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In the June  25, 2019 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter a reader wants yet another look at the resume.

Question

resumeI think you once wrote that your resume can’t defend you, because if the answer is no, you’re not there to defend yourself or explain why you still deserve an interview. I get that, but I still need to use a resume. I like how you turn a resume on its head in Resume Blasphemy, so it seems you’re not entirely opposed to resumes as long as they deliver a different kind of message. Since I’m going to use a resume anyway, got any other interesting ideas about what I could do to make it more alluring?

Nick’s Reply

Sheesh. You want to make your resume alluring? Like fast food, a resume isn’t very alluring! Why not just list your employers, jobs, titles and what you did? Keep it simple. But I think I see where you’re going, so maybe we can have some fun with this.

I’m forever telling people to skip the resume when they’re looking for a new job. And I realize some think this is kooky advice, or that it must be a headhunter’s hyperbole. Actually, my advice is intended to make you think about how to express your value in terms that make dollar signs appear in an employer’s eyes. But there’s another view of what a resume should do: make your story memorable.

The trouble with a fast-food resume

Everyone knows resumes are processed by applicant tracking systems that check your words against enormous databases. So you try to use keywords that might make those databases yield job interviews. But what you may not realize is that few jobs are actually filled that way. You’ve been suckered by Indeed’s, and LinkedIn’s, and ZipRecruiter’s marketing into feeding fast food to their algorithms.

So if you really want to experiment, try some marketing of your own. Here’s an example that might get you thinking about how a resume can be something else — if that’s what you want. Remember, we’re exploring ideas, not trying to come up with a perfect solution.

Un-do your story

My good buddy, marketing guru Mark Levy, tells about visiting a Quiznos sandwich shop in How You Tell A Brand Story Matters. Waiting in line, he read an advertising placard that told “The Quiznos Story.” This sign, of course, is Quiznos’ resume. In his article Levy rips that sign to shreds, while I’ll bet millions of other Quiznos visitors didn’t give it a second thought.

And that’s Levy’s point exactly. The sign turned the story of Quiznos into a cheesy clone of virtually any dish on the menu at Chipotle or Applebee’s, or any of a number of high-volume themed eateries that produce overly cheesy, nondescript chow. It’s all the same.

Levy writes:

“I felt duped. Here I was excited to learn what separated a brand I enjoy from the rest of the pack, and what I was fed was a surface story that… could have been trumpeted by any competitor.”

While I preach un-doing your resume to turn it into a story of how you’ll produce profit for an employer, Levy is more interested in what’s iconic and memorable about you. After all, that’s what good marketing is. I can just imagine what he thinks of resumes he receives himself. Levy’s criticism tears into all banal marketing — including the marketing that comprises your professional resume or your LinkedIn profile.

A resume that makes a dent

What can we learn from Levy’s critique? Is your resume larded with the kind of fast-food twaddle that’s on Quiznos’ sign?

“For a sub shop to say it believes in great-tasting food, consisting of freshly-sliced quality ingredients, is like a automobile manufacturer saying it believes in building cars that drive forwards and backwards. Or, a computer maker bragging about how its machines can connect to the internet.”

Is that what your resume sounds like? I’ll bet you it is. And I’ll bet, like the Quiznos sign, it’s totally forgettable.

“The story Quiznos told may be true, but it wasn’t told in a way that would make a dent in anyone’s consciousness… I’m guessing few customers have read that sign fully or remember what it said if they did.”

And that’s why you come off tasting like just another bag of fast food when you apply for a job with a resume. Oh, the keywords probably match up just fine, along with those in a million other resumes. But eventually the hiring manager who’s going to interview you has to read that thing — and you cannot tell a compelling story in your own resume if you’re using the keywords you found in some advice column about “what employers are looking for.”

25 hungry cats

Levy says your story must include “a context… an insight… a promise… a substantiation… a frank detail… an unexpected bit of color.”

Are all those ingredients in your resume? Or is your story just more bland fast food?

Nothing good can come of this column unless you click to one more page on Mark Levy’s website. Try this resume test. Please read Levy’s follow-up article about 25 hungry cats: The Best Brand Story Is Often Informal.

If you’re going to un-do your resume and re-do it as your “marketing piece,” is your story this unexpected and iconic? Sometimes you have to leave the signs and resumes behind, and tell a story that makes a dent.

What’s on your resume? What do you think of Mark Levy’s example about the 25 cats? If you’re going to do something clever, or creative, or more meaningful with your resume, what is it? Or, should we just leave resumes alone?

