Debra Wheatman, President of Careers Done Write, provides expert insight to the job search process that puts your career in gear with tips for interviewing, networking, job search strategies and how to create a winning resume and cover letter.
Everything in life is about communication and messaging. How are you going to present your new idea? How are you going to position your background so that it is relatable to the role for which you’re interviewing? How will you articulate your differing perspective to a potential client? We all want the communication “magic bullet.” That’s why there are so many different classes and books out there on this topic. Strip away all of the window dressing, and good communication comes down to these ten factors:
Be yourself. You don’t need to adopt any kind of persona to be believable. People can spot a fake. Be genuine.
Speak and write with clarity. Do you talk too fast? Do you use too many big words in your writing? Both of these can turn your audience off and can make you seem condescending, even when you are not. Use plain, simple language to convey your messages.
Eliminate verbal tics. “Uhms” and “ahs” are the result of your mouth running while your brain is trying to think of what to say next. Rehearse, record, and repeat to reduce your reliance upon those fillers.
Make eye contact. Don’t stare (that’s creepy) but look at your audience. Hold eye contact for a few seconds, and then move onto another person. Failure to make eye contact can give the impression that you are condescending. Don’t forget to smile. A smile is universal and helps people relax.
Focus on body language. Do you fidget, play with your hands, or twirl your hair? Any of these tell your audience that you are nervous, and nervous can also come off as a lack of confidence. Do you stand like a statue? Move around! Get away from the podium, get up from the table and walk around.
Don’t rely on handouts or slides. These should be materials that supplement any presentation. They should not BE the presentation. Don’t read to your audience. You’ve probably been on the receiving end of that, and you know that it’s awful.
Manage the conversation. Take control and guide the conversation or presentation where you want it to go. Don’t allow the discussion to become sidetracked and waste your time.
Be enthusiastic. No, you don’t have to be infomercial-host-enthusiastic, but you do have to come to the table or podium with a certain amount of energy. You should be excited and engaged about your discussion—that excitement will wear off on the other people involved. Think about the energy that the best speakers bring into a room. That’s what you want to emulate.
Be humorous. You’re not doing a stand-up routine at the Laugh Factory, but at the same time, you’re probably not presenting to a room full of automatons. Humor used judiciously can be a very effective means of making your audience feel relaxed, and for improving your connection with them. This one can be tricky, so resist the urge to wing it and be sure that you’ve vetted and practiced your humor.
Plan for the unexpected. I was once giving a presentation at a client’s office when the fire alarm went off. We had to evacuate the building and wait outside until the fire department gave the okay for us to return. I never expected that to happen, but it did. Most unanticipated matters aren’t quite so dramatic—think of a loud lunch setup, the microphone that cuts out, or the ever-popular malfunctioning projector. Handle yourself in a calm and collected manner, and your audience will affirm that you are someone who can adjust to changing situations on the fly and that you have the confidence to handle the unexpected.
I’ve been reading many articles and seeing various reports in which so-called “experts” assert that the gender pay gap is a myth. This is a commonly repeated theme, and it seems that those who purvey this falsehood believe that if they keep promoting it, it will eventually become true. Unfortunately for them, there is ample bi-partisan research that validates that the gender pay gap is, indeed, a very real thing.
Although women represent slightly more than half of the workforce, we are paid at around 22% less than our male peers for doing the same job. This means that beginning in January of each year, a woman essentially works for free until April 4. That’s 22% into the calendar year. This is appalling. If you are reading this blog, I assume that you live in the real world, and understand that the wage gap exists; in fact, you are likely to be personally affected by it. So my purpose here is not to change minds or attitudes, but to try to understand why this lie is being perpetuated.
Skeptics generally reach for one of the following when dismissing the reality of the pay gap:
Myth: Women choose lower-paying positions than men do.
Fact: Women are paid less than men in every single profession. Professions which are dominated by women, such as elder and child care or teaching suffer from suppressed wages.
Myth: Women should go to school and gain the skills and education they need to be competitive.
Fact: Male managers are less likely to hire a woman who does try to negotiate her compensation package. Why? Because they fear that she will be “difficult” to work with. Contrast this with the perception of a man who is a strong negotiator—he is assertive, direct, and gets things done.
Myth: Women earn less because they take time off to care for children.
Fact: The lack of mandatory paid family leave in the US is a real problem. However, even women who do not take protracted unpaid leave, or who do not voluntarily remove themselves from the workforce often find themselves on the mommy track.
