#BetterPosters and Thoughts on #BetterResumes

I’m a fan of science and I love reading about research, which you’d think would make me enjoy poster presentations at scientific conferences. Nope. Hate ‘em. Those posters are too hard to read, there is just too much stuff for my brain to process while standing in a re-purposed hotel ballroom with hundreds of strangers.

When I read about one doctoral student’s effort to simplify and streamline the scientific poster, I admit I was intrigued. (Check out this NPR article for the full scoop on how the #BetterPosters discussion began.) He suggested researchers feature the main finding of their study in large, bold lettering that can be seen at a distance, then provide a bar code that can be scanned if someone wants the details.

On Twitter I read arguments both for and against this design, and really enjoyed geeking out about the joys and challenges of science communication. One of my go-to resources for effective presentations, Echo Rivera, weighed in with a terrific blog post. Here’s an excerpt from it:

“The purpose of a conference poster is to…

  1. Catch people’s attention (among the sea of posters).

  2. Make them want to come talk to you (networking).

  3. Have juuuuust enough detail to explain your work to them, pointing to visuals, data visualizations, and key points along the way.

  4. Hopefully, get them excited enough about you/your research that they decide to learn more, after the conference. “

Wait just a minute, this purpose sounds an awful lot like the purpose of a resume! Let’s see, *nibbles eraser* — switch out a few words, substitute resume for poster, carry the one, yep! Here you go, a pretty good description of the purpose of a resume:

  1. Catch people’s attention among the sea of resumes.

  2. Make them want to seriously consider you.

  3. Have juuuuust enough detail to demonstrate your knowledge, skills, and experience, pointing to key accomplishments along the way.

  4. Hopefully, get them excited enough about you that they decide to call you for an interview!

Just like the standard scientific poster, the typical resume doesn’t do such a great job of achieving these goals much of the time. Most resumes are full of industry buzzwords and tired phrases that don’t really mean anything. So what’s the solution? Ditch the resume altogether? Not likely to happen anytime soon. Go to an infographic resume template with graphs and mind map visuals? Not helpful for most industries. (Here’s one template example that I include as Exhibit A of what NOT to do to your resume.)

Don’t be seduced by the lure of templates! They are limiting and glitchy and make you seem unoriginal, because you can’t describe your work experience without a cookie-cutter format.

So if resumes are still necessary and an infographic template isn’t the answer to the bland resume, what would I suggest? I am glad you asked. Here is a snippet of advice I give my clients when they ask me to review a lackluster resume.

Choose every word with care.

Every word matters.

That summary at the top of your resume? You may have only spent 5 minutes writing it, but it is the most important real estate on the page. A truly effective summary gives the reader insight into who you are. Here’s a pair of contrasting examples to show what I mean.

Bland resume summary (yawn):

Experienced [industry name] professional with more than [##] years experience in managing complex [projects and/or money and/or people]. Results-driven team player with a proven track record of solving problems and increasing revenue.

There’s really nothing wrong with this summary, it’s just eerily similar to the summaries of at least half of the other applicants for any given middle-management position. It’s generic because it has become so boilerplate, like a template where you plug in words from a limited vocabulary of nouns and verbs. (Did you know that the phrase “results-driven team player” in quotation marks results in 42,700 search results?)

Buzzwords commonly found on resumes

Buzzwords commonly found on resumes

Now what if each word were chosen to elicit a strong mental image for maximum impact? Imagine if words like “team player” were replaced with language a close friend might use to describe you. What if the words in your summary were selected because they make the reader see who you REALLY are?

New, improved summary with personality:

Versatile [industry name] leader with a growth mindset, an infectious smile and a knack for delivering under pressure. Supportive manager with boundless optimism and a gift for fostering that quality in others. Solves puzzles for pleasure. Tackles complex problems with enthusiasm. Produces ingenious solutions.

The phrases “infectious smile” and “boundless optimism” tell the reader that this candidate is positive, energetic, and upbeat. Substituting positive, humanizing words like “gift,” “growth mindset” and “knack” instead of robotic phrases like “track record” and “results-driven” can personalize the resume summary. Phrases like “produces ingenious solutions” are a unexpected way to rework the phrase “innovative problem solver,” a description which isn’t awful, but isn’t very, um… innovative. The summary is the place to describe exactly what makes you great to work with.

Give it a try! If you need help, ask a friend, “how would you describe my best qualities in your own words?” Look for synonyms if you get stuck with pompous-sounding words or phrases. It’s OK to sound like a real person, they are actually looking for one of those, remember?

Now that you’ve crafted a terrific summary, you need to detail each job experience not by describing your responsibilities, but by outlining your accomplishments, quantifying your achievements and demonstrating your unique value. Replace passive phrases like “responsibilities included.” Start each bullet with a strong, active verb. You didn’t just study a problem, you investigated it. You did more than convene a multi-disciplinary task force, you mobilized one. You didn’t simply assign tasks to your team, you delegated.

The bullets under each work experience should be concise and vivid. Here is another contrast to demonstrate my point.

Rambling work experience bullet:

Enhanced overall operational efficiency, reduced production costs and improved accuracy by leveraging data analytics to accelerate business growth.

Again, nothing is inherently horrible about this statement. It’s just packed with so many buzzwords that they have become white noise, sort of like the “wah wah” teacher voice in a Charlie Brown special. You might think it makes you seem impressive, but it may come at the risk of sounding like a blowhard.

New, improved work experience bullet:

Scrutinized data analytics to identify areas ripe for improvement. Constructed a more efficient, accurate process to stimulate growth and save money.

You may think these two examples are similar, and actually they are. But read each of them out loud, and you’ll hear the difference. The first example sounds like a computer spitting out business-speak, while the second sounds like a human talking about something they are proud they accomplished.

In an effort to sound more polished and professional, I truly believe today’s resume has become mechanical, paint-by-numbers and just plain bland.

I’m not suggesting we go too far in the other direction and use emojis or memes as our resume summary.

What I am suggesting is this. Your resume should sound like it describes one person only, and that person is you. You are a living, breathing human with all your quirks and unique personality and idiosyncrasies.

Share a bit of the REAL YOU in your resume.

It will make someone want to meet that awesome person!

Huge thanks to Echo Rivera for allowing me to use her blog post as my jumping off point for this article. Check out her website and learn about creating effective presentations.

If you could benefit from a career coach to prepare your resume or articulate your strengths, drop me a note. You are invited to sign up for my weekly "Career Authentically" newsletter as well.