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Resumes can be a pain. People stress about writing them. Hiring managers are always trying to decypher them to figure out if the candidate has what they need. I say that most people seem to think that there is a secret formula to writing resumes that nobody will tell them about.
My simple answer is that you need to think about who is reading the resume and then write like your audience. It’s really that simple. Resumes are just the information the hiring manager might need to have in order to take the chance to bring you in and talk with you more about the position without wasting everyone’s time.
In order to do that, you have to give a clear picture (in words) of what you actually did. This might seem simple but so many people miss this. I read hundreds of resumes a month and I’ve found three words that are endemic on resumes that don’t do anything to bring that clarity. I cross them off almost every time I see them (granted, there are always exceptions).
Here they are.
- Assisted: This can mean anything from “I got coffee” to “I did my boss’ job and didn’t get credit for it”. When I see it, I assume coffee, not executive. If I read this, I’m making up stories in my head about what you actually did. They may not be what you wanted me to think.
- Helped: See above.
- Worked: Were you in the fields or the mines? This brings visions of either someone under a vicious task master or someone just hanging out waiting for something to happen. Either scenario doesn’t encourage me to think of you as a self starter.
So, what can you say instead? Well, what did you actually do? If I were watching you while you were there, what would I see? Researched 5 new clients and wrote a summary for your boss? Reorganized the inventory system? Produced and assembled 100 press kits? Tell me that!
Using vague words like helped, assisted, and worked will put more questions into the reader’s mind than will do you good. Be clear and detail what you have done to your best story telling ability. If you can’t be clear on your resume, do I think you will speak clearly to me and my customers?
So, what did you actually do on that job?
As many of you have probably experienced, cover letters bring fear into the hearts of most job seekers. People who can write eloquently on any subject given suddenly freeze up when they have to write a few paragraphs about themselves. The old “I don’t know what to say!” phrase comes out and people get paralyzed I would say that the reason for this is people don’t know the purpose of what they are writing and why.
As I’ve written before, a resume’s job is to speak for you when you’re not around to speak for yourself and to show you’re a professional in your field. It’s like an advertisement for you, just like any other company would have an advertisement for a product. A cover letter is your opportunity to show that you are a good match for this organization and to highlight your writing skills. A resume is your advertisement and your cover letter is trying to close the deal of getting you in the door to demonstrate to them that you’re the best candidate.
I like to say that a cover letter should answer three questions:
- Why am I interested in your company? 99% of all cover letters start with some version of “I saw your ad and I’m perfect for this job.” it might be dressed up in different language, but it’s the same blah, blah, blah. Can you show you’re different? Why is this particular organization interesting? Do you know anything about the product or initiatives they’ve completed? Can you mention any people that work there that know you? How does this fit into your career path? Give them something to show you e done done homework and this isn’t the 17th of 32 cover letters you’re writing today.
- Why Should They Be Interested In You? The hiring managers want to know that you’ve already got the skills, knowledge, and experience they need. What are the stories of your past experiences that show them that? Choose two or three and tell them in a way that connects your experiences with their needs.
- We’re A Great Match! We Should Talk! What’s Next? You made the match, now ask for the interview. Most people say something to the effect of “I’ll be sitting here in the dark until you get back to me.” You need to say you’re looking forward to speaking with them about the opportunity, or something to that effect. Also make sure you include all the ways that they can get in touch with you (e.g. phone, email, Skype, etc.) Also, if you are looking in another city, you can say “If it is convenient, I will be in New York City from March 12-19 and available for interviews”, so that they don’t have to ask you when you’re available.
So, how are you selling yourself?
I see a lot of resumes. People are so paranoid about their resumes and getting the wording right. I truly believe that most people think that there is some secret formula to writing a resume, but no one ever tells them. Ax resume functions by speaking for you when you’re not there, so it should represent you well in your voice, and most importantly, in language that the intended audience. I’ve seen too many people write a resume in MBA speak when they want to be in a creative field. The creatives who will read this resume will think this person is a stuffed shirt and not appropriate.
Lesson: The way to write a resume is to consider your audience and write like them!
That being said, a lot of people want to have done sort of “formula” when talking about themselves in a resume. Remembering that you need to tell your story (thoughts on that here, here, and here), here is a structure that I’ve found works for most people. As usual, if this works for you, great. Adjust if you need to.