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35 Comments
  1. I’ve been trying for a couple of years to turn the advice on this website into something I can use. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying that it’s not incredibly valuable or 100% on the nose. But I’m an executive assistant, and the vast majority of the pointers I read about here just don’t work for me, try as I might to twist them to my favor.

    I *have* to use a resume. And unfortunately, most of the words, phrases, and sentences I’d use to describe any position in my career are “fast food.” They have to be, for a couple of different reasons: I do basically fast-food things (but do them in a Michelin-five-star kind of way); and the bots that creep through my resume look for fast-food words. Also, every single job description for an executive assistant is Exactly. The. Same. with the exception of possibly some industry-specific jargon and/or bespoke software package I’d need to learn. I can’t “use numbers to show results” because my niche doesn’t work that way. I can’t increase sales; if anything, my salary is a liability. My biggest challenge is just getting in front of someone where I can finally differentiate myself, which I find almost unfailingly impossible because all of us EAs sound the same on paper!!

    I try giving my “25 cats” story in my cover letter, but I’m not even sure anyone sees that. It’s probably not mined for golden keywords like my resume. I attach a writing sample–an article I wrote for a national magazine–but it’s unlikely that gets read, either.

    Once I’m 100% vested in my 401(k) at my current company (last week of October 2019!!! Woo-hoooooo!!!!), I’ll be launching an all-out assault on employers back in my home state, 800 miles away. I’ve not one clue how to make myself “25 cats”-worthy.

    What kind of resume for an executive assistant would make you think “I need to hire her before the sun goes down!”…? I really am the one they want. It just seems like there is no possible way to convey that. And in this day and age, every job posting states that all applications must be done online or they’ll be ignored, so it’s not like I can jump out of a cake or deliver a singing telegram while passing out my resume to my gawkers.

    • Your 25 cats moment in your cover letter could be an example of how you helped your boss meet a critical deadline or are very good at catching spelling errors. For example, I can spot spelling errors in ads and newspapers. It’s not something I trained for. It’s a skill I happen to have. I used to edit my boss’s letters and marketing materials when I was an assistant. English is my third language. I work very well under pressure.

      Nick’s other advice is spot on. You need to meet people. Resumes matter much less when you are sending your resume to someone you know. Online applications are mostly a waste of time. Be prepared for not hearing back from most employers who you apply to.

    • You’re not they only one who struggles with this. I’m just an ordinary person who can’t navel gaze enough to come up with interesting stories, although if I were to talk to someone they might find some interesting stories about me (i.e., I wouldn’t know how to recognize such).

      If I get in front of flesh and blood I can generally make enough of an impression that they like me and hire me. On paper, though, I’m just another cog in the machine.

      • I stand out from my peers because I am reliable (really, really reliable: if I say it will get done, it gets done), fast, can juggle twelve things at once, have guru-level software skills (I roll experience in graphic design, help-desk support, database administration, proposal production, and writing/editing into one dynamite package), am insanely proud of how crazily organized I am, and no matter what kind of hell I’m going through, I keep going with a smile on my face. THESE are the reasons I’m special. But honestly? These are the things that every candidate says. I’ve tried cute approaches and creative approaches and honest approaches and they all fall flat. I’m honestly wondering if I should just stop trying so hard, learn to love my new position as the Slurpee machine cleaner, and hang in there until I qualify for retirement.

        • That is your story right there. Say all of this on your resume or cover letter. If you saved the company money by reducing waste of office supplies, for example, this is resume worthy. Not just your daily tasks or typing speed. Use a modern layout and list your strengths at the top under your name. What you just wrote are what I call strengths but you have to see them for yourself first.

        • @Squeak: I agree with Kathy. You have your 25 cats right there. Add a few brief examples to back them up, and don’t worry what everyone else says. You can have a great story without being cute :-)

          • Ha ha…sometimes the stuff really does write itself if you let it. Thanks for all the suggestions. I feel like I have some fresh ideas.

          • @Squeak: That’s EXACTLY what Levy teaches in his book “Accidental Genius.” When the stuff writes itself, he calls it “freewriting” and gives lessons on how to do it. You’ve got the idea!

    • @Squeakalicious: What Boris said. He’s right. It’s little things that are actually important and that define you. We all get so formal about our damned resumes that we bury the best parts of us under the verbiage and the key words. Sometimes it helps to sit down with some friends over a glass of wine, and tell them stories of “what I pulled off” — and make a list. In there you’ll find your cats.