The sad reality here is that none of these facts are going to do anything to convince those who believe that the pay gap is nothing more than a woman-made conspiracy theory. They will continue to purport that women’s choices, rather than discrimination, cause the disparity. However, lack of parental leave, social norms, and family finances all impact personal decisions about work, making the idea of “choice” problematic. The conclusion is that the gender pay gap is actually more insidious than it seems on the surface. It is itself a symptom of a culture which, despite lip service, continues to undervalue and dismiss women out of hand.
There are countless articles out there that vilify the pervasiveness of technology in our lives. Modern technologies, it seems, has succeeded in eroding the barrier between work and personal life. Contemporary workers are always “on,” attached by wireless umbilical cords to their various devices. You can respond to your boss’s email via your car’s voice recognition software. Need an immediate answer from a colleague? Shoot him a quick text. Yes, you can lead the WebEx while you’re on vacation; no problem.
If you allow it, technology can disrupt your life balance. But you can use it to your advantage to enable more balance than a traditional workplace. The biggest advantage by far is that technology enables workers to work from anywhere, at any time. When a big project is due in the morning, the team needn’t stay at the office until midnight. You can go home, have dinner with your family, read your children their bedtime stories, and then work on the project. You need to take your kid to the orthodontist, and the only available appointment is at 11 AM on Tuesday? No problem. Work from home, and work around the appointment.
Beyond the familiar ways in which technology enables personal freedom, are more extreme examples such as the emergence of the digital nomad. “Digital nomads” are mostly digital natives who travel the world and work from wherever they happen to be decamped. Digital nomads are people who prize the experience of traveling the world and meeting different people over that of climbing a corporate ladder. (I think of them as Next Gen European backpackers.) Of course, nomads, like the rest of us, still need to earn a living. Technology allows them to do that while pursuing their primary goal of experiential learning.
The digital age has made us realize that it is antiquated to think of work and our personal lives as two separate things we can place on a scale. Instead of trying to balance work and life on opposite sides of the scale, we should aim for integration. We can leverage modern technologies to create a sense of harmony.
Window offices, assistants, and leather chairs are quickly becoming things of the past. With new technologies, we can work from anywhere, and do so more efficiently. Efficiency is something that the arguments against technology rarely bring up. Digital storage options reduce clutter. Digital solutions can eliminate redundancies and improve speed. Tasks that can be automated are being automated, allowing workers to free their minds to focus on pet projects, or on family and friends. Don’t be afraid of embracing technology. Be prepared to manage it, and to use it to your advantage.
Science fiction writers have long imagined a world in which machines not only complement human knowledge but can supersede human limitations. In the 1960s, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry presented us with a sentient computer that would talk to members of the Enterprise crew. In the 1980s, Terminator creator James Cameron introduced us to a future world in which the machines not only become self-aware but also endanger humanity. Fifty or thirty years ago, most people regarded these portrayals of the future as nothing more than pure fiction. But amid the fantastical plot devices was a foreshadowing of the world that was to come, and one which would come quickly—a world of artificial intelligence and automation.
Humans have always looked for ways to make labor more efficient. The idea of self-sufficient, automated, mechanisms designed to execute specific tasks is not modern. The Greek god Talos, the first robot in human mythology, was charged with protecting Crete by flying around the island three times a day. When an enemy ship approached Crete, Talos would send huge rocks and destroy the ships from a distance; and if enemies could get on the land of Crete, Talos would make his body super-hot and kill the enemies. In all likelihood, ancient Greeks would be impressed by the present state of machine evolution, as they envisioned a future in which machines could learn.
Artificial intelligence or “machine learning” is, simply put, teaching a machine how to do something. For example, we might feed a computer a bunch of data, and then direct it to make predictions. There is also software that becomes “smarter” over time as it accumulates more data. More and more companies rely on both artificial intelligence and automation to perform tasks previously been executed by humans.
You have probably read articles about how automation and artificial intelligence are going to take away all of our jobs. Although it is true that in some sectors, particularly in manufacturing, automation is responsible for eliminating jobs previously performed by humans, this particular dog whistle is alarmist at best.
Machines are great. Computers are awesome. We can automate many things. And we can use AI in many fields. But the critical difference between automation and human cognition is that machines cannot make judgment calls. Consider the case in Sydney, Australia, in 2014. A gunman created a hostage crisis at a downtown Sydney café. People in the area began frantically requesting Ubers to leave the area. As the demand spiked, Uber’s algorithms went to work and raised fares as much as four times the regular rate. No human was involved to say, “hey, we have an emergency situation here; we need to cap fares!” Instead, the machines took over, and the result was bad public relations for Uber and livid customers.
