How to Write a Stronger Resume (With One Storytelling Trick From Hollywood)
May 4, 2020

I believe this is the worst time in human history to apply for a job.

I don't think I'm being hyperbolic at all.

In the entire history of commerce, there has never been a time where job applicants face more competition and where hiring managers have had less context of the person they're judging. This is due, in large part, to resumes and job boards.

These tools have outlived their purpose and now serve to make life worse for both applicants and hiring managers alike. The average job applicant never hears back from companies where they have applied and the average hiring manager receives hundreds of applications from unqualified applicants. It sucks.

Unfortunately, we can't change the world. As job applicants, we have to play the hand we were dealt, and a great resume is part of a winning hand in this game.

Most resume advice, however, ranges from marginally helpful to downright asinine. Most people spend more time playing with fonts, margins, and format than thinking critically about the aspects of your resume that actually persuade hiring managers to call you back.

In this post, we'll dive into what a hiring manager sees when they look at your resume and how you can leverage a tactic used by Hollywood's best screenwriters to make your resume stand out every time you apply for a job.

The Lie You've Heard About Hiring Managers and Resumes

I hate to break it to you, but you've been fed a lot of lies about what hiring managers are looking for. I'm going to spend a lot of time on this blog exposing those lies and how you can combat them, but today we're going to focus on the lie I see cited most often.

Stop me if you've heard this one before...

Hiring managers only look at your resume for 7 seconds.

This isn't an outright lie, but it's definitely deceiving, and it's completely counter-productive when it comes to helping job applicants stand out in a pile of resumes.

It's true that on average, hiring managers will review resumes for 7 seconds apiece, but that statistic is presented as if it's uniform. It invokes the image of passing cars, each driving the speed limit...

News Flash: Resumes don't fly across a hiring manager's screen at a rate of 1 resume per seven seconds. (Extending the car metaphor, that's ~514 resumes/hour.)

Real-time view of resumes whipping past a hiring manager.

The truth is that number isn't uniform. I've been a hiring manager reviewing resumes and I can tell you there are a lot of resumes that are lucky if they get 2-3 seconds of my attention. Meanwhile, other resumes might captivate me for 2-3 minutes.

So, how can you avoid writing a resume that gets ignored instantly? What can you do to get your resume actually read instead of just scanned? In order to understand that, we need to dive deep into the mind of a hiring manager to understand what they think they're looking for and what they're actually looking for, whether they realize it or not.

What Hiring Managers Actually Think When They See Your Resume

Ask any hiring manager what they're looking for when they look at a resume and they'll give you the same answer, regardless of title or industry: Relevant experience.

Now, I could wax poetic about why that's the wrong heuristic to judge candidates on, but there's nothing we can do to change it. That's what hiring managers are looking for, whether we like it or not.

So, how can hiring managers determine that you don't have relevant experience in 2-3 seconds? Are they super-human cyborgs? Can they read that fast? Do they have photographic memory?

No, they're lazy.

Sorry, fellow hiring managers. I know I won't be invited back to the secret underground meetings now, but that's a risk I'm willing to take.

To understand why this happens, let's put ourselves in the shoes of a hiring manager for a moment. Let's say I'm hiring for a Marketing Manager to handle supporting my organization's sales team. I post the job and get over 100 applications in just a few days. Now, I have to figure out who I'm going to do a phone interview with. After all, I can't talk to everyone!

I start going through resumes. As I'm looking at resumes, my eye is going to go directly to whatever is below the contact information. Sometimes this is an objective statement. Sometimes this is their most recent job. Sometimes this is their education information. Let's assume I'm looking for someone with a few years of experience who has supported a sales team before, ideally in tech. 

Here is what I see as I scan resumes:

To be honest, all five of those resumes belong to people who could be perfectly qualified for the job. In fact, I'd argue that some of them might be more qualified than the person whose resume I kept reading. Nevertheless, I rejected four of those five in less than two seconds.

Why am I turning down perfectly qualified applicants? Because I've got 100 resumes to get through and I only need 5 of them to be good candidates for me to have an abundance of choice. If I can prioritize by only talking to candidates who have immediate relevant experience, it behooves me to do so.

So, how can you, as a job applicant, use this bias against me? How can you ensure that, after scanning your resume, I choose to keep reading and give you call back? And what do you do if your last job isn't the "right title" for me to think you have the experience to do the job you're applying for?

You can use the same trick that screenwriters use to keep you watching a two-hour movie...

The Secret Power of Exposition and Telling a Story With Your Resume

There's a simple reason hiring managers want to screen out as many people as possible. Every candidate we advance creates a multiple-hour commitment that we have to make. We have to review your work, interview you, share our notes with others. Again, hiring managers are lazy. They only want to do that work if they think you'll be worth it.