    • @Squeakalicious, it might be worth taking some time to ponder how important what you do could be to the right person. I can’t speak for your current or past bosses. And you are not crazy, the bots and HR people who read resumes don’t know and don’t care.

      But I can tell you, having gone on a journey from successfully justifying my position to an academic department chair under pressure from the dean to cut costs, to now having hired and trained multiple assistants of my own, that this is a vastly under-appreciated position.

      Any executive who deserves an executive assistant knows, or should be able to quickly learn, the vast difference that someone Michelin-star level can make to their quality of life and performance (over an assistant who is fast-food average). If you can successfully convey that you are the former, you may be worth your weight in gold to the right person.

      Please don’t let the HR bots, human and otherwise, discourage you!

  2. I have absolutely no idea, how to craft a ‘story’ beyond the basic biographical facts of education,work and so forth. I I did, I’d be an author.

    Then again I would probably be more impressed by the single source proteins and not give an iota about some random man and his cats.

    • Have you never solved a knotty problem for your company? Have you never come up with an idea that saved them money or made them more efficient? I bet you have. And there’s your story.

      • @scott
        >Have you never solved a knotty problem for your company?

        No,I could never find one.

        >Have you never come up with an idea that saved them money?

        Ideas yes,I have never been allowed to implement them its difficult to write that without sounding like a lot of complaining about the employer.

        The managers don’t want to be more efficient because then they would get less money.

        I’m trying to attract the attentions of other companies by selling my software on ebay that can save 80k or so on qa testing.

    • Mark Levy wrote a book called “Accidental Genius.” He teaches some great, simple ways to recognize your own story. I’ve been fortunate to live near Mark and to spend a lot of time with him over the years — he’s my guru when it comes to finding the pith of something I’m doing. It’s very important to find that and to understand it, no matter what kind of work you do.

    • @Craigster – it’s tough crafting a story about ourselves. A possible approach: ask someone (coworker, friend, family member) to listen to you talk about what you’re good at work wise and what you really like to do. I bet they could tell you your stories afterward. I’ve done this several times and it’s been really helpful.

    • @Annette: That’s a great way to do it. We all tend to become overly formal when writing anything, especially about ourselves. (E.g., our resumes, which are a bore!). Your suggestion is a good way to make it conversational by actually talking with friends about it.

      I’ll give you an example. I’ve tried recording Ask The Headhunter material in front of a camera or on a voice recorder. I don’t like how I come off. Stiff and formal even when I try not to be. But when I record a live presentation that I’m doing in front of people, I sound great — because I’m talking, not reciting or lecturing. So get off the script. Make it conversational. You can even record that conversation you have with friends and then transcribe the best parts for your story.

  3. “What kind of resume for an executive assistant would make you think “I need to hire her before the sun goes down!”…?”

    I think that is Nick’s point, in short ; None.

    I can attest that I have not seen a single resume in my hiring career that makes me think that, although I have hired several people that fit the criteria of must have.

    • @Annette

      Friends and family was the first thing I thought about,they have no idea either.

      None of my coworkers will talk to me beyond the basic requirement to get the job done.

  4. Stories make people listen.
    My wife has a book out on vaccines. When she gives talks about it, she doesn’t just give the science and the statistics. She tells stories. Did you know George Washington immunized his troops against smallpox (pre-vaccine) against the wishes of Congress, which helped us achieve our independence?
    I turned a technical talk into a mystery story. The audience was rapt.
    Now getting your story into a resume is tough. Maybe in accomplishments? Just one more reason to not rely on resumes and talk to hiring managers instead – and tell them your story. Or at least have your story ready for the interview or the call screen. You’ll be remembered.

    • A guy I worked for long ago referred to it as the myth. What’s the myth about a business or a person? It need not be phony. A good myth can also be real and true, and compact enough that we can carry it around and use it so others “get it.”

    • Wow what a great story, I had to look that one up as I hadn’t heard buffer and love history, thanks for sharing that :)

    • This is an example of a military person who received a smallpox vaccine: https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/00000270.htm

      His fiancee would have probably preferred 25 cats.

  5. Precisely. Stories have POWER, which is why I’m so thrilled I’ve rediscovered the great book The Power of Myth (https://amzn.to/2J3ksg3). One of the reasons most people fall in love with stories – true stories in this case – is that they speaks to the human inside us… and this human element is all too lacking in so much of today’s hiring.

    Dry statistics (saved… improved… increased…) with metrics are important, sure. But the story of how you did that? Priceless.

