Overused Words Every Executive Résumé Should Avoid

Ever fallen in love with a word or phrase, only to discover that everyone else is loving it, too? A word we all seem to be loving a bit too much right now is "amplify," so it's only a matter of time before it ranks on one of the interweb's "most overused business phrases" lists. 

In case you've been living under a rock, here are just a few of those fun lists:

Even finance has gotten in on the action, with Ben Carlson writing "Words & Phrases That Should Be Banished From Finance." I've shared that post with more than one CFA.

Too many of these lists, and we'll all be staring at blank pages with nothing left to say. But there's merit to rethinking how we communicate. In my line of work, I walk a sometimes-treacherous line because in some cases a client needs specific keywords and phrases to be ranked and readable by an applicant tracking systems. At the same time, s/he really shouldn't sound like every other person in the business world. If three equally qualified CTOs were lined up alongside each other, all using the same written language, how could we differentiate them? 

There's something to be said for having a point of view and sticking to it.

That said, I’ve had countless clients present me with a first crack at developing their professional brand, and even the most pedigreed people in the world will use words that are so overused that they've lost their meaning.

It underscores a fairly consistent problem: human beings tend to want to fit in. As such, we tend to mimic each other, and ultimately fall into patterns. Which ultimately lack originality, and soon fall on deaf ears. And then become fodder for jokes, mockery, and side-eyes.

But before I hop my high horse and present my own list of no-no words, I should mention that I sometimes fall prey to my own favorite words. Which I mention because this post isn't meant to be judgey. I'm simply an idea partner in this bigger thing we call persuasive writing. And yup, I suspect "idea partner" will someday be a no-no word.

Here's my list of words and phrases executives (and their résumés) should avoid:

Highly-motivated

If you weren't, you wouldn't be in your current company/role.

Organized

Same. If you weren't organized, you wouldn't be where you are. (I'll use the word "same" to drive home this point below.)

Detail-oriented

Same. Arguably, some senior leaders are not, but then they shouldn’t be stating it anyway. They should have people to take care of the details, or be in roles where the details don’t matter. Nonetheless, “detail-oriented” is better shown than stated.

Results-driven

Show them, rather than tell them.

Demonstrated ability

Same story, same song.

Skilled (or Particularly Skilled)

Just because it doesn't make it so. You've got to give more.

Deliver results/optimal results

Again, show the results rather than telling that there are some. One could, however, talk about optimization in terms of team efficiency, productivity, etc. In all cases, though, is should be material to the story, not simply a claim without evidence. 

Proven

Trust me, this one makes most recruiters, hiring entities, and résumé writers roll their eyes wildly. Let your breadth of work and contributions to business do the proving. 

Effective

Same.

Accomplished

Do I sound like a broken record? Show it, don't state the obvious, or worse, suggest that the opposite is true by showing nothing.

Highly effective

Surely there are more inspiring descriptors!

Multi-tasking

I like using “prioritizing” for this one when it pops up, e.g., “prioritizing and mapping" to business needs.

Demanding environments

I prefer talking about the kind of environments (e.g., public companies, highly regulated practice areas), rather than simply stating that they are demanding environments. Demand levels will often be self-evident because of the company’s profile or your seniority. The sheer (but simply expressed) scope of one’s work should say enough.

Impeccable (and other hyperbolic adjectives)

Yes, your job is to show yourself in the best light, but sometimes things can just go too far. Even if your career, skill set, and valued insights are beyond reproach, there's something to be said for modesty. If you really love inflated language, have someone else write a recommendation about you and ask them to use words like "impeccable." You might just find that asking someone to write about your impeccability frames the very reason you shouldn't use it. (This dovetails with another sticky question: "Should You Call Yourself a 'Thought Leader' On LinkedIn?")

Now, you might rightly ask: “If those are your ‘no-no’ words, Jared, why do so many show up in every other job description?” Ah, yes. A classic conundrum when it comes to the hiring world and its weaknesses, and it'd be a huge digression if I addressed it entirely here.

Here's the quick answer:

Remember how human nature leans toward copying everyone else (a la "nothing is new under the sun," "imitation is the sincerest form of flattery")? Also, when you think about it, writing a job description is probably lowest-of-the-low on most people's "this is fascinating work" totem pole.

Combined, that means that job descriptions are filled with recycled language, which is then dumped into candidate résumés—a feedback loops that ultimately creates into a mighty loud echo chamber. 

Here's what I suggest:

When thinking about including keywords and phrases in your rrésumé that will satisfy the applicant tracking system, lean toward the hard skills listed in the job description, rather than descriptors and traits. When thinking about writing good content for the human reader, be yourself.