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Your Resume: How to do it wrong, Part III

Gabe Heilig

Founder, Action Resumes—Pentagon

The mistakes we make
Often, the best way to learn how to do something right is to see how other people keep doing it wrong. After all, it’s easier to see a mistake clearly when someone else is making it. Moreover, most of us dislike writing about ourselves, especially when what we write (and who we’re writing about) is about to be judged, scored, screened—and possibly screened-out.

There are a few basic types of errors people tend to make when they write about themselves. As a general rule, these errors fall into four categories:

Structural errors:
A strong house needs a foundation. How you structure your resume—more than how you word it—is the single most critical factor influencing the decision a Hiring Manager will wind up making about you. People who are reading your resume are in a hurry. If you don’t provide a structure that guides them through your material, they’ll either skip around and miss a lot of what you want them to notice, or they’ll use a frame of reference from having just read dozens of other resumes, and impose it on your material. Why not take the opportunity to structure and shape their view of you?

As I’ve pointed out in earlier columns, there are ways to structure someone else’s attention, so they pay attention to what you want them to notice and understand—and to understand it the way you understand it.

To do that, you need to provide a structure that guides their eye and their thinking. A mental frame. A few formatting ‘arrows’ that point them to what you regard as the most important information. Arrows like bold-faced type for key concepts or phrases. Indented or bulleted text. Using capital letters, occasionally, so that when they’re used they do what they’re supposed to do—i.e., stand out and grab a reader’s attention and point it to what you want your readers to think about and focus on.

Evidence errors:
Evidence counts for a lot when you’re trying to earn the trust and respect of strangers. People who are good at what they do often assume that everyone else knows this and all they have to do is tell readers, “Hey, I’m good at managing contracts” and they will automatically believe you. Wrong. You must offer solid evidence—and describe it so that it counts. It’s crucial.

One of the most fundamental errors in writing is to tell the reader something, rather than showing it to the reader. Here’s what I mean: suppose you want a Hiring Manager to know that you have excellent skills as a public speaker, and thus could work as a representative of the Hiring Manager’s organization. One way to do this would be to just tell the reader in your resume, “ Excellent skills as a public speaker.” A lot of people do this when they write their resumes. They just come right out and give the Hiring Manager their opinion of themselves and their skills. And of course, it’s a good opinion.

The Hiring Manager’s screening panel has no reason to believe you. Of course you’re going to tell them you’re “excellent” at whatever skill you think you’re describing to them. But saying that you’re “excellent” doesn’t make a convincing case.

That’s like a prosecutor telling the jury, “ This defendant is guilty. She needs to be convicted. Period. ” Uh—of course, Mr. Prosecutor, you want us on the jury to believe this defendant is guilty. But telling us this is not the same as giving us solid evidence. If all you do is keep telling us, that doesn’t make us believe you. We need to see evidence.

The same principle applies here. The screening panel and Hiring Manager are your jury, as far as your resume is concerned. They need to be convinced —not just told. Your good opinion of yourself is not evidence.

However, if you point out, “ Invited to give talks to six Chambers of Commerce in the Mid-Atlantic region during 2015. ” If you can offer a fact like that, you don’t need to tell the Hiring Manager what an excellent speaker you are. She’ll come to that conclusion on her own. And when people reach the conclusion you want them to reach, it’s a lot more powerful than if you’re trying to hammer that point into their brains.

Errors in wording:
It’s easy to make mistakes here, by using words that don’t convey what you mean.
Among the more common mistakes:
1. Using too many words to say too little.
2. Using too few words to say too much.
3. Using empty words that have no truth, experience, or facts inside them—such as the example I just used of telling readers what to believe, instead of showing them.
4. Using fancy words that obscure whatever facts are inside them.

Formatting errors:
Formatting counts for more than you might suppose. That’s because people don’t actually “read” resumes. They scan them. If your resume isn’t reader-friendly, readers won’t bother to read it. They’ll just pick up the next one in the pile. There’s always a next one, and if they’re reading resumes, there’s always a pile to pick from. The screening panel doesn’t know you from the next guy, unless you give them good reasons why they should make the effort to learn more about you.

A visually appealing document can help a lot. Resumes with full-page paragraphs of text that look like the pages in an old-fashioned telephone directory—that’s not smart. Don’t do it. The human eye finds it hard to enter a thicket of text. It recoils and stops looking, much less reading. Try it some time. Pick up a densely worded document and just look at it. Do you want to keep looking at it?

No, you probably don’t. Well, guess what? The Hiring Manager won’t want to look at it either. And she almost certainly won’t read it.

Structure. Evidence. Words. Formatting. If you can put yourself in the eyes and mind of a screening panel, you’ll see your own document a lot more clearly—and so will they. Then they may actually read your resume, not just glance at it.

Gabe Heilig has been a consulting speechwriter for the White House and has assisted over 5,300 people in advancing their careers. If you have a question, other people probably have the same question you have. Let’s hear them! You can reach Gabe at gabe@ideadesign-dc.com