4 Ways to Show Context in Your Next Interview

Usually when people describe their greatest achievement (or any story about their past) they stop short of really selling themselves. Explaining the story of how you over-achieved “x sales target” can sound quite impressive to an interviewer, but it might not mean much to them without context. Similarly, if you did not hit your sales target, maybe you still did better than everyone else in the company and even if your competitors in different companies. That information could be quite useful to know because it would change a negative impression to a positive impression. Or a positive impression to a more positive impression.

That’s called providing context. Simply, comparing yourself to your surroundings (people, businesses, and so forth) will help paint a clearer picture for the listener.

Ask yourself the following four questions about performance throughout your career and more recently over the past 3 years. In doing so it should be a good starting point to assess yourself objectively and get some sense of where you’re at compared to others. When necessary, you can include this information in sharing your past experience with companies.

#1 How did your performance compare to the previous year’s performance?

You can talk about achieving X and Y, but it’s hard for to grasp what this means without understanding the previous years. If you achieved 120% above your target for the past 3 years and are talking about achieving 100% in your third year, then this is actually a decrease in your performance. What happened? Were the targets higher, were there other factors that influenced this? Is that a good result? How does it compare?

#2 How did your performance compare to your peers?

If you did 200% better than the rest of your peers and are an A player, then you should make that very clear. If you were in the top 10% of performers in your company, then you should make it clear. If this number changed over time, then explain it. Showing a trajectory of positive growth and improvement can help. Even if you did not achieve your target or hit your goal, if you constantly improved every quarter for 2 years, then that means you are growing.

#3 How did your performance compare to the plan?

Every company has some sort of goal or plan they set forward. Whether it’s extremely specific, like 3-month targets to pass your probationary period on the job that are composed of a dozen different measurable actions, or a single, straightforward goal like “achieve X in sales” or “launch this product by X time” or “increase customer satisfaction by X percent.” What was your result compared to the plan that was set forward?

#4 How does it compare to the industry?

This might be more difficult for you to answer without the data, but it can be extremely valuable to know. It shows a strong sense of commercialism if you can compare yourself across industry standards. Also it serves as a good benchmark to assess your own value. For example, if you’re the only person in the entire software industry to have stricken a deal with X company, then that’s quite impressive. It’s much more impressive to say than saying “I closed a big deal.” You might need to do a bit of digging to find this information.

In summary, once you compare yourself to others on these points and find that you are doing well or exceptionally well, that’s a good sign. But if you have been struggling then you can ask yourself: what do I need to work on to exceed expectations in those 4 categories? This allows time for some self reflection on your strengths and weaknesses.

The examples I provided above were largely sales related but you can apply this to anything. If you were the only person to win an X design award for that year, that’s impressive. Talk about that using the four points above. If you are a teacher and your students did really well last year, explain how they compared to other classes, how they compared to last year, how they compared to other schools and so forth.

The point is that whatever you do, in whatever role, can be explained in comparison to other factors. This will help the interviewer clearly understand the impacts of your actions and increase the likelihood that they have really comprehended what’s coming out of your mouth. And then everybody is a winner.

Good luck!

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Japan-based writer, consultant and entrepreneur.

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