Outline Your Outline

I pulled this bullet point off of a sample resume I found. It was used by an "expert" to help people struggling with their resumes.

Generated new clients over the phone and in-person by understanding customer needs and providing appropriate solutions.

After reading this single line, I have so many questions.

What tools did they build or operate to "generate" new clients? What were the "solutions"? What made them appropriate? How many new clients were won? Over what time period? What was the rate of new-client acquisition?

Here are a few more, pulled from similar sources:

Coordinated and facilitated weekly meetings between department leads, and provided timely reports and updates across business teams.

Managed both customer and account data entry by inputting, reviewing, and updating information on multiple databases while ensuring client confidentiality.

Despite being quite verbose, each statement leaves me with only a vague, cloudy impression of what skills this person has, or what future endeavors they might aim for.

The "Meta Resume"

Often in the process of writing (and editing post hoc), the intended point gets lost in our own translation and re-translations of what we write.

Our word choice can sometimes get in the way of the thing we mean to say. And this problem is especially bad when we write about ourselves. We're too close to the subject. It's hard to be objective.

Writing is additionally challenging because it's easy to conflate two distinct processes:

  • What we actually intend to say.
  • The best way to express it.

Deciding what we intend to say typically involves answering the following questions:

  • What is the exact list of all relevant skills that I possess?
  • Which skills should I emphasize?
  • What relevant personal traits will I demonstrate?

And choosing how we say it involves a slightly different process:

  • What specific roles and experiences best exhibit my skills?
  • What verbs and adjectives describe the type of person I am?

Weaving these concerns together creates a breeding ground for the type of fluff we saw in the examples at the top.

Separating what from how converts the writing exercise into a thinking exercise.

The thought process of separating "what" from "how" is sometimes called a "framework."

So here is our new framework. We are going to make 3 short lists:

  1. List all of the skills you are most proud of. The more specific, the better. For example, outbound lead generation is better than "Sales" because it is more specific.

  2. List all of the personal traits that you think make you a great hire. The more specific, the better. "Nice" is... well, nice, but empathetic to end users goes a longer way in a software startup.

  3. Loosely list several "work experiences" that you can most easily remember. Often they are seared into your memory, because they were exciting, stressful, etc. Unlike the first two, you don't have to be super detailed with this list yet. Just summarize them with brief names so you remember which is which.

These lists are the outline to your outline.

The simple list conception of resume writing we discussed earlier, behind the scenes, is built up from these distinct lists.

We are separating the process of writing the resume itself (the "real" outline) from the decisions we make about what stuff about ourselves we actually want to demonstrate on the sheet of paper.

Maintain them both, and always keep them close together but physically separated (as in, same folder, but distinct documents).

Any time you change or update one of your three lists, you now have a simple question to ask yourself:

Does my current resume reflect these lists adequately? Are my priorities met? Are my strongest skills at the forefront?

We just made our lives a little bit easier: instead of judging our end-product as a reflection of ourselves, we're only judging it as a portrayal of our lists.

Hopefully that situation is a little less anxiety inducing. It certainly was for me!

Once you've thought up a few items for each of your three lists, we can start talking about what to do with them.

© 2020 Ryan Prinz