  6. I have a story. I put it on my resume along with the story. I bring it up in interviews and when I’m conversing with people in the industry.
    You know, most people, don’t even ask. If they do, they accuse me of lying.

  7. The 25 cats story can fire both ways. My reaction was that travelling the world with 25 cats is really stupid and ridiculous, and mean to the cats. I would not want to but cat food from that company.

    May be it is because I am a science nerd with an overly sensitive BS filter, but I would rather hear why the food actually is better for a cat. Except, of course, that the single source protein probably is just as BS, in the same way as pro-vitamins in shampoo.

    As a petroleum geologist, my experience has been that the best is to stick to “just the facts, ma’am”, but also show that I have thought through what the company needs and that I am the right person to deliver it: Knowledge of regional geology, petroleum systems, regulatory framework, company strategy etc.

    Resumes are IMHO not the big problem, but who receives them; HR or managers. I did land my first two jobs by submitting the resume to HR, but it turned out the first job was because I happened to have special knowledge of an area (the keywords matched!). The next jobs have been through personal contacts (while a few resumes in between, for “testing other waters”, have went into the black hole).

    I now always use my network to get in contact with prospective employers. If I do not have any relevant contacts for the given company, I simply find the relevant person on the corporate website and calls directly: “I am thinking of switching jobs, your company is interesting because its XYZ business matches well with my skills and interests in ABC. Want to meet for a lunch one day, and explore if there is a match?”

    Even if they do not have a job there and then, they will know me when the time comes. This approach has landed me one job and two leads for possible future jobs. Sure, some people do not want to talk, but then; nothing gained, but nothing lost either.

    I know, Nick Corcodilos has suggested to call and talk shop, rather than fishing for a job, but my experience is that they understand the purpose anyway. That is why I am open about the purpose, but with the important distinction: I do not ask for a job now, but suggest a meeting of professionals to explore the possibility of working together in the future.

    • @Karsten:

      First, you raise a good point. As a former cat owner myself, the very few times I traveled with the pusses was always difficult. I can only imagine the strain on the animals doing this regularly. And overseas??? (Some countries have significant quarantine periods.)

      Second, that’s a good tactic. Hasn’t worked as well for me as you, alas, but… what’s the universal element? Get to a HUMAN who can affirmatively make a decision to hire you, rather than the HR screen to rule you out.

    • @Karsten – I think that’s another hallmark of a strong brand: people tend to feel strongly about it, both positively and negatively.

      (And I felt the same way about making those cats travel!)

      This isn’t my field of expertise, but I’ve repeatedly heard that you will get further with a strong brand, even where someone might have a strong negative reaction, than you do by having no brand. When looking for jobs, you don’t want everyone to hire you, anyone. You want the one who is right for you.

    • If I tried to travel with my cat, she’d slap me upside the head. 25???? Kitty riot.

  8. I have a story I always try to inject into an interview, but I don’t think it would work on a resume. It pertains to how reading Goldratt’s Theory of Contraints business novel, “The Goal,” which is in the setting of factory operations, led me to pursue a career in transportation (specifically rail and intermodal). I offer it as an example of thinking conceptually and being able to apply principles that are seemingly about one field (manufacturing operations) to other areas (specifically, the operations of the rail terminals I passed through on my daily commutes). Of course the HR types have to have their noses rubbed in the trait involved, because they’re always too dim to get it.

  9. I’m a plain vanilla person who can get things done (just can’t translate that on a resume). My background is science, education, and project management but I have no idea how to sound “compelling” so someone will hire me.

    • Whenever I’ve tried to come across as a compelling, high-energy applicant in written communication, the next day I’ll reread what I wrote and it sounds insane. Not only that, but I am not by any description a bubbly, perky, Julie-the-cruise-director-type person (I’m actually extremely introverted), so I find it flat-out impossible to carry that persona through to an interview–especially the never-ending, drawn-out, eight-person, half-day-including-lunch, absolutely exhausting panel interviews I seem to get stuck with so frequently–and certainly not through to my job every day for the rest of my life. So it feels manic and almost like I’m lying to be The Queen of Perk in my cover letter. But hey, if it’ll get me there…

  10. Think of it this way. If the hiring world ever settled on what a “correct” structure, length, content of a resume looked like, it would be what a resume is today…a sterile compilation of facts, inclusive of the right keywords etc. YOU aren’t there. You the person, and the person makes the difference.

