How to Tell a Story With Your Resume

As a job seeker, your resume tells the story of your career as it relates to your target role. It is the personal marketing document that positions you as the perfect fit for the job you know is perfect for you.

Your resume is epic. More importantly, it is your epic. Think of it as an enthralling narrative that documents the heroic deeds and the grand adventures of your professional life-the true story of how you got where you are today.

Of course, while your resume should tell your story, it’s not an autobiography.

Employers want to know at a glance where you’ve come from and how you can help them get where they’re going — meaning it’s vital to trim out the fluff, catering your tale to its audience and focusing on the parts that chronicle your job progression and accomplishments relevant to the position at hand.

Not sure where to start? By breaking things down into the five essential elements of a good story, you can transform your tired, old resume into the epic tale of your career.

1. The Characters

The most important element of any story is the characters — they draw you in, get you talking, and make you want to keep reading. But while you are the protagonist, you may be surprised to find that there are a few supporting characters you’ll want to keep in mind when drafting your resume, too.

Let’s start with the basics: 

The Hero

All great tales need a hero-and in your resume, that hero is you. Don’t be bashful: Now’s your chance to share your journey, the highlights reel of your professional life. 

To accomplish this, you first need to know where you’re coming from. Make a list of your proudest achievements as a professional:

  • What are the biggest projects you’ve worked on?
  • The toughest challenges you’ve overcome?

In a resume, it’s important not just to outline your past, but also to look to the future.

  • What do you want in your career?
  • What is compelling you to seek new employment right now?

The answers to these common interview questions will help you set the tone for your resume and ensure you’re working toward a single, specific goal.  

Your Potential Employer

While your resume is your place to shine, you aren’t the most important person to impress. Just as crucial as including what you’ve done in your resume is including what you can do for the potential employer.

Take a look at the job listing to discern exactly what the company is looking for in a candidate, whether that’s a top-notch salesperson, a witty copywriter, or a compassionate customer service representative, and use your resume to make the case that you are the perfect fit for the role. 

Secondary Characters: Your Previous Employers 

When it comes to your resume, the secondary cast members are your previous employers-those who got you where you are today, who taught you new tricks and helped you gain experience so you can now meet the expectations of recruiters.

When drafting your resume, consider how these secondary characters had an impact on you as a professional, and how you impacted their bottom line as an employee.

Background: Schools and Professional Affiliations

Lastly, it’s time to delve far into the background of our hero’s origin story: Where did you get your start?

Whether it was an Ivy League university or a local trade school, this is where your alma mater gets a chance to shine.

Include your education history and other professional affiliations at the end of your resume to provide a backdrop for all of your achievements to this point — and don’t forget to include any new certifications or training you completed along the way. 

2. The Premise or Setting

If the characters are the “who” of your resume, the setting is the “where.” What is the context in which your story takes place? What environmental factors are impacting your job search?

When establishing the setting of your story, consider things like:

  • Physical location. Are you looking for a remote position? Do you need to be in the same city, state, or country as your employer?
  • Time. What hours are you comfortable working? Are you OK with long or late hours? Do you need a flexible schedule?
  • Current market conditions. What is the state of the job market? Is unemployment high in your target industry right now? How sought after are the types of positions you are targeting?
  • Lifestyle. Is there a particular lifestyle associated with the position at hand? Will you need to travel? Advocate certain products or services? Ascribe to a specific philosophy or value system?
  • Cultural influences. What types of corporate cultures help you thrive? What values do you want the organization you work for to demonstrate?

3. The Plot

Now that you have fleshed out your characters and considered the environment in which your story is taking place, it’s time to work on the plot.

There are six main aspects to a good plot:

Plot Structure: Your Resume Format

Every good story starts with a solid foundation. When it comes to your resume, that means adhering to current structure and formatting standards. 

For a typical one — or two — page resume, there should be three main sections: You’ll begin with an overview or summary of your career, follow with a professional experience section, and finish with your education and other credentials.

Related: How to Write a Resume for the First Time

Setting the Scene: Your Professional Summary

The first section of your resume, your professional summary provides the exposition needed to set the scene, establishing your current job situation and giving insight into your writing style. 

When drafting the opening epithet, think about what key experiences and skills you want to highlight.

Action: Your Professional Experience

Now, it’s time to jump into action. The action in a story is usually prompted by an inciting incident; in your resume, the inciting factor is your desire to move up — or in a new direction — in your career.

It may be because you’ve gained new qualifications or because you’re looking for increased job satisfaction, but whatever the reason, the experience section of your resume is your place to show why you feel you’re ready to take the next step.