AI can’t make gut-level decisions that affect human lives. Not every problem can be broken down into quantifiable pieces. And while data is great, data in a vacuum is useless. For data to be useful, it must be transformed into knowledge. Machines cannot do that; only humans can. The bottom line in the hysteria about the rise of the machines is this: businesses will still be serving and selling to people. Businesses will continue to need humans who have empathy, the ability to think strategically, and have a gut instinct. Take heart, so-called “soft skills” cannot be automated!
In my job as a career coach and advisor, I have had the opportunity to speak with literally thousands of people from all over the world, with different experiences and backgrounds, who have different end goals. Some clients come to me to rework a résumé or build out a social media plan. Others seek counsel on creating and managing a strong personal brand. Still, others contact me because they are looking to manage their careers and need guidance in doing so. Inevitably, my conversations with them stray from the purely business side of things into matters more personal. After all, when you are busy managing your career, your product is you, and you are a whole person, not merely a professional.
One thing that I have gleaned from my years of working closely with people is that one of the biggest assets not just in your career but in life, is self-awareness. Developing self-awareness is not easy. It requires work, time, and dedication. It is a step toward self-actualization, which is at the top of Maslow’s pyramid, and which few of us will ever fully achieve. Many of us struggle with how to become more self-aware. Here are some practical tips that I’ve come up with:
Accept the past. It is far too easy to say that the past is over, and we should just forget about it. The past makes you who you are today, and influences who you will become in the future. Accept it. Recognize that it cannot be changed. Learn from it.
Don’t focus on what others think. So much energy is expended by wondering and worrying about how others perceive us. Focus that energy instead into striving for your own success. How do you value yourself?
Seek satisfaction and serenity from yourself. Other people, material possessions, and other things outside of yourself will not lead to happiness. You must find that within yourself first and not look to external sources for it.
Develop patience. Yes, there are times that you will have to wait. Impatience is rarely a virtue, and more often than not, can lead to rash, regrettable decisions. You are in this for the long haul. Don’t sacrifice long-term growth for short-term satisfaction.
Recognize your uniqueness. There is only one you. No one else can do exactly what you can do. You have unique skills, experiences, thoughts, and ideas. And that is what makes you you. Celebrate what’s different about you.
Define success on your own terms. Far too often, we define success by measures that we get from other people. Is success having a big house, fancy car, and a fat bank account? Maybe. And if it is, that’s okay. But for many of us, those measures do not bring success. Rather, they are vehicles for achieving success. Being financially savvy may allow you to travel extensively and enjoy a comfortable retirement. Having a large home may mean that you have ample space for your large family and circle of friends.
Investing time in being self-aware is one of the best gifts you can give yourself. You are your primary product, and you’re the CEO not only of your career, but your life. You are a unique individual who has many gifts to share with the world. Make an effort to define what they are, what personal success is for you, and work on being authentic.
Undergraduates who have chosen to major in the liberal arts will inevitably be faced with the question, “What are you going to do with THAT?” I am sympathetic to them because when I was a non-STEM, non-business major, that same exact question was posed to me. In an age in which it seems that STEM is the only thing that matters, where do things like verbal and written communication fit? Are they on their way to being obsolete?
Hardly! No matter how many new microchips come out of Silicon Valley, none will be as powerful or impactful as language. Language has the power to motivate, to discourage, to compel, to coerce, and to connect. Language can be used to manipulate and to control, or it can be used to inspire and to create. I would argue that language is one of the strongest forces on the planet.
Politicians are masters at using language to get people to believe them and to buy into what their positions are. The entire field of law hinges on language and is constantly referring back to primary source documents. Contracts go through multiple reviews as all parties involved come to an agreement on the language.
If anything, language skills have become even more important in the Information Age. People are bombarded with competing messages at a rate previously unseen. Everyone is vying for their attention, and language is an effective way to get it. Think about the power of good headlines, or even the annoyingly compelling power of “click bait.”
Throughout the course of my career, I’ve been a part of countless meetings that discuss language, and the specific words that are being used. Surely you’ve been in meetings where questions like these have been debated: How are we going to position this? What is our message to the market? What is our value proposition? How do we articulate the benefits? I want to communicate X–what is the best way to do that?
Whether you are looking for a new role or building your brand, the language and words you use are critical. Through language, you’re able to not only craft a message, but also to create the reality you want. Your resume should use strong, action-oriented verbs. Your elevator pitch should convey your value clearly and succinctly. When you give a presentation, you should use clear, plain language that everyone can understand.
So if you’re studying the liberal arts, and you’re spending hours reading, researching, and writing, you might feel like what you’re learning is useless. It is not. Your studies are teaching you how to analyze text, how to conduct research, how to organize your information in a logical way, and how to communicate your findings or position cogently.