Any description of an experience you have should have four parts to be maximally effective:
- Active Verb: Your English teacher was right. Use a verb that is visual. Imagine that you’re giving instructions to an actor to act out this activity. If you “assisted”, “worked” or “helped”, I have no ideas if you brought coffee for the meetings or did your boss’ job but didn’t get credit. Use a verb a good actor can do something with!
- The Object of the Action: Okay, what did you “write”, “develop” or “create”? Can you name it? Can you quantify it? Which sounds better: “reports” or “10 20-page reports”? Give me some idea of what it was.
- For Whom or Who Benefited: Whatever you did, someone was better for it? Did the CEO get your report? Did 200 people attend the event you organized?
- To What Result: Hopefully, something got better because of what you did. Explain what it was. Did you make a $250,000 sale because of the relationships you built? Did you save the company $10,000 because of an error you found? Did you press releases generate three newspaper articles? If you can show the results of your actions, people might think you could do that again!
Remember, you are telling a story here that they need to hear. Make sure that you don’t make the reader work too much to figure out the details, but also give room for them to know there’s more to find out.
Note: this works in your spoken stories as well.
So, how well are you telling your stories?
As I stated in my last post, most people don’t think about telling the stories of their lives in a compelling way that shows how what you’ve done makes a difference in the world. In this post, I’d like to give some help in how you can make your stories of your background more engaging to your target audience (You do have a target audience, right? It should be the hiring manager.)
Knowing my audience (namely you), I like to tell my stories in ways that you can relate to. As most people have had the experience of going to a movie, that’s the metaphor that I’m going to use. The job of the screenwriter is to write the story in a way that brings you in and keeps you engaged. That’s done in two ways:
First, when the movie starts, you (the viewer) are trying to figure out who the characters are, how they are related, where they are, what time period they are living in, etc. A good screenwriter supplies the CONTEXT in this first scene. It allows the viewer to relate the experiences of the characters to the viewer’s life.
- You need to supply context of your background to the reader of your resume or the person you meet at a networking event (and especially in an interview). If you did something in a different city or in an obscure organization, you will need to supply the context so that the hiring manager will understand how what you did there relates to their needs. Easy ways to do that are with names they understand (such as “I worked in the Obama administration”. If you worked with Joe Bagadonuts and they don’t know Joe, it doesn’t help) and numbers (How many of those press releases did you write? How many people attended that event you organized?)
Second, imagine you’ve finished the movie and are walking home, and you can see the movie playing in your mind. You meet up with a friend and you tell the story again. If the screenplay was written well, you can do this.
- You need your story to be VISUAL and REPEATABLE. Most people make their stories so boring and vague that people can’t see it. Imagine I were following you around with a video camera while you were doing your work. Would I see you “assisting the manager?”. That can mean just about anything. If you instead said that you “Compiled a report on the top 100 companies in the social media marketing field for inclusion in annual report”, that might get me to see a bit more of what you were doing.
When you start your job search, you are in charge of how you develop your character in the mind of the target audience. If you tell the story poorly, the audience will make up their own minds about who you are, and that might not be what you want them to think.
So, what story are you telling and are you the star of your own story?
I like to say that a major part of the job search process is storytelling. The exchange of ideas that happen in any search to find the right fit is going to involve stories from the point of view of the employer (e.g. Job descriptions, describing company culture, etc.) and the job searcher. You need to know what stories you want and need to tell (Hint: 5th grade science project is not a story you need to tell). You have many stories from you can tell, but you need to figure out which one are the important ones and then how to tell them in a compelling way.
I’ve found that although most of us have been listening to (and maybe telling) stories most of our lives, many people don’t know how to structure stories in a way that really is effective. I like to say that you should organize them in ways that people are familiar so that they don’t have to figure out the structure, but just focus on the content.
So, what form are people most familiar with across cultures?
Most fairy takes have a very basic structure that works well for job search purposes:
- Our Hero Enters the Scene: Usually there is a little back story to the story. What does the Hero see when entering? This is the Situation.
- Our Hero Has A Quest: Upon understanding the Situation, the Hero does something to change the situation. It can be a duel, a test, or something, but the Hero takes some Action to change the situation.
- Our Hero Leaves the Scene: Once done with the Action, the Situation has now changed. Hopefully it’s Happily ever after, but there is a Result.
