Your resume only has a few seconds to grab the attention of recruiters. To give yourself a chance of getting an interview, your resume must stand out from the crowd. How can you make that happen?
The Truth About Recruiters
Recruiters are busy people. They've got to plow through hundreds or sometimes thousands of resumes looking for the perfect candidate.
When you send in a job application, how long do you think the recruiter spends reviewing it? Most job seekers guess that it's around 4-5 minutes.
Yet it's common lore in the world of careers guidance that recruiters spend less than thirty seconds looking at each resume they receive. But is this really true? Surely, with all the time and effort you put into crafting your resume, it deserves more than a 30 second glance?
Job matching service TheLadders decided to put these assumptions to the test. Are the job seekers correct, and their resume gets a good five minutes consideration? Or are the careers counselors correct, and it's more like 30 seconds? TheLadders decided to use the most objective way possible to find out. Rather than asking recruiters how long they spent studying each resume, they relied on eye tracking technology to discover the truth.
The research discovered both groups are wrong. Recruiters don't spend five minutes looking at each resume. Nor do they spend 30 seconds.
Recruiters actually spend just six seconds reviewing a resume. In other words, they're getting through 10 resumes every minute. You've got to be special to catch their attention.
Note: You can read the full study from TheLadders. Because they used eye tracking technology, you can also see what parts of your resume recruiters will look at.
You might spend hours crafting your resume, but unless you're doing it right, you won't get any opportunity to shine beyond those six seconds. What can you do to make those six seconds count in your favor?
The answer is to tell a great story with your resume.
Stories are our natural way of communicating as human beings. Everyone loves a good story. Stories grab our attention and pull us in. According to Jennifer Aaker, Professor of Marketing at the Stanford Graduate School of Business: "When you tell a story, people slow down, and they listen."
Additionally, stories are the way we search for meaning. By consciously using your resume to tell a story, you're helping recruiters find the deeper meaning in your professional experience. You're joining the dots between everything you've done. You're helping them discover a story about you that they can tell to themselves. Aaker again: "Research shows that the stories others tell about you shape how they see you... Stories persuade and they move people to action."
Finally, we remember stories much better than pure information. Aaker claims that stories are up to 22 times more memorable than raw data such as facts or statistics. She cites the example of the nonprofit Save the Children, who tested stories against statistics in their fundraising materials. The stories raised twice as much money.
All resumes tell a story of some kind about a person's career. The key is to consciously tell a joined up story that makes you attractive to potential employers.
The Ingredients of a Story Resume
By telling a story with your resume I don't mean turning it into a novel. You should still keep it as short as possible — ideally on a single page, and two pages maximum. As Jennifer Aaker says, stories can be as short as a tweet or an SMS message.
You're not becoming a fiction writer. Rather, you're incorporate storytelling elements into your resume. What are the key ingredients of storytelling? To tell an effective story with your resume, you must:
- Be a traditionalist. Write with an established structure, and be creative within that structure.
- Show, don't tell. Stories are always more powerful when the listener or reader is allowed to draw their own conclusions, rather than being told what to think.
- Be the hero in your story, and show how you've defeated villains or conquered challenges.
- Use the "consequences" story technique.
Whatever stage you're at in your career, you can incorporate these into your resume. You can use a resume to tell a story whether you're a 40 year veteran in your industry or you've just left high school.
Be a Traditionalist
When you're trying to stand out from the crowd, it's tempting to try off-the-wall ideas. You might think, "Why don't I print my resume on purple paper?" or "How about I get a graphic designer to make my resume look extra special?" or "No one uses Comic Sans for their resume, so why not me?" Or maybe you'll put your dog as one of your references, or write a poem instead of listing your key skills (both of these are unverified true stories I found online, and embarrassing at it is to admit, I once included a poem with an application. I wasn't successful).
Thinking out of the box can work, but it's a long shot. More often than not, your resume will go straight into the trash basket because you're trying to be too smart.
Why is this? When you send in a resume, recruiters are looking for what careers coach Ramit Sethi calls competence triggers. They're looking for subtle signals to indicate your skills and mindset. For example, they want to know whether you can follow guidelines, and whether you can work well as part of a team. In both of these cases, a resume printed on purple paper would act as an incompetence trigger. It would show that you think you're above the rules, and that potentially you'll be hard to work with.
When storytellers sit down to write, they start with an established structure. Typically, this is the standard three act structure. That's because writers know they should stick with what works. Having a structure gives them a starting point, and parameters for their creativity.
