Storytelling: Resumes and Cover Letters

Graduation season is upon us. It’s a time of celebrating the journey thus far—and of looking forward.

After the parties die down and the orchid leis wither, thousands of new grads will begin their job search. Each will send out dozens of job applications. Most will hear back from a small fraction of those employers. In many cases, resumes will be skimmed and discarded; cover letters will go unread.

Want to land that interview? Here are my thoughts on making your resume and cover letter stand out.

When drafting these documents, most people focus on the structure, the sections to include, the number of bullet points, and so on. Many imitate examples online or populate a pre-made template. While there are best practices for formatting, let’s take a step back. Set aside the technical aspects for a moment.

I want to focus on just one thing: Telling a cohesive and compelling story.

What’s a cohesive story? One with a clear beginning, middle, and end. In this case, the end should lead right into your next steps, i.e., the job to which you’re applying. Remember: Plot holes introduce doubt, so explain any employment gaps or career changes.

What makes a story compelling? Well, that depends on your audience. What would the hiring manager want to know about you? Don’t regurgitate everything you’ve ever done (as many do on their resumes). Get to the point. Choose the top two or three items and tell a persuasive story around them.

Most employers want predictability. They assume that past performance will repeat itself. That’s why job requirements include minimum “years of experience” and other proxy measures for competence.

Moreover, hiring managers often have an “ideal candidate” profile in mind for a role. This goes beyond education level and technical skill to matters of persona and cultural fit. (For example, accountants and salespeople tend to have very different personalities.) Consider this when crafting your story to fit in.

Or don’t. The most memorable stories include an element of surprise—a plot twist or some distinguishing factor.

In some sectors today, “innovation” and “disruption” are more than buzzwords—they influence hiring decisions. Companies are bringing in talent from outside their industry to garner fresh ideas. Two groups of job seekers stand to benefit: 1) those with non-traditional experience; and 2) those looking to diverge from a linear career path. If either applies, consider what opportunities may be in your next chapter and how to position for them.

One final note: The same story won’t be equally compelling to two different audiences. A not-for-profit and a publicly traded corporation hold dissimilar values. Even within a company, the CFO and IT director have different priorities. Ultimately, a good story is a genuine one that comes alive for your audience. It makes sense to them, and they may even resonate with it personally.

So tailor your message. Before listing your duties, even accomplishments, ask yourself: How do I want these people to perceive me? And how can I convey this through my resume and cover letter?

Then tell a cohesive and compelling story—one that excites them to invite you in and learn more.