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Posted: May 18, 2009

Show us, don’t tell us you’re wonderful

Pinning labels on yourself isn’t just tacky, it’s foolish

Liz Ryan

”Please join my network on LinkedIn,” says a message in my inbox, so I dutifully jump over to LinkedIn to remind myself whether and how I know the person who’s writing. I met her, I think; her name is familiar. I get to her profile and see the headline “Product Development Guru, Leadership Diva, Strategy Maverick.”

Geez, I think. That LinkedIn headline may be the worst I’ve ever seen. It’s got the perfect combination of self-adoration and cliché-overload to cause me to wince as the words on the screen hit my brain pan. Does she know how badly this reflects on her? I wonder. Undoubtedly the lady has much to recommend her. Her experiences might speak volumes to us, if she didn’t slam her self-conferred Guru, Diva and Maverick labels in our face.

On a job search, it’s very easy to focus on our own assessment of our skills and abilities, and this is never a good idea. “I’m creative” falls badly on the ear, while a story – a brief, pithy, just-the-facts story about a time when we had to use our creativity to surmount an issue, for instance – spells out our talents for the listener, with no need for self-congratulation. We just explain what happened, and how we got from Point A to Point B. Nowhere in the story do we need to stop and observe “I’m smart” or “I’m great with people.” We don’t need to, and we absolutely shouldn’t – that sort of judgment isn’t ours to make.

Have you ever seen a Personals ad in which the writer proclaimed “I’m smart, cool, funny and sexy?” These are the ads that make readers turn the page. If you’re so smart, cool, funny and sexy, we think, why not be all those things right here and right now, right in this ad? You’ve got all the million-plus words of the English language available to you. Write a cool or smart or funny sentence, darling. Don’t tell me what you think of yourself.

It’s the same way in job-hunting. We need to stay in the story and get across to readers what we’ve done for whom, when and to what effect. Tossing in what I call “praising adjectives” never helps and generally hurts our credibility and power. It doesn't take much effort to replace those adjectives (clever, smart, discerning, creative, perceptive, wise, savvy, strategic) with examples that will illuminate our talents far better than our grasp-y self-assessments will.

For instance, the more likely one is to be called a Guru, Diva or Maverick by others, the less likely one is to confer those titles on oneself. The Dalai Lama, for example, might be called a great leader, a prophet or a guru, but you don’t hear him saying “So anyway, I’m a guru, in case you weren’t aware." He lets his followers make their own assessments. To ladle labels on yourself in hopes of building credibility isn’t just tacky, it’s foolish. It doesn’t make people think more highly of you.

Before I got into HR or the business world in general, I was a student at conservatory, studying voice performance with a few dozen other Beverly Sills wannabes. We knew then – and it’s even more relevant now – that “diva” is not a title one takes for oneself. That’s true in opera, and in business. The same goes for Maverick, Guru, Wizard, Goddess and Genius.

We don’t need to make out-of-context assertions like “I’m brilliant at X” or “I’m a great problem-solver.” We’ll be more believable, more humble and less grovelly when we say “I love to solve thorny problems – here’s one that I tackled at Northrop Grumman.” Praising adjectives can only suck power away from a resume or cover letter, as they seek to override a reader’s natural (and wise) inclination to read our stories and accomplishments and make his or her own determination as to our brainpower, creativity, or business savvy (or sexiness, for that matter).

Self-conferred labels like Diva, Maverick and Guru don’t impress, and they don’t convince. Neither do self-assessments like “I’m [funny, talented, smart, creative, results-oriented].” We’re better off telling a simple story and letting the reader decide for him- or herself what the story says about us.

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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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Readers Respond

Liz, Thank you for some truly needed tips. May the savvy, results-oriented, and visionary professionals take these words out of their profiles and resumes! Cate By Cate Lawrence on 2009 05 19

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