Resume Storytelling Beyond CAR/PAR/SAR Stories: Engaging in the Eye Dance and Avoiding White Noise

CARSlide.jpg This is the second of my reports on the storytelling track at the just completed conference of the Career Management Alliance.

I first wrote about Karen Siwak and her support for storytelling resumes here and here, but her presentation at the conference completely re-energized my thoughts on storytelling resumes.

Karen had used storytelling as a therapeutic modality as a trained psychotherapist. When she started as a resume writer and job-search coach, she, like many resume writers, used questionnaires to collect information from her clients. Her questionnaires would request from clients information such as their top 10 accomplishments with metrics.

While working with a particularly difficult client who struggled to give Karen any metrics, she fell back to her storytelling therapeutic techniques. “Suddenly, wow,” Karen says. “By probing her career story, I not only got a whole new insight into who my client was, but I now understood how I could market her.”

Karen learned that “if you use questionnaires, you’ll get resiumes that are easy to write but don’t lend selves to compelling stories.”

Karen began to fine-tune a “story-soliciting” process that she calls “incredibly powerful,” consisting of a series of questions. The biggest surprise for me in Karen’s presentation is that she found her clients didn’t respond well to requests for “CAR statements.”

I’ve talked about CAR, or Challenge —> Action —> Result, stories for years (along with the variations Situation —> Action —> Result and Problem —> Action —> Result and a number of others). While the concept of storytelling in job-search materials is relatively new, job-seekers and career practitioners have known about CAR/PAR/SAR stories for years. But Karen says she elicits more and better stories with her line of questioning. Brain psychology, she notes, tells us that people recall stories in the same order they occurred.

“Most people, when presented with the right line of questions, like to tell stories,” Karen says. “They get more excited about what they have to say, and engaged in the writing and career-planning process.”

Karen asks questions such as:

  • What was the workplace like when you started?
  • What was going on in the company when you started?
  • What was it about that situation that engaged you? (That’s what they’ll enjoy doing again.)
  • What was the legacy of your work?

Having a story-listener as part of the process is important, and here’s why: “If you are in the same room with them, [the client’s] eyes light up when you’ve hit on the right line of questioning; over the phone [the client’s] voice ‘lights up,’ too,” Karen notes. ” When the storytelling mode is switched on, they get more comfortable with telling stories.” Even entry-level college grads can come up with stories for their resumes — for example, stories about projects they’ve conducted while in school.

A great career story will be a resume differentiator,” Karen says. “Everyone will have compelling stories that will make them different. Two people can have similar metrics and achievements, but the context in which those occur is what will make one candidate stand out from another. Example…”

Increased sales by 10% — Without the back story, there is no real way to tell if this is a great metric or not

10% sales increase in territory with minimal competition — Perhaps not so great.
10% sales increase in a mature market segment where share shifts are typically measured in fractions of a percentage. — Now that’s an interesting story

“Remember the components of journalism — who, what, where, when, and why — to get the full story of what your client has achieved over their career,” Karen advises.

Research employers to know what stories to include and exclude
As a storyteller, think strategically about what to include and what to exclude. By knowing the career story you want to tell, editing down to the bare essentials becomes easier.

Know your target — which employers — and what they’re buying motivators are, Karen advises, and then use resume storytelling to market your client as the solution to those specific needs and then use storytelling to “speak” to your target’s greatest challenges, pain points, and goals. “Clients need to understand what their target companies really do and what their culture is,” Karen observes. That information gives them more focus for their resume … and their entire job search.

That’s what Karen did in the case-study story she told in her presentation. With her client, she worked to determine what kind of organization would be interested in hearing his story and developed a list of 20 organizations, later narrowed down to 12 based on preferences and geographical considerations.

Then, Karen worked with her client to develop 60-70 stories. Obviously that’s way too many for a resume, so Karen researched to determine the pain points of the target organizations — what kept the management up at night. She conducted a “so-what test” on each story.

She then focused on her client’s six most compelling stories. She considered what “uh-ohs” a hiring manager might see in his story. She obtained endorsements from people he’d worked with and used “keywords that really matter” to produce an excellent storytelling resume. Resume stories need to be organized in a logical flow, Karen notes. They can be presented in sequence, but they could also be organized around themes or case studies.

Karen’s aim was a resume that would mesh well with what she calls “the eye dance,” the way a hiring decision-maker’s eyes will flit very quickly (usually no more than about 20 seconds) over a resume. She also rails against what she calls “white noise” summary sections, which are full of fluffy adjectives and unsubstantiated claims. Hiring decision-makers rarely read them. “Purple prose sucks when reading a resume,” Karen asserts. You don’t need adjectives.”

Instead, Karen uses a “hook,” a clear unfluffy statement about how the job-seeker can meet an employer’s needs — What does this person know and do better than other job-seekers? The job-seeker can then use the same hook as an elevator pitch, asking his or her contacts, “Do you know a company that has this need?”

The bonus in resume storytelling is that it carries over to the interview. “People remember more of their history and their accomplishments when they tell stories,” Karen says.

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