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“A Tale from the Decameron,” by John William Waterhouse, 1916

One of the things that I’m always talking about is the need to be a story teller in your job search.  You always have to retell the stories of your past accomplishment, experiences, and adventures in the working world to people who weren’t there.  Otherwise, they would already know you and wouldn’t have to ask!

There are many ways to tell a story, and in the job search, it will come out in certain ways: in your resume, your cover letter, the interview, your tweets, your online portfolio, your Facebook wall, when I google your name, what someone else tells me about you, etc.  The thing is that you need to know your stories first before you know which format to put them in.  I find that a great number of my clients want me to help them with their resumes, but they don’t know what stories to tell.  As I see it, there are three levels of the story of you:

  1. You in Your Essence: On the highest possible level, who do you say you are, and what do you want people to think of you.  You can think of this in some way to be in line with your vision of yourself, but it could manifest itself in many ways.
  2. You in the Roles of Your Life: You as a college student is different from you in your current job.  You have the story of you in each of your jobs, in every volunteer leadership role, and you as the captain of your middle school basketball team. How do you want to be known in each of these?
  3. You in the Projects You’ve Accomplished: Within each of your roles, you done some projects.  Those projects might have been big (running a convention) or small (writing a press release) but they were all projects that had a beginning, middle, and an end.  These are the stories that are easy enough to tell and get your point across about how you can help others.

What I’ve found is that many people are trying to tell a story about them at their essence (I’m great! I have great skills!), but it’s so vague that it doesn’t come across as meaningful, interesting or compelling. It’s really only in the stories about the projects you’ve accomplished that you can really make an impression.  They build up to the areas of your essence and your roles. (For thoughts about how to tell your story, check out my post about Fairy Tales and telling your story.)

Granted, you will tell your stories differently depending on the audience, but that’s an entirely differently blog post.

So, do you know who you want to tell your stories to, and what stories you want to tell?


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?

Tree in late November, Boston Public Garden

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:

  1. 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!
  2. 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.
  3. 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?
  4. 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?

20110913-092048.jpgAs 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?

20110908-095258.jpgI 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?

Fairy Tales

Most fairy takes have a very basic structure that works well for job search purposes:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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?

Ken Mattsson

Ken Mattsson

Ken Mattsson

I am a career consultant who specializes in the connection between what your spirit wants to do in the world, and how to marry that to the work that you do in order to support yourself. While I work with people in all fields, I specialize in working with "creative entrepreneurs" and the LGBT community.

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