“My resume is way too long.”
I nodded in agreement as I tried to shuffle through 5 pages of achievements, responsibilities, professional development, and thought leadership, not sure where to fix my gaze and unable to grasp the bigger picture.
I relive this experience on a weekly basis when executives reach out to me for career writing assistance. Their problem is never a lack of accomplishments. Their challenge is knowing what matters―and what to leave off. They cling to every descriptor, every trait, every initiative, thinking it might be important to someone. In the meantime, their audience is too overwhelmed to read any of it, much less dig for the most significant attributes or victories.
My clients are always shocked when I am able to reduce their story to 2-3 clean and crisp pages with enough white space to allow the reader to breathe. Below are the guiding principles I follow when doing so.
1. Stop trying to tell it all.
If you look up the word “resume” in the dictionary, the very first definition is “a summary.” Your resume is not meant to be a list of everything you have ever done.
Rather than opening your working resume draft and deciding on what to eliminate, start with a blank page and decide what makes the cut, acting as a gatekeeper with your current target in mind at all times. Every initiative you describe on your resume and every leadership trait should be directly tied to what you want to do. This means that before you begin drafting your resume, you should have a crystal-clear idea of your potential job titles, targeted functional area, targeted industry, organizational type or size, and any unique challenges that you are ideally suited for.
If this is your difficulty―knowing your career goals―you may consider working with a career coach to guide you in narrowing down your target.
In addition to including only relevant information, leave off anything that will not make you absolutely shine in an interview. Reject any initiatives that went nowhere, that you didn’t manage to gain buy in for, or that didn’t produce the results you had hoped for.
2. Use language that differentiates you.
Are you “results-focused”? “Driven”? An “excellent communicator”?
It turns out most, if not all, of your competitors at the executive level could say the same. These descriptors add little value to your resume while taking up valuable space and attention bandwidth.
Instead, introduce language that describes the ways in which you differ from your competitors and the value you bring that they do not. How do you do things differently than your peers? What have others told you are your natural talents or gifts? What unique expertise have you leaned on to deliver your greatest career successes?
3. Focus on achievements over responsibilities.
While it is important to relay your scope of responsibility and the scale in which you operate (P&L, budget, team size, areas of impact, etc.), the details of your day-to-day have little interest. Daily responsibilities are what anyone would have done in the role. While this information could interest your successor, it won’t help your reader understand your ability to drive transformation.
Use the limited space on your resume to describe specific challenges, initiatives, and results. This condensed information will indicate the value you are capable of delivering and position you as a change leader.
4. Trim early experience to the bone.
Do you really think anyone is interested in what you were doing 20 years ago?
Yet I see resume after resume with as much space dedicated to roles in the 90s as the most recent role. Even if your early experience was earth shattering, describing it at length will give the impression that your better days are behind you, so be brief and focus the resume space on the last 10-15 years.
5. Keep it bite sized.
The resume’s overall length is only one consideration. Another is your reader’s ability to digest individual pieces of information. Small bites lead to better digestion—so avoid long sentences, long paragraphs, or endless bulleted lists.
A short and sweet resume is more likely to be savored by your readers. Offer them nothing but the best and most relevant information and, not only will they spend more time on your resume than the resumes of other candidates, they will be hungry for more information and quick to invite you to interview.
Although it can be difficult to eliminate descriptions that seem important to you and initiatives that you put blood sweat and tears into, a less-is-more approach will ensure a clear, insightful value proposition that is both memorable and compelling.