When you're writing your resume, stick with the established structure. You can be creative within that structure, but you should't ignore it or subvert it.
The traditional structure includes:
- Your name.
- Your contact details.
- Your mission statement or elevator pitch (optional). This a mini-story about who you are, and what you'll bring to the role you're applying for.
- Your key skills and/or achievements.
- Your employment history (in reverse chronological order).
- Your education history (in reverse chronological order).
- Your References.
Alternatively, you can list your key skills and achievements within your employment section under each role. However, to follow the guidelines in this tutorial, the above structure is the most effective.
Show, Don't Tell
If you ever take a creative writing class, one of the first rules you'll learn is "show, don't tell". What does this mean?
Let me give you an example. "The car was unfit to drive" is telling. You say straight up what you mean, rather than painting a word picture, and allowing your reader to draw their own conclusions. Here's how a writer might show that the car was unfit to drive. "Brandon assessed the state of the car. Both headlamps smashed. Three flat tires. A web of cracks across the windshield. A trail of thick, black sludge leaking out from under the hood. A classic car it might be, but he wouldn't be taking it to town anytime soon."
When you show rather than tell, you create a vivid picture in the reader's mind. You pull them into the story.
The best place to use this technique on your resume is with your key skills. Instead of stating what your skills are (telling), give examples of when you've put those skills to good use (showing). This is a great way to be creative with the traditional resume structure. As Richard Maun writes inJob Hunting 3.0:
Giving people the opportunity to infer our key skills from our achievements is a stronger selling style than telling our key skills by listing them out. Once you've read 200 [resumes] that all talk about excellent communication skills, good time management, great problem solving skills and wonderful leadership, it's easy to see how quickly these statements lose their currency and soak up valuable space, without adding any value.
Let's take a look at how to turn your achievements into stories.
How to Show Your Achievements
Talking of stories makes it sound like you need a grand, sweeping narrative. The truth is, you don't have to be a Hollywood script writer to tell a good story. Stories don't need to be long either. According to legend, Ernest Hemingway famously wrote a six word story:
"For sale: baby shoes, never worn."
What makes a story into a story, rather than a fact? The simple answer is consequences. In a story, one event happens, then something else happens because of that. To paraphrase E. M. Forster, "The king died and then the queen died" is a factual statement. It's raw data. "The king died, and then the queen died of grief" is a story. The story shows the link with the new event.
When you're looking for stories to tell in your achievements section, look over your past professional experience and ask yourself: "What were the positive consequences of me being in that role? What did I do that made a difference?" Write down everything you can think of, even if it seems small or insignificant. Your future employer isn't expecting you to have been a world leader, changing millions of people's lives. They only want to know that you had an impact in the workplace.
Let me show you how you can do this with what seems like simple or mundane work. One of my first jobs was working on the help-desk at a hardware store. My achievements here include:
- Handling hundreds of customer enquiries every day in a polite and professional manner.
- Processing up to 100 refunds per day.
- Supervising 12 cash registers, each processing $10,000+ per day.
As you can see, I'm showing that I had a moderate level of responsibility for a junior member of staff, and I'm doing so in a way that makes it simple for the recruiter to draw their own conclusions about my key skills. One of the ways I do this is through using numbers. Richard Maun explains:
Numbers are easy to remember and make your case for you. Saying that you 'improved the business' that you 'saved some money' that you 'have good experience' is bland and pointless. Saying that you 'increased sales by 20%' that you 'saved [$]10,000 a year' or that you 'have 15 years' experience' suddenly becomes more interesting and memorable and I would want to know the story behind how you saved that money.
Maun's other tips for writing your achievements effectively include:
- Stating how you did them. This includes sharing the "methods or tools used to get results." For example, I might explain that I helped a client set up a mailing list with 2,000 subscribers using MailChimp.
- Make sure to cover all your key skills. This means listing a range of achievements. Maun recommends that in addition to listing technical achievements, you should focus on your achievements with people. List the times when you led a team, or how you helped an employee develop.
- Focus on your professional achievements. That is, unless you're at an early stage of your career or you're returning to work after an extended break.
- Think about the challenges you faced at work. If you're struggling to come up with achievements, think about the challenges you faced in your work environment. How did you tackle those challenges?
For examples of achievements you could adapt for your resume, check out our Storytelling Resume Cheat Sheet. I recommend collecting a toolbox of useful stories, so you can submit a custom resume for each role you apply for. For each application you submit, choose the stories that best match your job specifications.