There is a scene from the first episode of Mad Men, which perfectly illustrates the power of language. The team is sitting in a conference room, worried about how they’re going to continue to advertise their client’s cigarettes in light of the new reports that smoking is a health hazard. The public is being bombarded with messages about the dangers of smoking. Don Draper tells everyone not to worry. Their cigarettes are poison. Ours are toasted.” That one word completely repositions a product from being deadly to being enjoyable. Words have enormous power. Those who can harness language can wield power.
The next time you think that STEM is the way to a career, think again. Words are wisdom. They evoke meaning, power, and action. Business is not just about “the numbers” or “the analysis.” It is also about messaging and delivery that drives action.
Google the words “team, build, work,” and you will get an infinite number of results for pages filled with inspirational, motivational quotes, and uplifting stories of how to build an effective team. You also know the reality of many of the teams on which we work–one person takes the lead, one person’s ideas are rejected, another member contributes minimally, and the rest go along for the ride. We are constantly hearing about how we all need to be team players, but because most teams are dysfunctional, we have no idea how to take on that role.
What happens when teamwork works the way it should, and everyone is equally invested in the same goal? When everyone is on board, teams can function efficiently, communication is expressed effectively, and innovation happens. To illustrate an effective, high-performing team, let’s think of a theatrical production.
Costume designers, set designers, the orchestra, the stage crew, and countless others are vital members of the larger team. The production’s cast is obviously the most visible part of the team, but even that is broken down into very clearly defined roles. Usually, there are main characters, supporting characters, minor characters, and sometimes an ensemble. The mantra in the theatrical world is “The show must go on,” and they truly abide by that. The lead has taken ill with the flu? In comes the understudy, who knows the character’s lines just as well as the lead does. Someone’s costume rips? Costume design to the rescue. Violinist couldn’t make it to this evening’s performance? Another violinist takes her place. And we, the audience, are oblivious to most of this.
The main goal is to create an amazing performance for the audience, and everyone in the company works toward that goal. When someone cannot perform, someone else steps in. When something unforeseen happens, there’s someone immediately on it. Everyone involved has different skills, but they all complement one another. The most talented stage performer would not be as effective without all of the help from the team that supports her.
An effective team, in any context, needs the following:
Clearly defined roles and responsibilities
A clear understanding of the goals of the team
A mix of skill sets and knowledge
A “team” made up of people who all do the same thing will never innovate anything. You need people with different experiences and perspectives to do something different. So if your team is exclusively made up of, say, mechanical engineers, you might want to rethink that. When you build a great team, and they are empowered with the necessary resources to achieve their goal, they can connect, collaborate, and create. Otherwise, it’s that same old group project we all hated from high school.
Over the last decade or so, science, technology, engineering, and math (or STEM) studies have been sold to students not just the key to career success, but as the only way to be competitive in the 21st Century. The result of this has been that public education, already restricted to teaching that which is tested, has shifted its focus to STEM subjects, at the expense of others. While there has been an arguably positive outcome of the focus on STEM (such as a push to get more girls interested in hard sciences, and more women in technology roles), this tunnel vision approach has been “a gross simplification of what students need to know and be able to do.”
This recent article from The Washington Post tells us that Google has finally figured out what many of us have known all along–that soft skills are more important than hard skills when it comes to career success. How often have you heard something like this: “Oh, he’s brilliant, but he has no social skills. He can’t carry on a conversation!”? Sheer intelligence or technical acumen will only get you so far, and as the study commissioned by Google reveals, neither will get you particularly far if not complemented with soft skills.
What are soft skills? They’re amorphous, fluid, hard to define, but easily recognizable. They’re things like empathy, compassion, communication, sharing, kindness. In short, they are the things that make us human. I’ve talked to thousands of people during the course of my career, and the number one thing that people want from their coworkers and managers is empathy. Technical knowledge does not even make it into the top three.
Technical knowledge is great, but it isn’t the only skill you need. Without the ability to work with people and to think critically, technical know-how is simply a commodity. In the real world, people work with people they like, not with the person who scored in the 99th percentile on the exam.
Study STEM if you like, but don’t feel that you must. Hard skills may open the door for you, but they alone will not carry you through your career. Historians, English majors, economists, artists, and social scientists, are all good at critical thinking, problem solving, and making connections. STEM is a good path, but not the only or even best path for future jobs.
You know that I’m all about content, and all about using content as a way to define, promote, and grow your personal brand. But do you think of things like the presentations you give, that thirty-second elevator pitch, or your answer to that often-asked interview question, “So, tell me about yourself” as “content”? Probably not. But you should.
