Tell me what you did? How to answer ...

How to ace those tricky questions for Consulting Engineers

It is not always easy to answer questions , particularly in open meetings, video calls or face-to-face communications. Some people are good at thinking fast and giving good answers, but maybe they have been asked before. They have built up a rehearsed a formula to respond that works for them.

This example almost always comes up in personnel interviews, if you are interviewing for a new job or for an internal move. It is also common in client interviews if they are looking for a key person in the team and that person is you.

Take note, absorb them into your memory bank and for sure you will gain confidence and be more effective in the face of tricky situations and build trust in your client relationships.

How to answer: Tell me what you did?

The question: “Tell me what you did?” is a classic question for personal interviews when you are trying for a role in a new organization or to move internally.

We researched this with many colleagues and as far as job interviews go, it seems that this is the most common ‘pass’ or ‘fail’ point in many interviews.

The person asking wants to understand what contributions you have made and can make if you join their team. By answering this question well, you have the chance to convey the positive contribution that you made, regardless of your seniority of your previous roles.

The important point to remember is that the person asking is not asking what the project was like, even though it may be impressive - they want to know what you did to help make it so. This may seem obvious but many fail because of this question. Candidates often describe the project in the whole, rather than describing their specific contribution.

Consider: “It was a large general hospital with 10 operating theatres and an intensive care unit. It's one of the most advanced technology new hospitals in the country.”

Compare this with: “I was a senior engineer in a small team focusing on the design of the ventilation systems for the operating theatres and intensive care, for a large General Hospital project. I spent most of the time working on specialist systems, but also worked for many other systems. We had to do lots of research on the requirements for the medical equipment, with this being one of the most technology advanced new hospitals.”

If you stick to what you did, it encourages the questioner to ask a follow-up question to know more about what you did. You will be able to answer well, because you did it!

For this type of question it is helpful to have some ready made examples in your mind. Make a list of the four or five best pieces of work that you have done, the things that you really enjoyed and are passionate about. You may be asked: "What is the best project that you have done?" This needs to be translated. What it means is: "Please tell me something that will impress me about your personal contribution to a project that really made a difference." Always have some ready to access examples in your mind, then you can pick them fast and use your brain power and a few seconds to make them relevant to the situation. It is like presenting the same ppt presentation many times, the script becomes second nature, you have a patter just like a pro. Then, in the high pressure situation, you just have to work on the editing of the story, and the familiar pictures in your mind will let you express your own contribution well.

This question can sometimes come in the form of: "Please tell me when you saved the client money?" or "Please tell me when you have been able to manage risk for the project? Don't be bashful with these answers. The questioner is probably hoping for some good ideas about how to deal with difficult issues and will welcome a confident and enthusiastic response. Everyone welcomes other peoples views and ideas, even if they don't show that!


  • Talk about the actual work, tell them what you did.

  • If you talk about your contribution, then you can develop a proper conversation, with confidence.

  • Minimize the generality of how wonderful the project is as a whole - they probably know that.


It gets easier to think on your feet, the more that you are exposed to tough questions. Techniques can be learnt that help you to avoid making knee-jerk commitments. Knee-jerk answers will probably make your situation worse for you. Try to hold your nerve and give yourself time to think. Analyze and make a rational decision. If you have some structure or strategies in your memory to start with this will build your confidence and you can demonstrate the good work that you can do.

Authored by Paul Lengthorn

Chartered Engineer, MBA, BEng, member of the Institute of Asset Management (IAM) and independent practicing Consulting Engineer

See also ...