Add Punch to Your Resume by Telling a Story

I really believe that your resume needs to have one clear message. Or rather, a direction. A narrative. And that's what I call your story.

Now, maybe you're wondering why some guy on the internet wants your resume to tell a story. Storytelling can certainly be a powerful tool in advertising or public speaking. (So many TED talks are articulated around a story!) But you may ask yourself: "how can anyone tell a story on such a rigid document as a resume? And why?"

A good narrative helps you avoid a major resume pitfall

A big problem with many resumes is that they're fragmented. They lack cohesiveness.

You likely have that problem if your resume isn't very linear. Many people often change career and their resume becomes a sequence of unrelated jobs (with little or no progression): "For two years I was in retail and then I did three years as a manager. After that, I was HR Coordinator for a couple of months and then…"

What's the link? What brings all these elements together? Where is this headed?

It's like Lego blocks lying on a table. You can guess what the final construction will be, but vaguely. (Is it a castle with trees, a spaceship, a farm...?)

If your resume feels like that, you really need to tell a story. Your reader isn't going to build anything herself. Until you do, your fragmented resume will be just a bunch of parts. Only when you craft a narrative does your resume become more than the sum of its parts.

Your story should be about where you're going

As humans, we love to label stuff. It makes it easy for us to look at the world (it reduces the cognitive load).

She's a chemist.

He's an architect.

But when we look at ourselves, we know that, professionally, our potential is often complex, unpredictable and evolving. What if I had taken Journalism instead of Economics? Or moved to Austin? Or started a business? Or...

In other words, labels aren't good because there's a lot that your resume doesn't say. You probably have, say, 2000 blocks to build with, but your resume only needs 500.

So by choosing different sets of blocks, you can adapt your story. While you're pretty much forced to use certain blocks, such as diplomas and career history, there's a lot of wiggle room when it comes to choosing projects, responsibilities and accomplishments.

Your career history is the (imposed) skeleton. But by highlighting certain aspects and toning down others, you can mold your resume to create the narrative that will help you land the job that you want. So you have to start with the goal in mind. And choose the blocks that tell the better story.

What can you project to come across as a distinctive, valuable candidate? That's the resume narrative you're going for.

An example of improved resume narrative

Let me give you an example from a recent client, so you can see how to work on your own story.

Nadia is a thirtysomething Human Resources professional. She loves helping people with their personal and professional well-being and growth. She's good with HR admin stuff but has had enough of that. Now, the story she wants to tell is that she's a strategic professional who can work on developing organizations through people (change management, knowledge transfer, growing new leaders...).

But one of her problems is that her career history somewhat contradicts her narrative: she has too much experience with customer service roles! Only half of her career was spent in HR.

My challenge was to bring an "HR vibe" to her customer service roles. (That was my preferred approach, and it worked. But if there hadn't been anything valuable to say, her customer service jobs would have been described very shortly... One or two bullets.)

To write up relevant descriptions of her customer service roles, we barely touched on her day-to-day responsibilities. (That's right, you're allowed to do that! Removing elements is a huge part of crafting your story.) In one of her roles, she had been involved in a committee discussing processes to deal with angry clients. The work she did on that committee was obviously more in line with her future role than anything else she was doing at the time. So for that specific position, I only singled out what mattered, because that was helping her tell her story.

Yes, it created imbalance. The focus was on something she only spent 5%-10% of her time on. But who cares? She can explain that during the interview. ("I focused my resume on what was relevant for you.")

Removing irrelevant bullet points is a very effective tactic for building a clear narrative.

Here's how I dealt with her other customer service role.

When I was inquiring about her experience, she told me that she had been promoted to manager within a month because of very good customer service skills, but more importantly because she had broken a record in loyalty card sales. And not just any record; a 10-year old record! And that wasn't even on her resume. (That sort of thing happens more often than it should.)

A good building block here is that she was a manager. That obviously fits within a lot of stories. For Nadia, it said she was professional and could deal with people, and so on. That had to be part of her new resume.

But the fact that she had been promoted early by breaking a sales record was significant for her story, as she was interested in consulting services. Consultants do need strong sales skills. But it's not a strength for most of them. So Nadia's above-par sales skills become a valuable differentiator.

But that only applied to consulting firm positions. When she would apply to HR departments, her story would leave this part out. Which meant that she would need two resumes, at least. Anything and everything that could be connected to strategic HR experience had to be on both resumes. But her amazing track record in sales was only to be used with consulting firms.

So she ended up with two resumes, telling slightly different stories.

Here's pretty much everything we did to craft her new narrative:

  • Highlighted "management" and "coaching" experience, to balance out the very strong "training" elements.
  • Toned down the customer service material.
  • Slightly toned down the admin/paperwork stuff in HR.
  • Put forward accomplishments that parallel the work she wants to do (even if these accomplishments weren't part of her "core" functions).
  • Highlighted her robust sales skills (only for one of the resumes... it's almost absent on the other).

One thing to note: her two narratives are fairly similar. But the gap can be bigger if you want two narratives that are further apart, such as 1-"the quality control expert" and 2-"the engineering manager". The process for creating your stories remains the same, but the two resumes won't share as many elements.

Each one needs to highlight and tone down different blocks. However, your best accomplishments will often show up everywhere. Because it's valuable for the quality control expert to bring management skills, or for the manager to demonstrate technical expertise.

Play with your job descriptions to tell a better story for your resume

What does it mean, concretely, to emphasize or tone down tasks/accomplishments?

It's not that hard, really.

To highlight something, you put it higher up in a bullet list. You can also emphasize the most important points by repeating them in the summary section (LINK) of your resume. For the summary, choose a few accomplishments that support your story with concrete results/value for the employer.

Now if you want to tone down certain aspects, simply remove bullets. In Nadia's example, I went as far as removing all the bullets from one of her less significant jobs. The idea is to aim for relevance. Many people try to balance the number of bullets between each job, and that's a big mistake.

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Once you've molded your resume to tell a story, it will have more chances of resonating with recruiters and hiring managers. Even a story that's not perfectly woven together still carries much more weight than no story at all. Because then you're pretty much perceived as your last job title. You end up with a label instead of a story.

But you're moving forward, right? So think hard about the building blocks available to you, and go ahead. Write your story.

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