Everything you say, every Tweet, every interaction you have with other people informs them of your brand, and their perceptions of and experiences with you help to define your brand. This is a big deal, and it’s something you want to control. I’m sure you can think of that person whose presentations you try to avoid. They’re too long. They’re too wordy. She shows up with forty slides for a twenty-minute presentation. She reads them to you. Torture. Agony.
You’re probably also familiar with the guy who tells you about his job, and when he’s done, you still have no clue what it is he does to make a living. You know that there were a bunch of words strung together and that they were in English, but you didn’t understand a thing.
The offenses demonstrated in these two examples are rooted in a common problem with content creation–we make it far too complex for our audience’s needs or, more importantly, their interest. Remember what your English teacher told you about writing an essay? That you need to know your audience? She was right. You need to craft your messaging in such a way that it resonates with your audience. There is considerable research into the way that the brain processes information, as well as how the ego responds to it. But the simple truth of effective messaging is this: keep it simple and make your audience feel that it’s about them.
When you’re asked to put together a presentation, it can be really hard to avoid the temptation of including every single detail. After all, you don’t want to be called out for not covering something! When someone asks you about what you do, the desire to impress with excess detail can be similarly compelling. I would challenge you to approach messaging by thinking about the outcome you want it to achieve, and by working back from there.
Truly effective messaging has the following features:
It passes the fifth-grader test. If a nine year-old would not understand it, scrap it and start over. Keep it simple.
It’s re-tellable. Your audience can articulate your message after they’ve received it. This seems simple, but it’s very difficult to achieve.
It centers on one to three big ideas. Effective, persuasive messaging is focused. It doesn’t go into all the details.
It speaks to a problem your audience has. Whether your audience is your coworkers, your boss, an interviewer, or your Twitter followers, they will be much more engaged in your content and its message if it’s about them.
The bottom line.
It’s easy to fall into the habit of delivering messaging that is complex, overly technical, and relevant only to you. Put your audience at the center of your content and craft messaging that relates to them. Keep it simple and make it relatable, and it will be memorable and valuable.
Last week, I discussed the challenges of deciding to remove yourself from the workforce, and how it should be a carefully considered decision. A follow-up to that is another question I get frequently, which goes like this:
I’ve been home with my kids for the last eight years, and now I’m ready to go back to work. I’m really not sure what I should put on my resume at this point. Do I list all of the household duties I am responsible for? Do I discuss how I manage various vendors (plumber, electrician, lawn maintenance) and how I work with my budget?
It is indeed a daunting challenge to seek a full-time position following a period of absence. After deciding to do it, one of the most difficult things can be to write a solid resume that will effectively market you to potential employers.
Let me start by saying that no, you do not want to list your household activities on your resume, ever. I’ve seen resumes that have household management duties or child rearing duties and achievements, and they make me cringe. Although managing a household and caring for children are both undeniably “work,” neither are career accomplishments. A resume is a tool that highlights your professional achievements, and should focus on those.
If you are considering returning to the workforce, hopefully you have been doing something to keep yourself current on your skills. Maybe you’ve been volunteering or working on a freelance basis. If you haven’t, I suggest you start there. You’re going to need recent professional experience–whether paid or not–in order to market yourself in a professional context. For example, I had a client who was very involved with a local, nonprofit animal rescue. She volunteered her time to promote the organization by running all of its social media, and she built its social media presence from scratch. This was something that could be highlighted on her resume as a significant achievement. After all, what hiring manager doesn’t want someone who can build something from the ground up, and who can work effectively with very little budget? It shows ingenuity, problem solving, and creativity.
This brings me to another point. Resume trends have changed over the past decades. No longer are they merely a listing of jobs and duties. They are truly promotional materials. As such, it is no longer enough to say that you are a creative, motivated problem-solver. You need to demonstrate it. So avoid the temptation to merely list a bunch of adjectives that describe you. Instead, use anecdotes that can serve as proof points.
Use a reverse-chronological format for your resume. You have my permission to ignore anyone who tells you to use a functional or “skills based” resume. Hiring managers and recruiters hate them. It is difficult to understand your career progression, and they look like you’re trying to hide something–namely, gaps in employment.
It is perfectly acceptable, and even expected, to list volunteer positions on your resume. It is also okay to list any freelance or per diem work you may have done while you were in a role of full time caregiver. Just remember to highlight your professionally relevant skills and accomplishments. When you’re returning to work following a protracted absence, it is even more important that you write a killer cover letter that sells you as the answer to the hiring manager’s problem. The job search process will probably take longer than it would for someone without a lengthy gap in employment, but with perseverance and drive, you can return to a professional position.