In this part of your resume, you’ll describe your encounters with secondary characters — your previous employers — in reverse chronological order.

Include a brief overview of the scope and main responsibilities of your previous positions before listing your most impactful and relevant accomplishments. 

Of course, don’t forget that this isn’t an autobiography; your work history should only detail the last 10 to 15 years, and in some cases, can also be curated to show only your most relevant employment.

Related: How Far Back Should a Resume Go

Story Climax: Your Accomplishments

The climax of a story is the height of the action-the moment the entire plot has been leading up to. On your resume, this refers to your professional accomplishments or the successes you’ve seen that show you’re qualified for the position at hand.

For each of your positions, identify the impact you had on your organization. What do you consider your most important contributions to the team? Think about how you may have saved the organization money, time, or other resources. Perhaps you increased revenue or forged new partnerships.

In each case, create a bullet below the job description that briefly describes what you did, why you did it, and what the specific results of your actions were.

Falling Action: Your Education and Credentials

After the climax of the story, a good storyteller resolves any loose ends and subplots. For us, this refers to the education and credentials section of your resume, where you’ll list any degrees or certifications you’ve completed.

This section can also be used to highlight relevant technical skills, professional affiliations, and volunteer work, as appropriate. If these areas are critical to your credibility and qualifications, they can also be separated into distinct sections for readability. 

Resolution: Your Cover Letter

The final part of a good plot is the wrap-up. The end of your story is what you want to stick with your readers the longest. However, instead of at the end, the culmination of a good resume can be found in your cover letter.

A good cover letter provides your reader with a sneak peek of all the riches your story holds, and makes them want to dig deeper into you as a candidate.

Related: What Is the Difference Between a Resume and Cover Letter?

Customize your letter for each position you’re applying to by making clear what’s drawing you to the company and highlighting your most relevant qualifications and work experience.

In addition, pull in a few accomplishments from your resume to keep your personal branding consistent or draw special attention to specific successes or projects.

4. The Prose

The sentence structure you employ and the word choices you make are also key parts of your application documents. Like any story, the prose sets the tone of your resume, and that means letting the reader know you mean business by following a set of fairly strict rules.

First, your resume should be written from your perspective in a first-person narrative; however, in an important divergence from your favorite novel, resumes are written in implied first person.

This means that personal pronouns like “I” and “we” are left out. For example, instead of writing, “I built a top-performing team,” you’ll simply include a bullet point that says, “Built a top-performing team.”

In addition, when drafting your resume, be sure to take into account not just the position requirements, but also the overall readability of your document. Recruiters are people, too, and they’re often swamped with CVs to read.

To catch their attention, your resume should be concise, interesting, and easy to scan quickly. Bogging things down with long paragraphs or endless bullet points won’t do anything to advance your cause.

Related: How to Make Your Resume Stand Out

Lastly, take care when choosing your words. Avoid jargon, acronyms, and tired, cliched points like: you “went above and beyond” or you’re a “good communicator.”

Use your thesaurus to help you lead each sentence of your resume with an accurate action verb that clearly describes the outcome of your activities: You may have “directed” a big and profitable project, “streamlined” company communication, or even “secured” a 10% increase in sales over the year prior.

5. The Theme

Finally, every good story has a theme-the main takeaway. In the world of literature, many of the greatest works have focused on themes like coming of age, finding “true love,” and triumphing over evil. 

When writing your resume, consider what ideas you want to leave the reader with: What story are you telling? What’s your goal in crafting a resume in the first place?

You might be telling the tale of a recent college graduate looking for their first big break, or the narrative of an experienced professional who’s ready to take the next step in their career. Perhaps you’re even embarking on an entirely new journey in a totally different career path.

Whatever your situation, think about how you want to be perceived by the employer or recruiter perusing your resume, and make sure that theme shines through in every line you write.

The Denouement

Whatever your story, this is your chance to tell it in your words — so don’t be shy.

By weaving in the elements of every classic tale and making yourself the shining star, you’ll ensure recruiters know from the moment you apply that you’re ready to start the next chapter of your professional life.

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Website: Virtual Vocations

Laura Spawn is the CEO and co-founder of Virtual Vocations, the web’s No. 1 hand-screened, all-telecommute job board. Alongside her brother, Laura founded Virtual Vocations in February 2007 with one goal in mind: connecting job seekers with legitimate telecommute job openings. Laura lives in Oregon with her husband, three children, and two dogs, Ivy and Jilly.