Resume Rehab: Are You Guilty of Adjective Abuse?

Last Updated May 25, 2010 7:06 AM EDT

Oh, hello. Didn't see you standing there. Just been reading your resume. Say, are you really a "hands-on" executive? Would your administrative assistant be willing to go on the record with that? And what's the opposite of "results-driven," anyway? Results-averse? Results-agnostic? Process-obsessed?

Naturally I don't pretend to know everything about resumes ­-- I only see a few hundred each day -- but I know what I don't like. In my forthcoming book, Less Is More: Uncensored Tales of Corporate Endangerment, I wisely point out that...well, less is more. And vice versa. (I do a crackling good job of it, too. Watch this column for updates.)

As an example, if you begin your summary by claiming to be a "seasoned, savvy professional with a distinguished career," there's nothing left for me to do but hand over my wife and kids. Seriously, good luck with them. (And could I possibly borrow $5,000?) Before I forget to ask, did your last employer sign off on you being a "visionary, world-class entrepreneur," or did you kinda decide that on your own? What would she say about you? That the thesaurus called and they want their synonyms back?

The same goes for cover letters. Didn't you hear? The whole world suddenly has a bad case of ADD. Yup, it's official. Attention spans are down to about two or three seconds. (Not me, of course, but everyone else.) It's all, "What have you got? What can you do for me? How many followers do you have on Twitter? Great, well, I gotta bounce." You're in the future now. Wake up!

Here's an actual, unedited excerpt from one of my favorite cover letters:

Twenty four (24) months later, after having done what I had always opted to accomplish and had dreamt to realize, i.e. ride my Harley Davidson, teach, hike and paint; a kind of ennui started to crawl all over me. I began to feel a little melancholy and earnestly yearn for the days when quotidian nonetheless grueling challenges were posed to me and interminable dynamic strategy formulation as well as decision making processes were factually a way of life, a kind of a circadian routine!
Here's another -- the preferred method -- reproduced in full:
Attached is my resume. It's my hope that I will bring value to one of your clients.
I rest my case.

Let's stick to the facts, shall we? Write the way Jack Webb spoke on Dragnet. Simple, direct statements in government-style, gray flannel prose. No lying, no embellishing. Say what you were genuinely responsible for and don't merely feature "highlights" or "achievements." Let it look and sound like, um, information. Leave out the poetry -- along with any other unnecessary words, including articles and pronouns -- and write in clear, journalist declarations that begin with verbs ("Woke up. Got out of bed. Dragged a comb..."). The number of pages doesn't matter; substance does. Tell your story and leave the building.

Say that Mr. Burns of The Simpsons had Smithers write his resume. The job description might go something like this:

Springfield Nuclear Power Plant Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Introduced state-of-the-art line nuclear capabilities for this $100B innovator of plutonium-based services. Designed and implemented reorganization of development process and teams resulting in four major new platforms. Improved facility cycle times by five fold. Enhanced performance of company baseball team through strategic recruitment.
Romance trumps selling every time, my ambitious friend. Your next boss wants to be enamored, not assaulted. Think of how your own filter kicks in when you read media hype. Same goes for hiring managers and recruiters. By all means explain, but resist the urge to exclaim. Let people reach their own conclusions about just how "performance-based and collaborative" you are by allowing them to participate in the assessment process. In business as in love, infatuation rarely results from a hard sell or a soft-shoe routine.

  • Mark Jaffe

    As President of Wyatt & Jaffe, Mark Jaffe has been called one of the 'World's 100 Most Influential Headhunters' by BusinessWeek magazine. His firm, Wyatt & Jaffe, works with a select list of financial services, high-tech and consumer companies worldwide and has been called one of the 50 leading retained search firms in North America.