Don’t Write a Resume – Tell them a Story!

To understand the impact that a strong resume can have, take a moment to put yourself in the shoes of the hiring manager who needs to fill a position.  Let’s call our manager Harry.  Harry desperately wants to make the right decision.  After all his team is understaffed, his workload keeps mounting and he seems to have new problems every day.  Now he’s been given permission to hire an extra person. Great!  Someone to help with the extra workload and maybe solve some of those nagging problems that no one has time for. 

But as he starts to wade through resumes, another possibility occurs to him.  What if he makes the wrong choice?  What if the person he selects actually makes the problems worse?  It’s happened before.  It wouldn’t be the first time that a candidate who seemed wonderful turned out to be under-qualified or lazy or a trouble-maker. And Harry knows that if he makes that mistake again, he’ll just fall even further behind and his life will get harder, not easier.  Not to mention how he’ll explain to his bosses that hiring the extra person didn’t actually make any positive difference.  All this after he spent months getting permission to hire someone in the first place.

So he’s nervous and as he wades through the stack of resumes, he doesn’t see any way to identify which pile each resume belongs in – the one for people who will make his life better or the ones who will make it worse.  After all, all the resumes look pretty much alike.  Half of them were created from the templates that come with Microsoft Word, the other half are bland and conformist.  They all seem to be from ‘self-starting,  highly motivated people persons.’  These are generalities that tell Harry nothing. 

Each resume outlines the responsibilities of prior positions, but this is no help because knowing what you did (or were supposed to do) is different from knowing how you did it.  Being “responsible for helping customers and tidying the store” tells Harry what the candidate’s employer expected of her.  It does not tell him whether she actually did it, or how well she did it.

The problem is that most resumes do not represent the living, breathing person who wrote them.  Instead of expressing skills and individuality and outlining the great things the person has done, they are simply a bland recitation of standard phrases and pat descriptions.  This does nothing to help Harry decide who will fit into his company.

And therein lays the answer to getting Harry’s attention and creating a resume that is a living, breathing document that screams “Hire Me!”  You need to tell him about yourself.  You need to bring yourself alive on the page and make him curious to meet you.

How?  Tell him stories that illustrate your ability to help him succeed.

The Power of Stories

Since the beginning of time, humans have enjoyed stories. Stories help us make sense of the world – we listen as the story begins, follow it through to the middle, and then feel satisfaction when we reach the resolution. A good story is both compelling and memorable.

But obviously you can’t just tell any old stories. (The one about that New Year’s Eve in Las Vegas probably won’t do you much good!) The stories you tell on your resume must show Harry that you have solved problems in the past – and that the problems you have solved are similar to the ones he is facing now. If you do that, why wouldn’t he interview you?

The Importance of Research

So you have to show Harry that you can solve his problems (or maximize his opportunities) but what are they?

If you currently work in the same industry and are simply changing companies, you probably know, because you work in a similar environment every day.  If you are looking to make a career change, you will need to be more creative and do some research.  Make contact with people who currently work in that industry, speak to recruiters, read trade magazines and interviews with industry luminaries.  Review job postings for the positions you are interested in and make notes of what seem to be the major concerns.  Read financial reports.  Patterns will emerge.  You will learn what is important to industry insiders.  (Hint: the issues will almost always relate to efficiency, sales, profit, costs, customer satisfaction or some combination of all five.)

What are Your Stories?

Go back over your career and think about each job you have held. 

Ask yourself: what problems did I solve for that employer and/or what improvements did I make? Your answers will form the basis of the stories you tell.
The stories do not have to be earth-shattering – we’re not looking for Middle East peace or a cure for cancer –  but they should center on the impact you have made in prior positions.

In my practice as a professional resume writer, I constantly meet people who have made a great impact on their employers but just haven’t really thought about it until we talk.  These people are from all walks of life and all levels – from CEOs to clerical workers.

For example, a recent client was looking to stay in retail customer service with a major retail chain.  We talked about her past experience and I asked her to describe a problem she had solved. 

Client: “The customer service desk was horribly disorganized which meant that customers had to wait on line while staff hunted for the information they needed.” 

Now I asked what she did to fix this.

Client:  “I stayed late every night for a week after the store was closed and reorganized everything.  Then I conducted a training session for the customer service team so that everyone knew where to find what they needed.” 

What was the result? 

Client: “Lines were much shorter and we won the company’s customer service award 2 quarters in a row.  Our mystery shopper ratings went up significantly.”

I summarized her story as follows:

  • Turned around ineffective customer service department by reorganizing customer service desk and training all associates.  Result:  Store subsequently won 2 company awards for customer service and mystery shopper ratings improved by 50%.

By telling this story, my client showed that she has problem solving skills, takes the initiative and really cares about excellence in customer service.

More stories

Here are some of the recent examples of stories I told for actual clients:

Programmer for animation studio

  • Developed tool to enable modelers to diagnose and correct modeling problems before rigging.  Prior to development of this tool, modeling problems were only identified during animation, resulting in expensive charge-backs and loss of productivity. 

Event Planner – not-for-profit

  • Conceived, managed and publicized regional Earth Day partnership with Whole Foods Market which resulted in record breaking sales and extensive media coverage, including The New York Times and WABC.  As a result the two organizations formed an ongoing national partnership. 

HR Manager

Negotiated a renewal of health benefits at 10% below nationwide average increase while enhancing employee benefits.

Product Development Executive – Video Games

  • Redefined product strategy and production processes for (company name withheld)  resulting in a 40% increase in revenue over a two year period, from $140M to $200M annually.

Publishing Executive

  • Built and led publishing division to package and sell original children’s books to major publishers, generating over $2M in sales to date.  First book sold over 500,000 copies with pre-orders of 400,000 for the sequel. 

Executive Assistant

  • Designed, created and maintained a resource assignment database using MS Access.  The new system allowed management to allocate 70 consultants efficiently. 

You can see that the achievements vary depending on the seniority and length of experience but all address some frequent problem experienced by the hiring managers in that industry/profession.

Now it’s your Turn

To create high-impact stories, think back over each position you have held and the things you did to help your employer.  Describe the initial situation, what actions you took, and the results of your efforts.  Then summarize your story into no more than two of three lines.

By filling your resume with stories of achievements, you will do more than attract the manager’s attention to your resume.  You will also provide him with a source of interview questions.  He can ask you about each story you told and if he doesn’t, you can use them anyway as you answer his questions.

In this way the work you do on creating compelling stories for your resume is also preparation for acing your job interviews. So start now – tell them a story!

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