Career Advice

Tell A Story In Your Resume Bullets

Dear Liz,

I have a solid work background but nothing too spectacular in terms of accomplishments. At each of my jobs I supported a VP (sometimes two of three of them) answering the phone, writing correspondence, organizing meetings, dealing with employees and handling special projects. I don’t have the sexy bullet points that talk about increasing sales by a million percent and designing new products and such. What can I say on my resume to get an employer’s attention?




Dear Jennifer,

We haven’t met as far as I know, but I’m absolutely certain you have killer bullet points, and way more than you’ll need for your resume. We aren’t trained to think about our backgrounds the way we need to do if we want to recall and reclaim the most powerful moments of our career, where the awesome bullet points reside.

Here’s what I mean. You say you supported VPs. Most of us have been around VPs and we know what their lives are like. I don’t believe you were working in a calm, peaceful environment surrounded by lilies and songbirds with cool breezes wafting over you. You were right in the pressure cooker, a lot of the time, and you were juggling and maneuvering like crazy just to keep up with it all. It’s no good to tell us that you answered the phone and wrote correspondence. Tell us what those phone calls and that correspondence was about! Give us a feel for the craziness and the high-stakes issues you tackled and surmounted.

I took this bullet from your resume and rewrote it (taking liberties because we haven’t met or spoken live):

  • Handled customer calls and inquiries.

That is sleepy language, to be sure. It doesn’t tell us anything. If you think about it, we could go just one more step in the direction of “telling us what you did without any context or meaning behind it” and say:

  • Came in the door to the office each morning, and sat down at my desk.

I’m not being critical, Jennifer — I’m making a point. We’ve been trained to write ridiculous and dangerous drivel about our past jobs (dangerous in the sense that this kind of shoot-me-now resume language will keep employers from seeing our power). We need to snap out of it, and write about what happened, and why it mattered. Here’s the same bullet, rewritten to show a slice of life for Jennifer on that job:

  • Convinced our top customer to bring his best client to our annual meeting, and snagged a huge new account.

You don’t even have to know the dollar volume of the new customer. (It would be great if you did, though, or could estimate it.) We only have to tell the story. The fact that you picked up the phone when it rang is boring. We’re more interested in what you said to those folks once you had them on the phone. In your bullets, tell some stories!

We’ve been taught to fill up a resume by writing about the job description (“handle customer calls and inquiries”). I want you to stop doing that, this minute, and start talking about you in the job, instead.

What did you get done at that job that you’re proud of? It may have taken a year, or just a few weeks or only five minutes. Bring your power across to the reader by telling us how Jennifer operates on the job. Here are a few more story-bullets to get you going. I’ve added a comment of my own after each one:

  • Devised a one-page report, nicknamed “Decision Maker,” that combined three older, longer reports in a simple-to-use way. The end result of a process innovation like this would be saved time for both the report-creators and the decision-makers, but we don’t have to spell it out because it’s assumed in the bullet itself. Hurrah! You save words, and ink.
  • Trained two receptionists and our mailroom coordinator to sub for one another and to pick up elements of my job if I were sick. Great initiative! Now, even if someone is out, the business chugs along.
  • Nominated my boss for a ‘Forty Under Forty’ competition, leading to a profile in our industry’s largest publication. What we don’t explicitly say is that your boss didn’t get selected as a Forty Under Forty awardee, but so what? Your effort got him a profile in an even more relevant publication.
  • Pushed for our management team to adopt a territory-based sales structure, installed one and saw sales rise ten percent. You weren’t in Sales, of course – you were the VP’s Administrator. No big deal! You promoted the idea of giving salespeople regional territories, and you were the perfect person to put that bug in the VP’s ear, since the salespeople all complained to you about the fact that they were stabbing one another in the back for leads in the days before the territories were established. Sales rose ten percent, and you deserve some of that credit. Grab it!

Jennifer, I want you to get out a journal or sit down at your keyboard and start telling yourself stories about your days on that job. Let your fingers go where they want, and let your stream-of-consciousness recollections emerge and get them down on paper (or in electrons). You’ll recall your power as you do. You’ve got incredible stories that any employer would love to hear. Don’t sell yourself short. Tell us about those times when your full Jennifer-power was unleashed. We are dying to hear!