Five word choices for applications and interviews

When it comes to presenting a case for a job, words matter.

The words you choose to explain and describe what you do can undersell you, can trigger unhelpful responses in listeners, can sound irrelevant, and even unprofessional.

To minimise making poor choices, there are some traps to watch out for. Here are five word choice details to pay attention to in your writing and speaking.

1. Strong verbs

Much of the action in your stories will be captured in the verbs you use. If you pick weak, vague, general verbs like ‘helped with’, ‘involved in’, ‘assisted with’, the chances of underselling your experience are high. Pick specific action words that accurately capture your actions. The current edition of How to Write and Talk to Selection Criteria contains a table of 275 such verbs. They include words like accelerated. cut, pioneered, trimmed, rebuilt, fixed.

2. Capability words

If selection is based on a capability framework, such as The Integrated Leadership System, you would be wise to use as much of the relevant language as possible. For the level you are applying for use the phrases and words to describe what you do. That way you are more likely to pitch to the behaviour expected of this level. My book includes a chapter explaining 61 terms from capability frameworks. For example, if you are talking about achieving results, consider covering ‘building organisational capability’,  tapping ‘professional expertise’, ‘steering change’, project implementation and ‘seeing them through to completion’. (EL1 level)

3. Job description words

In addition to the selection criteria, note words and phrases used in the job description, ones that signal key skills, experience, responsibilities. If the job description mentions ‘providing strong leadership’, then it would be wise to mention this in your application. If the job description mentions phrases like ‘builds a positive workplace culture’ or ‘implement a suite of initiatives’ then use these in your application. If you are not clear on what they mean, ask the Contact Officer.

4. Be direct

Applicants can fudge their contribution by not asserting what they have done directly. Instead of saying ‘I managed the project by anticipating potential problems and dealing with issues as they arose to keep the team to deadlines’ they write ‘during managing the project issues arose that affected the project’. Be direct and assert what you did.

5. I versus We

Another way applicants can fudge their contribution is to use ‘we’ when they need to be using ‘I’. Yes, you need to acknowledge the contribution of others and show you worked with colleagues and staff. More importantly, you need to focus on what you did, so using ‘I’ becomes critical.

Dr Ann Villiers, career coach, writer and author, is Australia’s only Mental Nutritionist® specialising in mind and language practices that help people build flexible thinking, confident speaking and quality connections with people.