TV shows such as Shark Tank, Top Chef, and even Project Runway.

I have made these mistakes as well in my own interviews for Microsoft and Amazon, but the process of studying the reactions of interviewers to the people in front of them has shed some light on where things go South.

These are some common mistakes.

Upselling without providing examples
Never say "I work so hard" without backing it up.

Actions speak louder than words. Telling the audience why one is the best engineer, salesperson, lead, or even CEO is not enough without evidence, anecdotal or hard. Listing off talents and skills is only sufficient when complemented with data.

A tactic to come up with a structured way to convey experience is to think back to a success and describe it using the STAR method. As one becomes more experienced in this method of expression, it will become intuitive.
Getting emotional
Among the most heart-breaking and cringe-worthy responses I have seen to this question in person and in the media have been along the lines of "I deserve this because I have sacrificed so much." In a way this is similar to the type of response outlined above, but comes with the additional nuance of attempting to appeal to the audience's sense of empathy. While this can go well in certain cases, it often tends to do the opposite.

The first issue with this approach is that it makes the audience uncertain about whether the candidate can stay collected in the face of a stressful situation. This sort of emotional vulnerability can unfortunately conflict with the type of confidence and posture the audience is looking for.

Secondly, the sorts of responses that come with these emotional pleas, unless incredibly unique or elaborated upon, do not indicate how the candidate is different from the other candidates. After all, the assumption is that they have worked equally hard, and sacrificed as much.
Not describing the value you can bring to the table in concrete terms
An audience is primarily interested in how a candidate can be of benefit. Thus the candidate's job is not only to describe their prior experience, but indicate how the learnings and skills developed from those experience can influence future endeavours.

Something to note here is that one should lead with action. "I engaged with other engineers and lawyers to build X and file a patent" is infinitely more descriptive than "I have a patent for X". The latter does not provide enough information to be predictive.

Like anything else, interviewing and pitching are arts, and recognizing stumbling points and traps requires practice. Keeping tricks like these in mind and developing the self awareness to understand one's areas of struggle are only a start.

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