    That’s the point of the 25 cats, to insert YOU into the discussion in a way that gives insights to your value add and in so doing, make you stand out in a positive way. When you think about it, people talk shop with stories. Stories are the complete opposite of resumes…mainly because they are not sterile. You, your personality, your passions & interests are out in front. And resumes are full of stories…hiding behind bullet points. Resumes present unsubstantiated facts, stories deal with the context of real experiences.

    They don’t fit into resumes..but they can in a cover letter, which dates me. And that letter won’t be
    conventional. So what? I got my 1st job in the computer industry with an unconventional (and I’d like to think humorous & perhaps irreverent letter ) via a cover letter. I Had nothing to lose because what I applied for, was a big stretch that no resume could hide. I wasn’t remotely qualified.

    the 25 Cats/stories is an approach to be sure that doesn’t fit the way the business of finding a job
    generally works. In past columns Nick has pointed out that everyone on both the hunter & hiring sides involved are conditioned to follow a certain process…one crafts a resume, sends it in, reviewed for ??? local convention and need etc.

    And I’ve met tons of hiring managers, recruiters HR people who when confronted with any deviation from the rules, are outraged about such blasphemy, turn off their brains and fail to perceive creativity when it’s in their face. And then complain mightily about volumes of mind-numbing sameness of material they must suffer through.

    Yeah, somewhere along the way you’ll need a resume, if only to help an inside advocate to deal with the aforementioned.

    But before that…turn your perspective around…think of it as a search for someone “who gets it” & if offered a chance, will relate to you. Someone who has intellectual curiosity, sees merit in a creative approach, and…who loves stories. Because they get their value, with a bonus of relief the aforementioned churn of sterile paperwork.

    In my case I knew my letter was not “proper”. Be that as it may..The HR guy walked it to the hiring
    manager. Who fortunately for me, as I found out later, had a great sense of humor & told the HR guy
    “I have to meet this guy”.

    Let me give you an another example from the other side of the table. When recruiting. The company I was with, was interested in “process improvement” I called in a guy who offered a pretty conventional resume which had a bullet on same. After I went over the small talk, usual resume review etc. I
    told him our interest. He then launched off into describing a similar project he was involved in, peeling back that bullet point. From this point on it was his story, of a 5 year effort…Which took a
    lot of time..But time was no longer relevant. He had the floor. I moved him forward, but above my pay
    grade he & the CEO couldn’t come to terms.

    There are plenty of hiring decision makers who love stories. They cross all kinds of lines..They work
    very well for crappy interviewers, they work well for nervous seekers, delivery is versatile, written or spoken, they cross industry lines, they don’t require intense preparation, they fit all means of communication..and they really show who you, & who you are talking with …

    • @Don Harkness

      It would be great to see your cover letter that got you your 1st IT job(suitably anonymous of course) if you would like to share?

      Another example might help to get the hang of this.

      • So would I, lost from my archives, & created the old fashioned way…typewriter & carbon paper.
        But I can provide more background. My wife & I lived in S. Jersey. I worked in a Camden NJ firm that bought one of the 1st IBM 360/20 (Card) machines. Newly released from Military service I was offered an IT job…computer operator.
        worked doing that there until the reality of being newly married demanded I get a job that paid
        something akin to a living wage. So I leveraged that experience on the 360/20 to join another and bigger company that bought one. My value add is I touched one & none of their IT people had.
        Same thing except now I could tinker with a programming tool called RPG and had a taste of RPG
        experience.
        Happened to be waiting round in a laundromat reading a trade rag called Computerworld which had
        an ad for a software tester/programmer at NCR in Dayton OH. So what the heck I drafted this letter which exaggerated my vast programming experience a tad. But the gist was I have some experience programming, but am not a programmer, so all I can offer you is blood sweat and tears.. About a non conventional 1 pager. And as I said my to-be boss thought it was funny…and had HR bring me in. We bonded & he hired & relo’d me there.
        Post script…I’d been sending similar hither and yon…another to Unisys in PA. They responded & when I told them I was going with NCR, the HR guys shared “I can’t believe they’re hiring you for that”.

  11. @Don Harkness

    Thanks for the info,though it is still kind of hard for me to wrap my head around this.

    >my to-be boss thought it was funny…and had HR bring me in

    Not to discredit you,but I think that’s a key part,the boss was reading the letters then told HR what to do. The other way round your letter would proably never have reached him.

    >I get a job that paid
    something akin to a living wage

    I have found that crop up a lot on a second or third discussion,I think it’s understated just how much easier it is for people who are not struggling to make ends meet to find a better opportunity, which is sad because they need it the most.

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