by Katharine Hansen, Ph.D.
How do you convince employers that you possess the skills required to perform a job you want -- especially if you are changing careers and have not yet demonstrated your skills in your targeted career?
By telling stories about how you've effectively use those skills in other contexts. This article tells you why and how to do so.
For years, we've touted the idea of portraying skills as transferable on resumes, cover letters, and other job-search communications. In our article What Do Employers Really Want? Top Skills and Values Employers Seek from Job-Seekers, we present numerous resume bullet points eloquently describing skills (Example: "Flexible team player who thrives in environments requiring ability to effectively prioritize and juggle multiple concurrent projects.") But even when a job-seeker uses articulate bullet points like these, he or she needs to support them with real evidence of having performed those skills in the past.
Meaningless lists of their transferable skills in job-search communications, in fact, are a major peeve of columnist Liz Ryan, who complains in an article on Glassdor.com, that "people are not actually ambulatory sets of disembodied, abstract skills. Describing ourselves as packages of skills is about the worst way imaginable to get a hiring manager excited about us."
Ryan protests that hiring managers have no reason to trust job-seekers when they say they possess certain transferable skills. A hiring manager's concept of a given skill could be very different from that of the candidate claiming to possess that skill. The hiring manager has no way of know how a claimed skill will manifest itself in diverse situations. Perhaps worst of all, lists of transferable skills lack context.
The solution is to tell stories that put transferable skills in context and describe how the job-seeker deployed them. "We need powerful stories to convey our power, battle-tested and concrete, to the person who's reading our resume," Ryan says. Further:
Stories, in contrast to skills listings, are loaded with context. We'll tell the reader about that business dragon we slew (a cost overrun in Production, or a drop-off in attendance at our teleseminars) with plenty of detail about the situation we faced as we brought that dragon down. That's when our job-search pitch has power! ... Trumpeting our fabulousness sans context, proof or relevance is a waste of time. Use your stories, instead, to make it clear how you've made a difference for your employers in the past.
And, author Alexandra Levit emphasizes that "the more drastic your reinvention, the more persuasive your story must be."
Identifying Skills to Highlight in Your Stories
Here's how to tell stories that demonstrate the skills that employers seek in the type of job and industry you're targeting:
- Identify a dozen or so Internet job postings that typify the kind of job you seek.
- List keywords that describe the skills required for these jobs. See a list of skills and characteristics that employers typically seek.
- Now, highlight all the skills keywords the job postings have in common and make a list of these frequently appearing skills. Another technique is to copy the text from one or more job postings you want to target and then create a "tag cloud," using a tool such as TagCrowd or Wordle. The skills words that appear the largest in the tag cloud are the ones that should get the most emphasis in your skills stories. To see an illustration of this technique, check out this post on our Quintessential Resumes and Cover Letters Tops Blog.
- For each skill listed, compose a story that illustrates how you have successfully demonstrated that skill or characteristic in your career -- or even in your personal life.
- Be sure to compose stories that come from a variety of aspects of your life and career; don't focus on just one job or extracurricular activity, for example. Draw your stories from fairly recent experience. Employers what to know what you've done lately that could benefit their organization.
Story-Framing Devices For Skills... with Examples
Keeping in mind that a successful story must be true and told in context, consider these ideas for story-framing so your collection of stories comes from various perspectives:
- A time in your life when this skill was tested.
Example: I solve problems every day in my job, but one recent example I had that truly tested my problem-solving skills involved a woman who called me to question why we refunded part of her premium to her. She's a new policy-holder who was quoted $2,900 for an annual premium and paid that amount, but in the computer, her annual premium was about $2,500, so we refunded her the difference. My first hunch was she received a discount for paying in full, but when I calculated the discount percent, it was not adding up. After about two or three iterations of trying various combinations of discounts, I still was unable to figure out why the quote and actual premium were different and figured I was not looking for the right root cause. I decided to manually price her policy from the ground up, and during the process I happened to notice her birthday on her application was written ambiguously and could have been interpreted as 1925 or 1928. I calculated quotes for both ages and realized the reason for the difference. I honored the lower rate since the payment transactions were fully completed.
