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How to use advertising principles to craft a killer résumé

Heather Barnett is a freelance writer and foodie whose work has been featured in blogs, websites, magazines, and TV and radio ads. She spends her free time relaxing with her soulmate, Keith; her dog, Mosby "The Fly Slayer;" and Felix th...

Résumé need help? Here's what you can learn from advertising pros

Looking for a job? A killer résumé isn't all about grammar and qualifications. These basic principles of marketing and advertising will move your résumé to the top of the pile.

Target your audience

Try to think of yourself objectively, as a product you're selling. What problems, concerns and fears do they have (professionally speaking), and how can you fix them? What makes them happy? What makes them tick? What would make them want to buy in (to you)? Yes, these are professionals, but they're people, too. People make decisions emotionally then justify them with logic, even in a business setting.

Analyze "market research"

Most of the hours I bill for are for research time. Read the job listing carefully. What does it tell you about what they're looking for? What problem do they really need solved? Yes, they need a web designer, but if their listing says you have to work well in high-pressure situations, work quickly and learn quickly, that probably means they're short on time and need someone who can jump into the fray without much training. Look at their website and research the company online. What kinds of skills are likely to be necessary to do this job? You want your résumé to tell them you have what they need.

Target your message

Major companies have multiple ads going at the same time because they're trying to appeal to various audiences. You have to do the same thing. Every company has different needs, different problems and different goals. Get out that market research you just analyzed and adjust your résumé to reflect their unique needs, problems and goals.

Use the name of the person who's hiring on your cover letter instead of a generic salutation. Look him or her up on LinkedIn. Speaking of which, when was the last time you updated yours? 'Cause they're going to look, too. Use these same rules there.

Tailor each and every résumé and cover letter to the company and person you're sending it to. You always want to be professional, but you also don't want to send a hyper-formal résumé to a company with a laid-back corporate culture. Your résumé has to say "I fit in here."

Bonus tip: They'll also look at your Facebook and Twitter (and Pinterest and Instagram) profiles if they find them, so if you don't want them seeing any of that, make them private for the time being. Otherwise, be careful what you post. I have 100 percent gone through over a month of someone's Twitter profile to see whom I might be hiring.

Open (and close) strong

In advertising, you have to grab people's attention in an instant or you've lost them. Same with résumés. Your objective statement should tell them what you want out of this, but in a way that relates directly to them. It should say, "See, we want the same things out of life."

Since people only scan résumés, they're most likely to miss the stuff in the middle, but they'll pause when they hit the end. Do you want the last thing they read to be "references available upon request"? They know that.

Benefits, not features

Which product do you want to buy? A flexible-connectivity mobile hard drive with 1 TB of storage and 480 Mbps transfer rates? Or an ultra-portable hard drive that triples your iPhone photo space, so you can capture all your vacation memories? Would it surprise you to learn the second hard drive has less than 1 percent the storage space of the first one? The first is an example of features. They're important, but you should always be mindful of focusing on the latter: benefits.

You may have great negotiation skills, but remember that your future employer is a human being, too. What's in it for them? Instead of writing "negotiated contracts," give examples of times your negotiation skills got the job done. Focusing on benefits will help you avoid all the boilerplate language and give your potential employer a real sense of why hiring you is the best decision they can make. Save your skills section for things like unusual computer programs you know how to use.

Leverage the rule of three

People are more likely to act on information when it comes in threes (scientific fact). In advertising, we use this to get customers to actively think about buying what we're selling (that's why you see three commercials for the same product when you're watching one TV show).

When you write your résumé, focus on threes. If you only have two examples to prove you're good at something, you don't have enough evidence. If you have more than three examples, choose the best three because more than that may dilute your point.

Write and edit ruthlessly

In a typical TV spot, you have 30 seconds to communicate your point. That's about 80 words, max. Every word has to count. Use strong, powerful verbs and concise, direct sentences in active voice. Extraneous words only detract from the power of the sentence and should be cut.

Also… put down that thesaurus and step away slowly. OK, that's a little harsh, but even the government has rules about plain language now. Highfalutin words are more burdensome to read, regardless of someone's intelligence. It's OK to use the thesaurus for inspiration, but never, ever, ever use words you wouldn't normally use in conversation. Sometimes I see commercials on TV and have this image of a 65-year-old copywriter desperately searching Urban Dictionary to find out how "the kids talk these days." People can smell a lack of authenticity like blood in the water. You want to present the best version of you, not someone else entirely.

Achieve "shelf impact"

Shelf impact is the visual appeal or distinctiveness of a product when it's on the shelf (surrounded by similar products).

Make sure your résumé looks great. It should be really well formatted with enough white space to keep it from looking cluttered. Use a single, easy-to-read, non-decorative font to avoid font soup and difficulty reading. Also avoid Courier, Times New Roman or Arial (they're dated, and believe it or not, lot's of people can tell!). A pop of color is OK, but don't overdo it, and don't use it on important text (it's hard to read).

And don't forget the paper. Cheap printer paper is a no-no. If you're sharing your résumé electronically, make a PDF. A Word or Pages doc can be modified (which I've done and saved by accident and had to spend 20 minutes searching my email for the original). Plus, if you use tables or other features to help with formatting, they may see nasty lines.

More on résumé advice

Why Times New Roman is an awful font to use on your résumé
10 Common résumé errors and how to fix them
5 Effective ways to help employers find your résumé 

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