Honestly, it's kind of like the same way I view movies. When I commit to a movie, I'm committing a couple hours to one story. It could take an entire Friday night to watch. I could be watching a game, or a TV show, or going to a bar. Instead, I'm spending that time watching this movie. It better be worth the commitment.

So, how do screenwriters hook me in for two hours? They use a simple trick that they can execute in only a couple of minutes... 

Exposition.

Exposition is the art of sharing a lot of backstory and context in a short amount of time, and it's something that every single movie you love does extraordinarily well.

Think of the scene in Back to the Future where Doc and Marty send Einstein into the future in the Twin Pines parking lot. We learn a lot of information about them in under five minutes. You could watch that scene alone and surmise enough of a plot summary to describe the movie to someone who's never seen it. Jurassic Park accomplishes the same goal with a tour of the park. Arguably the most famous exposition scene is the Red Pill/Blue Pill scene from The Matrix.

All of these movies are able to hook me early with just enough context that I want to know more. They don't try to tell me the whole story... They give me just enough information to pique my interest so I keep watching. They do this by giving me only the most important context to the story they're about to tell and stripping away all extraneous detail.

So, if we "only have seven seconds" to get a hiring manager's attention, how can we use the power of exposition to buy ourselves more time to tell our story?

How to Write a Better Resume That Tells a Story

Hiring managers are looking for "relevant experience." You don't have seven seconds to demonstrate it... You have 2 seconds.

How you accomplish this is largely dependent on how relevant your experience is for the job. Or, put more accurately, how relevant it appears on paper. You want to position your experience as closely as you can to the specific job description. Here are the steps you'll want to follow:

  1. Grab three highlighters. Pick one color to represent "Strong emphasis," another to represent "Some emphasis," and a third to represent "de-emphasize" (Green, Yellow, and Orange would be my personal choice.)
  2. Go through the job description with the "de-emphasize" (Orange) highlighter first. Highlight any roles, responsibilities, or requirements that don't fit your experience. These aren't deal-breakers. The vast majority of role descriptions have way more requirements listed than they need. We just want to know what to avoid talking about on our resume.
  3. Now, go through and highlight anything that you look at and say "I have experience doing this" with the "Some emphasis" (Yellow) highlighter. You don't need to be an expert at it, just proficient. If you're comfortable telling a story about it in an interview, it counts.
  4. Finally, read the description again and highlight anything that they emphasize as being very important or crucial for success with the "Strong emphasis" (Green) highlighter.

Is there anything that's highlighted in both green and yellow? If so, you just found the focus of your resume. Your only job is to communicate that you have relevant experience in those very specific areas. We don't need to tell the whole story of your career right now... We just need to demonstrate relevant experience.

Maybe you found no overlap. That's okay, too! If that's the case, take a look at the green highlights and try to identify one that you're most excited to learn. Then, take a few of your experiences and tie them back to that item.

For example, if you were a project manager who wanted to apply for a content marketing job, you could say "Applying my strong project management and people management skills to content development" was the message you wanted to communicate.

Maybe this is a very poorly-written job description and you couldn't find much to highlight in green. That's fine! In that case, try to rank your yellow highlights in order from most-to-least important, based on your understanding of the role. You may guess wrong, but that's okay! It's their fault for writing a bad job description.

Now, re-write your resume with one narrative goal in mind... Communicate your relevant experience. This will take a few steps:

  1. Re-write all accomplishment bullets to reflect the message you want to send. Focus as narrowly as you can on your narrative. It's okay to have a few accomplishments that are outside of that focus, but they should be rare.
  2. Read the first thing below your contact information and ask "does this communicate that I have relevant experience?" If the answer is "no," fix it immediately. For example, if your last title isn't relevant, you can add an objective statement about how you want to apply your relevant skills to the challenges listed in the job description. If your last title is relevant, you should lead with it and have no objective statement.
  3. Now, format the resume so that it draws attention to those relevant experiences. Bold and underline relevant accomplishments. Use principles from menu design to draw the eye where you want them to focus.

The truth is, there's a lot of bad advice out there about resume design and formatting. Some people swear by objective statements. Some say they're dead. Some people think your resume should be creative. Others think it should be plain. People get so hung up about the finer details of format and length of bullet points that they forget to focus on the story your resume is trying to tell.

The secret to the perfect resume isn't a specific format, it's research and effective exposition.

If you're applying for jobs now and want to get better at telling your story to hiring managers, I've released a free email course on telling your story in interviews. You can sign up for free below.

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