When you are telling the story of any experience in your life, it’s as real as a fairy tale to the listener. You have to let them know the Situation you walked into, what Action you took to change the situation, and what Result came from your action. This is to show that you actually made a difference in your being there.
Hiring managers want to know how bringing you on can help them out, so you need to show that you’ve done this in the past. If you can’t relate it to them, they won’t believe it. (Note: these stories will have to come across not only in your resume, but any online presence, your networking, your interviewing, etc.)
So, what stories do you have to tell, and is it something that will make a difference in my life?
I have heard many a job searcher complain that they could do anything if just given the chance. “I could do that but they just don’t know it yet!” It is like job searchers think that they are pounds of clay that just need to be molded by the right hands to make a beautiful vase.
The main problem with this approach is that the job seeker is focused on their experience and not that of the hiring manager. Let’s instead look at it from that point of view.
Imagine that you are a manager, and you need some help. You’ve got a lot of responsibilities and you are probably covering a part of someone else’s position (which is why you need help). In addition to that, now you have to make the extra effort to find someone to help you. What you’d really like to do is blink your eyes like Samantha in the old Bewitched TV show (or wriggle your nose like Barbara Eden in I Dream of Jeannie) and have someone magically appear that is perfect for the position and can take all this work off your desk.
Just to enlighten you, as much as people don’t like looking for a job, managers don’t like having to do the search. Everyone doesn’t like the uncertainty of it. That said, the manager wants to know three things that will instill some confidence that you are the right person for the job. The more you can make it obvious that you’ve got all these things, the easier it will be that they are making the right decision in bringing you on
The three things that every hiring manager needs to know about you are:
- Do You Have the Skills, Knowledge and Experience That I Need for Someone in This Position? Do you know what’s expected of someone in this role. If you don’t have what they need, then you are guessing about what to tell them to give them confidence.
- Will I Want To Hang Around With You All Day? Most people spend more time with their co-workers than their family daily. While I don’t have to be your best friend, I want to know that I can go out to lunch with you once in a while, have a pleasant conversation and get along with you. The hiring manager can’t tell this from a resume and cover letter.
- Will You Drive Me Crazy? Almost everyone has the experience of working with someone who is brilliant, intelligent, creative, etc. but is sobbing who you would never what to work with for the rest of your life. We all know the Prima Donna concept, and no manager wants to work with someone who will need as much work to support as it will with the results of their actions. Again, this can’t be gleaned from a resume.
So, how do you get them to understand that you’re great to be around and won’t drive them crazy? Same as how you figure out which restaurant has good service and which frozen dinner doesn’t taste like cardboard: references from trusted sources. If the hiring manager knows of people you know and they can speak to the fact that you are professional, aren’t a raving lunatic, and work well with others, I’m going to have more confidence in you. That said, you need to build up your relationships with people who the hiring manager might talk to before the job opens up. You need to be seen as credible to people all the time, and not just when applying for the job.
So, what relationships are you building in your professional field that will help you in the future?
When I was in college, I had a real problem with English classes. I would pull an all-nighter over a two page paper. I just didn’t seem to get how to write. I thought there was some way I was supposed to write that no one was telling me.
I finally took an intensive poetry class, and that’s when I was introduced to structured poems like villanelles. In that form, there is a particular line count and rhyming scheme to follow. Once I got that, it allowed for my creative part to come out, and I was then able to write in other forms as I accessed my creative side. I then knew that I just needed to write like I talk and I’m in my element.
This has two lessons for my writing here:
- As I have written about before, many people freak out about writing there resumes and cover letters because they don’t know what to say and are trying to get it right. Again, write like you speak (professionally of course) and let it be a reflection of you.
- This past Thursday, I had s biopsy that confirmed what I had feared. I am gluten intolerant aka I have Celiac disease. This means that that my body has a systemic reaction to gluten (wheat, rye, and barley) where it kills off the villi in your small intestines so that you don’t absorb nutrients. The only way to manage this is to eliminate gluten entirely from my diet. Yes, that’s right; no more beer! Given that I have been a vegetarian for over 25 years and I have a string sensitivity to any foods with high sulfur concentrations (major one being eggs), I am limiting my diet even more. This is going to be a tough transition, but I’m going to have to find that inner creative and see what I can do with this. Thank God Trader Joe’s has a lot of gluten free options.
So, what restrictions do you have and how are you being creative in getting around them?