Vague language undercuts strong responses

As a Mental Nutritionist I have a strong interest in how people use language to make sense of what they have to offer an employer.

One way to diminish the quality of an application or interview is use habitual language patterns that result in vague, unclear responses. I find people slip into ways of expressing themselves that reduce their contribution and describe activity in generalities rather than specific behaviours that drive useful action.

These are some of the less helpful language patterns I’ve observed:

‘required to’: Writing about one’s role with sentences like this. ‘As a team leader I am required to conduct performance reviews.’ Words are precious in criteria responses. You can’t afford to waste words on unnecessary details. Most people only do work they are required to do, so drop these words and like directly to the action. ‘As a team leader I conduct performance reviews.’

‘ would have’: Talking about past actions with sentences like this: ‘As a team member I would have helped out during peak work periods.’ There is no certainty about this statement. The words ‘would have’ serve no purpose. Talk directly about what you did do. “As a team leader I helped out during peak work periods.’

General description: Talking about past action in general rather than specific terms, often using the above patterns. For example, a question about dealing with a challenging team colleague is expressed as follows: ‘I have been required to work with several teams during my experience. I would have noticed when people were busy, offered to help, and provided support when needed.’ This will not work as a response to a behavioural question. A specific example needs to be used that gives details of the situation or context, actions taken to deal with the particular challenge, and results that flowed from the actions.

Activity rather than value: Talking in detail about what you have done may be useful during an interview, however a selection panel is also interested in how you will contribute, what benefit an organisation will gain from a person with your particular portfolio of skills, knowledge, experience and qualities. This means being able to speak the language of benefit and value. How will your skills be of use in the context of the role? How do you see yourself contributing to the work of the section?

Passive sentences where the actor is unclear or missing: You need to be the actor in your stories. If you write indirect sentences you may drop out of the picture leaving the reader unsure as to who did what. Consider this example.

‘In my role as Customer Contact Officer I am involved with many clients and am required to provide confidential client-focused quality service on a daily basis. I am required to conduct an advisory visit outlining the client’s responsibilities. The visit requires me to research the business and prepare a report. For example, a report was prepared for a client who was not meeting grant requirements. The report was reviewed and following changes the client reviewed their commitments and made changes to their business operations.’

Notice that in the middle of this story the actor drops out. Who prepared the report? Who reviewed the report? Notice too the number of times ‘required’ is used and vague verbs like ‘involved’. To rectify this example, write active sentences where you are the main actor taking the actions described.

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.