Why your resume should tell a story
Effective storytelling can help you get your next job
Here on Story Cauldron, I explore Story in all its forms. Lately, I’ve been talking to a number of people who are applying for jobs or looking to change careers, and I thought it might be helpful to update and share an article I wrote on Medium a couple of years ago. I’d love it if you’d share it with anyone you know who’s on the job market right now.
We all need resumes, but they don’t do us any good if they don’t catch the eye of hiring managers.
Many people think that their resume should be a list of their previous jobs, education, and skills. Some people also believe that they should detail all of their work responsibilities for each job so the hiring manager knows exactly what they did.
The problem is, your resume is often the first thing a company learns about you, and when it’s just a boring wall of text, they’ll likely push it aside and review the next one.
So what’s the solution?
Your resume should tell a story
In Story Cauldron, one of my goals is to show you how humans are hard-wired to seek out stories everywhere we go. In addition to stories we might find in books or movies, we look for them in podcasts, funny pet videos, and Twitter threads.
So it stands to reason that if your resume tells your story, it will make an impact. Plus a good story will tell a hiring manager exactly what they need to know.
Let’s look at how this works.
What a hiring manager wants to know
Each time a job is posted, the person that’s doing the hiring needs to find qualified people to interview. And they want to do it as quickly as possible.
Larger companies might automate resume review using an Applicant Tracking System to winnow down the pool (and here’s one way to beat those systems). But sooner or later a pile of resumes will land on someone’s desk. And in most cases, that person will look at a resume for a few seconds. Really.
That means that you have very little time to convince them you’re someone they want to interview.
Effective resumes tell a story
So how do you maximize your chances of making it to the YES pile and not the NO pile?
It’s actually quite simple. Your resume, from start to finish, should tell the story of how your academic background, professional life, and volunteer or community work, taken together, makes you the perfect candidate for that specific job title.
Put another way, a successful resume shouldn’t just be a collection of everything you’ve ever done.
Instead, your resume should present a carefully curated, but accurate, reflection of your professional history. Taken as a whole, it should demonstrate how you’re the perfect person for the job.
This means each job title you’re pursuing should have a different resume. And that’s not just updating your “objective” section as some people think. You need to rethink the entire document because you might need to tell different stories.
For example, if you’re applying for both copywriting gigs and customer support positions, the experience you need to demonstrate will be completely different. That means you’d need to tell two different stories, including only details relevant to each path. Hence, two resumes.
How to write an effective resume
Okay so the whole storytelling concept is great in theory, but how do you put it into practice?
First, ditch those boring “career objective” sections. They don’t do anything to make your case.
Instead, lead off your resume with a career statement that highlights your experience and main accomplishments as they apply to the job you’re applying for. You need to wow a potential employer by showing off your top qualification or accomplishment here.
If you had an open position, would you rather read:
“Career Objective: to land a senior copywriter position with a Fortune 500 company that will challenge me and allow me to grow as a writer.”
“Seasoned copywriter with 6 years’ experience crafting landing page, email marketing, and blog copy for tech and medical services companies, with email open rates averaging 15% and over 700,000 blog reads.”
Seems like a no-brainer to me.
Next, when you list your previous job experience, don’t just itemize all of your main duties at each position you’ve held. Instead, focus on the duties that match the job description for the job you’re applying for. Your goal isn’t to be comprehensive. You just need to show how each job has prepared you for the job you want.
This means you should tailor what you include under each position to match job descriptions. Don’t just list your official job duties. Think about what you actually did (whether it was part of your job description or not) and how it directly relates to the job you want.
Let’s say one of the lines in the job posting is: “demonstrate above-average communication skills.” You could add a line to your most recent job that highlights a specific way you’ve had to communicate with others, such as “reported data on support outcomes monthly to management” or “presented data on open and conversion rates to a team of 20 writers.”
Hiring managers like to see measurable results. Whenever possible, include specific data points. This is especially true in your initial career statement, but it should also be a feature of every position you list on the resume.
For example, “Managed company blog” tells someone what you did, but not how well you did it or the scope of your responsibilities. Instead, if you wrote “Managed blog team of 12 writers and increased blog traffic by 25% over two years,” you will convey a lot more useful information to a potential employer.
Sometimes coming up with good data points can be tricky, but every job has something that you (or the management) measured. List how many customers you helped, or document the specific results you achieved from a project. If you don’t have solid numbers, make an honest estimate.
If you’re still struggling with what you can include, consider reviewing previous performance evaluations for ideas.
Be strategic with your skills section
Many people use the skills section as a place to list everything they know how to do, but that’s a mistake.
Your skills section has a couple of roles.
First, you need to get past the robots in the ATS, so you should include keywords that match up with the job description. Putting it a different way, think of the job description as a checklist. Your resume should demonstrate how you tick all the boxes. This includes foreign language proficiency, software knowledge, programming language expertise, and more.
But more than giving you a chance to match up with a potential job, the skills section also gives you a great place to expand on your story.
Don’t waste valuable resume real estate on things like “Knows Microsoft Office.” Everyone assumes you know how to use Word. Instead, focus on skills that will make you a valuable new hire. Are you great at math, or a research whiz? Do you have above-average writing skills, or have you dabbled in purchasing? Consider the type of job you’re applying for, and throw in a couple of less common but interesting skills that could be useful. You might just catch a prospective employer’s eye.
Be proud of your accomplishments
At the end of the day, your resume is no place to be modest. Be proud of what you’ve achieved, even if it’s small. If you don’t have a lot of experience, you can still highlight what you know and what you’ve done.
At the same time, if you’re putting your resume together and it feels really thin, use that as motivation to put yourself out there.
Volunteer for an organization that needs your skills and time. Work your way up to a leadership position in a community group or church. Offer to build a website for a friend, or teach something you know to kids. Everything you do, paid or unpaid, can be part of your resume.
Going back to our previous example: if you really want to work as a copywriter but have no work experience in the field, then start writing on a platform like Substack or Medium, or help an organization with their website content. Learn WordPress and build a blog. All of these things will demonstrate that you can write, that you have a commitment to writing, and as a bonus, provide a portfolio of work a potential employer can review.
And as you do all of the things, and accumulate knowledge and experience, these things all add to your professional story.
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