How plain language can rev up your resume
Considering a new job in the new year? You are not alone. During fall, workers complete performance reviews and learn how they rate, but many employees are also evaluating their own feelings about the boss, the company, and the future.
If you are updating your resume this holiday season, be sure to use plain language to make your document stand out and to distinguish yourself as a top candidate.
Sheila Murphy, Founder and Partner, FlexProfessionals LLC, oversees candidate recruiting and screening, as well as support services for job seekers and human resource professionals. She emphasizes, “A well written and well-organized resume (and cover letter) tells me a lot about a person’s professionalism, writing skills, attention to detail, and motivation.” She adds, “On average, the hiring manager reading your resume spends 20 seconds (or less) scanning the first page, before they decide what to do with it. I advise candidates to ‘say it once and say it well’ using concise language and strong action verbs. Also, your resume must be written in a way that allows the reader to quickly connect the dots regarding what skills and expertise you bring to the table.”
That’s all-good advice and aligns with our five steps to plain language framework. For success in the new year, check out more of Sheila’s expert tips below.
Step 1. Identify and describe recruiters/hiring managers as a target audience.
Kate Goggin: You see thousands of resumes monthly. What are your top questions or tasks when reviewing resumes and how can candidates address those clearly?
Sheila Murphy: When a recruiter and/or hiring manager reviews a resume, these are the key questions they want their (very quick) review to answer:
- What can this person do for me? Having a concise and clear summary at the top of your resume helps to focus the reader. Include as many accomplishment bullets as possible to get your message across instead of just describing your job duties.
- Does this person have the skills required for the job? Your resume must highlight the skills and competencies that are highlighted in the job posting, using the same language and terms that the employer used in the job post. In other words, target your resume to the specific job.
- Is this person the right fit for our needs, work values, work culture? By incorporating some of your strongest personal qualities and strengths into your resume, you will help the hiring manager or recruiter to answer this question. Your summary at the top of your resume is a good place to do this. Then, your accomplishment bullets should provide examples that reflect these strengths.
Step 2. Structure the content to guide recruiters/hiring managers through the resume.
Kate Goggin: Is a summary statement still the best way to convey the most important info first at the top of a resume?
Sheila Murphy: Absolutely. The summary statement replaces the old “objective” heading previously found at the top of a resume. If I read only your summary statement, would I know what experience, skills, and strengths you have to offer? It needs to be narrow in focus and highlight only skills and experience relevant to the job posting or to what you want to do next in your career. If possible, include some sizzle, i.e., something impressive that will capture the attention of the hiring manager or recruiter. For example, “trained by a Big Four accounting firm, award-winning journalist, Fortune 500 company experience, top sales producer, newly acquired technical certification, etc.”
Kate Goggin: Do headings and sub-headings help you scan quickly? What are your top tips for the best organization of a resume?
Sheila Murphy: White space, bullets, and headings and/or subheadings are important tools to help the reader quickly and effectively digest critical information about your professional experience, skills, and accomplishments. It is super important to use these tools because, on average, hardly anyone reads past the first page! There is no fast rule when it comes to what headings to use and how to order them. What is important is that you choose headings that best reflect your individual career story and your future professional self. For example, if you have a long career break due to caregiving, you may want to elevate and highlight your community leadership or volunteer experience to show that you have kept your skills sharp or gained new skills while on a career break. You can combine headings, eliminate headings, or modify standard headings names to better explain your individual career story.
Step 3. Write the content in plain language.
Kate Goggin: What about word choice? Tell us why you prefer simple explanations rather than jargon and five-dollar words.
Sheila Murphy: Say it once and say it well using concise language and strong action verbs. Be sure to include keywords from the job advertisement in both your cover letter and your resume. Simple yet substantive accomplishments bullets are far more powerful than lengthy, fluffy paragraphs filled with lots of jargon and acronyms that often confuse rather than clarify. Use the strongest verb possible to describe your impact, results achieved, or the benefit of your work to others. Explain what you did as if you were talking to a fifth grader. Remember that the person reading your resume may be a generalist and may not share your expertise or fully understand your job or industry.
Step 4. Use information design to help recruiters/hiring managers see and understand.
Kate Goggin: What do you think about font size, use of white space and images?
Sheila Murphy: Vary font size to make essential info pop. Don’t use too small a font size in an effort to cram info onto one page. I generally use 14 pt for headings, 12 pt for company and job titles, and 11 pt for the bullets that correspond to a job. Be consistent. I also like to differentiate between a job title and company name, for example, by putting one in bold and the other in italics. White space makes it easier for the reader to see the good stuff, and you want to make reading your resume easy for the reader! In general, images do not work well in applicant tracking systems (ATS). Keep the format and design simple, which also gives you more space to work with. One exception is: resumes for creative types, such as graphic designers. In this case, a well-designed resume with graphics may help illustrate your expertise. I would avoid including your professional headshot on your resume. Some recruiters worry about the potential for discrimination claims and do not accept resumes with photos.
Step 5. Proofread the resume and test the design and content with a trusted colleague.
Kate Goggin: Tell me about the importance of proofreading. What jumps out to you if a candidate has not thoroughly proofread his/her resume?
Sheila Murphy: I have had many clients decide not to interview a candidate because of typos and grammatical errors on their resume. Share your resume with someone you trust that has strong writing and editing skills. While it is critical to know and fine-tune our resumes, we often do not see our own mistakes when we spend hours looking at the same document. Another person’s eyes and perspective can be very helpful.
About the Author: Communications Consultant Kate Goggin specializes in plain language writing, editing, and training. She is a certified technical writer and has consulted for private industry and federal agencies, including the U.S. State Department, the U.S. Department of the Interior and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. She is a member of the Center for Plain Language and the Society for Technical Communication and holds a degree in Communications Consulting from George Mason University. She is currently contracted to A. K. Government Solutions.