- A time when you failed to live up to this skill and decided never to let it happen again.
Example: My leadership skills were called into question by my first evaluation as a district manager. I was rated much lower than I had ever been rated. I realized that, after having been promoted into a new position, I needed to learn a lot more. Determined to never again get a low rating, I learned as much as I possibly could by taking seminars, attending training, and reading books and articles; this quest for knowledge became the driving force behind my attaining the high rating I achieved for this year.
- A turning point in your development of this skill/characteristic.
Example: As an undergrad, I took a course on argument and advocacy and learned a very important concept called Tooling Modeling, which is a logical way of thinking with three parts: claim, grounds, and warrant. The claim is your point; the grounds consists of your proof, evidence, or backing; and your warrant is your logical leap that connects the two. The theory is naturally a little more complicated than that, but this way of thinking has been my bible for rational thought and was the single most valuable lesson I learned in college. I use this way of thinking when I am presented with problems that require decisions. I structure a rational, logical argument for each likely outcome. I can therefore see where weaknesses exist, either in the grounds or the warrant. I conduct a bump-and-compare between arguments to see which are the strongest, and I go with the most durable argument. I also take a practical approach to decision making in that I try to find out best outcome for the least price or cost.
- An example from your personal life (as opposed to career) of deploying this skill.
Example: I realized I had solid problem-solving skills during my freshmen year after I went to the soup kitchen in Parkersburg to serve food to the less fortunate. I felt that I needed to do something more, so I had an idea that when everybody moved out of the dorms at the end of a semester, instead of throwing nonperishable food away, students could put it in a box, and I would take it to the local food bank so it could feed the poor. I ended up gathering about six carloads of canned and dry food that would have been thrown away.
- Patterns that have emerged in your development of this skill.
Example: I have learned that my role is to do work that makes a difference in people's lives. For the first 20 years, I worked in television news, believing in the people's right to know. For the past six years, I've been in education, helping teachers and their students. My ultimate goal is to be head of a department.
- A strength or vulnerability from your past that led to developing this skill.
Example: I have always had a fascination for how machines work, and whenever my family and I went on vacation, I would always try and get the window-seat on the plane, if only to watch the flaps and air-brakes in action during takeoff and landing. As I continued my education, I felt a compulsion to use my degree in a people-oriented profession. So, while I love machines, I'd like to contribute my engineering skills in a company that affects peoples' lives positively. I just like helping people.
More Story-Framing Devices to Showcase Skills
- A movie/story/book/event that exemplifies this skill for you.
- A person/event in your life that taught you the importance of this skill.
- A story of using this skill in overcoming one or more obstacles.
- A Cinderella story of having been an underdog who used this skill to emerge triumphant.
- A hero story in which you used this skill to do something unexpected to save the day.
- A humorous and probably self-deprecating way you've used this skill.
- A story about tasks and job functions related to this skill.
- A timeline of how you developed and sharpened this skill.
- Results you've achieved through using this skill.
- Lessons you've learned while developing and using this skill.
- Ways you've applied this skill in diverse situations.
- A time when you felt passionate and alive in your work (and the skill that made the feeling possible).
- One or more stories that you find yourself repeatedly telling about your work (identify the recurring skill[s] in these stories).
- If you could tell just one story to explain what you do in your work, what would it be, and what skill would it involve)?
(Thanks to story luminaries Annette Simmons, David Lorenzo, Steve Denning, and Cathryn Wellner for suggesting some of these frameworks.)
See more examples of skills stories in our sidebar, Stories that Illustrate Skills.
Final Thoughts on Using Stories tp Prove Your Skills
Consider, too, the needs of your audience as you choose stories to develop. In All Marketers Are Liars, Seth Godin advises that the worldview in the stories you tell must match the worldview of your audience -- in this case, employers. Godin writes about story topics that always succeed with consumers. If we think of employers as consumers of the skills and experience that job-seekers offer, we can apply some of the same topics to story development: shortcuts you've taken to make work more efficient, ways you've generated revenue, how you've made the workplace safer, and even how you've made work more fun. Think creatively about the skills stories you tell.
Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key college, career, and job-search terms by going to our Job-Seeker's Glossary of Job-Hunting Terms.