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Posted: June 01, 2009

Beating the “So what?” barrier

Hiring managers want to know what we did, for whom, when, and (most importantly) to what effect

Liz Ryan

White collar job-hunters these days have a tough hill to climb. For each job opportunity they pursue, they've got to ascertain what's most important to the hiring manager and tailor their resumes and cover letters to address that issue. They've got to couch their stories and triumphs in a way that will resonate for the decision-maker, whose concerns may be wildly different from the last hiring manager the job-seeker encountered and different again from the one before that.

In one case, we're emphasizing our PR background, and in the next case, highlighting our copywriting skills. The next day, we're showcasing our experiences in fundraising. It's a tricky mental Sudoku puzzle, and it changes every day.
 
As complicated as the tailoring process may be, it's vital. The one thing sure to land a resume in the No Thanks Pile is a list of miscellaneous skills and abilities, out of context. The mid-80s style resume peppered with boilerplate phrases like "excellent communication skills," "customer service/marketing/sales" and "superior organizational abilities" is a non-starter in 2009. Hiring managers want to know what we did, for whom, when, and (most importantly) to what effect.

What difference has our work made to our past employers? That's what inquiring minds want to know. Concrete accomplishments - always in context - are essential to a successful 2009 job hunt. Vague proclamations about our talents in areas from "problem-solving" to "strategic thinking" don't cut it. It's not just that readers don't believe our assertions (they don't) but also that their reaction to these airy terms is likely to be "So what?"
 
I had a striking example of this the other day when a resume landed on my desk from a Front Range job-seeker. Her resume summary began "I bring a unique combination of skills in fine arts and mathematics."

Okay - cool. And yet, so what? Is there a job out there that requires one to be a math whiz and a fine artist? If there is, and if the job-seeker can find it, she can talk about the unique combination of skills with pride. For everyone else, we've got to have relevance to real jobs, real business needs that are causing hiring managers to lose sleep right now. Otherwise, the resume might as well say "I'm one of the few human resources people who sings opera and has twins." No one (apart from my twins) much cares about that. Our shining background is not impressive in its own right, not to an overstressed hiring manager or HR screener with a pile of resumes in front of him (or her). We're better off saying less about our unique combinations of talents and more about the specific pieces of our background that fit the problem an employer is anxious to solve.
 
Consider this typical resume summary opener: "Results-oriented marketing professional with a background in legal and pharmaceutical marketing." Is there any conceivable good reason to use this resume langauge? There is none. You're either applying for a job in pharma or in law, in which case you'd be talking about that specific experience; or you're applying for a job outside those two industries, in which case "pharma" and "law" have jack-all to do with the job. Why on earth would you brand yourself as having come from an industry background that's different than the one you're going after? Yet this is very common resume verbiage. It's ineffective and out of date. We need to use our precious resume real estate to talk about the relevance of our background to the employer's need, period. The rest is likely to generate a yawn and a "so what?" reaction and a no-thank-you note, if even that.
 
Here's another resume-killing phrase of the so-what variety: "I have solved complex problems across a range of functions and levels." That has all the heft and power of the sentence, "This is a sentence that ends with a period." Amorphous "I have solved complex problems" language is virtually screaming for a so-what reaction. Employers don't care about our lofty assertions. They want to know about one problem that we solved that has elements in common with their own problems. We could use that resume space more effectively to say "At Acme Dynamite, I built a word-of-mouth marketing campaign that increased sales by 20 percent in six months to $30M." If you're applying for a job as a marketer with a sales-growth focus (and what marketing job isn't oriented that way?) you'd better have tangible results to share. In the short Acme Dynamite example, you made clear not only the result but the tactic (a word-of-mouth marketing campaign) that got you to the finish line. The Acme mini-story differentiates you from the marketing job-seekers who can only say, "I have experience in web, print and yada yada yada." For whom, when and to what effect? We know going into a job hunt that some readers will like our backgrounds and some won't. That's fine. The one reaction we can't afford to get is "So what?"
 
It can be hard to root out so-what language in our own resumes. This is a where your most jaundiced and cynical friend can come in handy (someone from the New York area would be perfect for this role - just kidding!). Ask your jaded friend to read your resume word by word, looking for language that fills up space and says nothing of interest to the reader. Most resumes are full of that. Replace every one of the offending phrases with something more specific, more pithy and more relevant to the jobs you're pursuing. See if that doesn't up the 'spice' quotient of your resume by 100 percent, at least.

Life is too short, and the job market is too crowded to waste your time and energy eliciting "So what?" reactions.

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Liz Ryan is a former Fortune 500 HR exec and an advisor to organizations and job-seekers. Reach her at liz@asklizryan.com or www.asklizryan.com.

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