When it comes to resumes, LinkedIn profiles, and interviews, word choice matters. The right words will enable your documents to rank higher in Applicant Tracking Systems; they’ll also embolden your interview performance and empower you to communicate more powerfully.
Novelist and blogger Chuck Wendig at TerribleMinds.com compares word choice to a game many of us may remember from our childhood in which we give clues to our partner about where something is hidden by telling them they’re getting hot or cold as they draw closer to or farther away from the hidden item. Wendig notes that, “Word choice is like a textual version of that game where you try to bring the reader closer to understanding the story you’re trying to tell. Strong, solid word choice allows us to strive for clarity (hotter) and avoid confusion (colder).” (italics original)
In resumes, LinkedIn profiles, and job interviews, you use word choice to convey important facts about your candidacy: your personality, your career brand, your achievements, your credentials, and your experience. If you use the wrong words to convey these facts you will inadvertently confuse or distract your readers. If you use the right words to convey these facts you will clarify your candidacy and enable yourself to stand out in the ways that matter most.
There are five critical ways you can ensure you employ the right words in your career communications tools and messaging:
Industry-Specific Key Words
You’ve (hopefully) heard of key words, which are the terms specific to your target industry that must be included in your resume and LinkedIn profile for your candidacy to rank high enough to win you interviews. These terms must be included in all of your career communications and messaging, from resumes, cover letters, and LinkedIn profiles to LinkedIn messages, emails, and interview responses. To find key words specific to your target industries:
- Review a dozen or more meaty job descriptions for your ideal roles. Comb through them with a highlighter to capture words and phrases that are critical to the writer. Make sure you highlight any specific skills, traits, experience, or credentials sought by the company in question. Combine the words from multiple job descriptions into a master list and rank order them according to the value the writers placed on them.
- Select the most critical key words and insert them in the appropriate locations throughout your career communications tools. Make sure you express these same terms in your phone calls, emails, and job interviews.
Verbs can be active, in which the subject performs an action, or passive, in which the subject is acted upon. Passive verbs tend to push action away from the subject which makes them a weak choice for action-driven documents such as resumes, cover letters, bios, and LinkedIn profiles. Choosing active verbs will strengthen your career communications portfolio and enable you to use fewer words to make the same point.
Consider this example of a passive sentence used in a self-written resume:
- As a result of a project I led, savings was realized.
Contrast this with the following sentence using an active verb:
- Carved out $27M in savings over 2 years, spearheading Lean-flavored improvement initiative that streamlined accounts receivable processing from 56 to 2 days.
In the passive sentence it isn’t clear who realized the savings, while the active sentence clarifies this issue and adds rich details that elevate the achievement.
Most folks who write their own resumes aren’t aware that verbs can be stacked, or ordered, from weaker to stronger to denote a lower or higher level of proficiency. For example, when writing a resume for a client with managerial experience, I utilize lower-level verbs such as supervise or manage in their early experience and higher-level verbs such as drive or direct in their more recent experience. This simple strategy emphasizes the increasing responsibilities associated with each job in the candidate’s work history.
This idea is an outgrowth of the Dictionary of Occupational Title’s data people things classification system. While I’m not sure how many resume writers are aware of or leverage this system, I have found it to be enormously helpful in “proving” to readers that my clients possess the level of experience and skill needed to execute the target jobs they are pursuing.
Have you ever counted up how many verbs are used in a two-page resume? I haven’t either, but I’m sure we would both be astonished by the sheer number of verbs needed in a well-written resume or CV. Since verbs are both critical in importance and voluminous in number, it follows that varying them is vital.
Yet when I review resumes I routinely find that one or two verbs are dramatically overused, including client favorites such as developed, led, and managed. Yet there are more powerful ways to communicate the idea and the action conveyed in each of these verbs.
- Try this simple exercise: Use Word’s Find feature to determine how many times you have used certain verbs. Replace many of your repetitive verbs with stronger verbs that communicate the same type of action at a higher level of competency.
- Eliminate verb repetitions within the same sentence, within the same paragraph, or within neighboring sentences within your career communications tools.
Great resume and LinkedIn profile writing is about more than verbs – it’s also about the sentences that showcase those verbs, which is why lean sentences are important. With mere seconds to capture your readers’ attention or influence what they read, you cannot afford to distract them with poor word choice, let alone wordy sentences.
- Examine each sentence in your resume and eliminate unnecessary words.
- Trim unnecessary clauses, repetitive words, and unwieldly sentence structure.
- Ruthlessly remove non-critical content.
- Keep resume paragraphs to two to three lines in length and bullets to two lines in length.
Sometimes resume writers emphasize achievements so much that candidates may forget the important of word choice and the power of verbs to convey action. By adding precision to the word choices you make in your documents, your messages, and your interview responses, you’ll be surprised at how much more powerfully you can communicate your brand.