Bullish: Personality Qualities That Are Way More Important Than Anything on Your Resume

Public Speaking, Including Responding to Questions — At my alma mater, there was no public speaking department, but there was a single public speaking professor who taught persuasive and expository speaking. These classes were very popular and among the few on campus that had wait lists. Yet, Dartmouth canceled the classes and let the professor go because the administration deemed, in its infinite wisdom, that public speaking was not “academic.” (Tell that to the ancient Greeks.) The College has since seen the error of its ways and, after a years-long hiatus, hired a new speech professor.

During the very time that the public speaking class in which I was enrolled was on the chopping block, I was learning HTML and graphic design and systematically contacting every campus department and asking whether they needed someone to make their website. Sometimes I responded to job postings. Either way, I ended up in interview after interview. Now, Dartmouth had a well-regarded computer science department; I’m certain I didn’t have the best resume on campus. Yet I got every single gig. I prepped talking points in advance and discovered that a particular favorite among the middle-aged women administrators interviewing me was, “I can add special code to the website so that blind people will be able to access it with speech browsers.” This was true, and was not difficult to do in 1997, but was probably not something my competitors found a way to work into the conversation. It is important to be able to speak fluently and cogently on the spot.

Later, when I ran my own company, I never paid for advertising; I held events, and gave speeches about what it was our company did. I didn’t give sales pitches; I actually just brain-dumped everything I knew about internet marketing, allowing people to take notes and get all the “inside information.” They generally then decided that they’d rather I did all that stuff for them, because it really was kind of a lot. And I’ve kept doing this ever since; I give college admissions talks at libraries and for PTAs. If public speaking sounds like a chore, it’s a lot better than most other methods of selling.

Why do we have young people write paper after paper, totally ignoring the fact that talking is at least as important as writing in adult life? Why is paper writing an integral part of school, while the debate team is an extracurricular activity? Why don’t we make students defend their ideas verbally prior to the graduate level, when we suddenly spring a thesis defense on them? If we’re going to make students write papers about the Great Gatsby, let’s make them defend those papers verbally. Or give them an option to make a speech rather than write a paper, with the understanding that that speech needs to have a well-developed thesis and make its point via the use of three separate examples with specific references to the text (or something equivalent to the paper requirements), the point being that there’s isn’t a lower bar for cogency when you’re talking than when you’re writing. I once taught public speaking in a prison.

Lesson 1: Tell me something you think and three reasons why. I’ve seen plenty of high school students at expensive private schools who can’t tell me something they think and three reasons why.

Of course, here would be a fine place to recommend Toastmasters as a way to improve one’s public speaking, and the book I used in college, An Introduction to Rhetorical Communication (under $1 used at Amazon), as a source on persuasive technique.

Being Funny, Dynamic, and Interesting — At the company where I teach, Ivy League graduates with perfect scores on standardized tests are regularly rejected for being boring. No one wants to listen to boring people. No one wants to read anything written by boring people (please, go ahead, I am setting myself up to be called boring in the comments, thank you). When you stand up in front of a group to talk, you should not sound like Ferris Bueller’s teacher.

I’ve been doing stand-up comedy for many years, and in 2007 went to the Middle East to entertain the troops. But the amount of money I’ve made doing comedy is dwarfed by the amount of money I’ve made doing other things that people would prefer to have done by a comedian: running a spelling bee, hosting a trivia show, tutoring children, teaching adults, giving presentations, writing textbooks, writing blog posts, maintaining the company Twitter account, etc. And, pleasantly, the bar for being funny while doing most of these things is much, much lower than the bar for being funny in a comedy club. You don’t have to be a comedian to be pretty funny for an accountant, or for a teacher, etc.

If there’s a place to teach being funny or interesting in schools, it’s probably in teaching non-academic kinds of writing, such as journalism (as journalism jobs die out, the task of journalism is distributed to more people, somewhat paradoxically making high school journalism classes more, rather than less, relevant). Such a class would teach students to adopt different styles for blogs, magazines, newspapers, etc., as well as to write in an engaging but didactic style (i.e., make the 10th graders explain some difficult academic material in an interesting way to the 9th graders). Versatility in writing style is highly valuable in the adult world; oh, what variety of job interviews have been nailed by throwing in, “And I’d be happy to maintain the company Twitter account” (or blog, or newsletter).

If anyone wants suggestions, every comedy club and improv theater in town offers classes; in New York, The P.I.T. and U.C.B. are fine places to start. Improv classes are taken by a multitude of people who do not aspire to perform improv comedy. I am an introvert, yet I have a big personality that goes on display when needed. You don’t need to change who you are, but it is possible, and advisable, to learn to bring a big personality out of yourself.

Big personalities rise above the clutter of resume accomplishments that have no practical value to employers. And, of course, they’re fun to be around (see also: How Business is Like Dating), which can only help your cause.

Certainly, these are not all of the not-so-secret qualities that drive career success in a post-resume era. Come back next Thursday for “Personality Qualities That Are Way More Important Than Anything on Your Resume,” part II.

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    • Jennifer Wright

      We didn’t need to see your resume. We hired you ’cause you were real pretty.

    • porkchop

      I think you’re so right about public speaking. I’m against toastmaster’s though. I’ve seen several issues of their magazine, and heard what goes on in their meetings. They seem perfect if your aim is to de-emphasize accuracy while making your presentation hopelessly banal.

      • Jen Dziura

        Oh, thanks for the warning! Maybe I’ll start a better Toastmasters. Less Powerpoint, more beer.

    • Lilit Marcus

      I get what you’re saying about writing, but hey – some of us use our writing skills every day! And by some of us I mean “people who write things on the internet for a living.”

      • Jen Dziura

        I certainly didn’t mean to say that there’s anything wrong with writing, just that people also need to speak well. What I meant to say was: everyone should be good at everything. Does that clear it up? ;)

    • Daniella

      Excellent article! It can be helpful, no matter what your profession or aim. I remember being young and hating having a personality that stuck out…I just wanted to be like everyone else. Now I realize that was my greatest asset.

    • MC

      This is a really good article. Through different interview experiences, I can definitely agree that employers look for someone who has a good personality rather than just simply hiring someone with a good resume.

      Jen, I just have to say that I recently started reading all your articles and I find that all your articles are very inspiring. I just admire you. Please keep on writing and share your knowledge with us.

      Best Regards,

    • Precision Grace

      This is a great post and a great website and I was almost crying with happiness that there are women in the world who are eloquent and intelligent and write informative and thought provoking articles but then I got distracted by something shiny.

      Anyway, that thing about pitching. Great advice. Can’t even make it work in written form. Not even in my head. And when I’m face to face with people I actually forget to speak English. Plus I’m old. Ish. Er.

      I’ve now read all the Bullish articles (in one sitting, this evening). I can’t wait for the next one.

      Today, I was at an interview for a part-time job and the lady Professor interviewing me demanded to know why I had not put references on my resume. (the job interview was arranged through an agency). She had had to ring up a colleague in one of the other University departments where I had worked (and where her husband also works and who presumably asked around until he chanced on someone who remembered me from the 3 month stint I did for them last year) and was very pleased with the report she received but continued to berate me for further five minutes demanding to know why I haven’t put my references on my resume! (the agency should have sent them over really but they are ..um.. not always that efficient, let’s say – I had to double check the date for the interview as they’ve written the right day but the wrong date in the confirmation email. Don’t judge them, they get paid peanuts.)
      When she’d finally paused for breath long enough for me to get a word in, I explained that the main reason I don’t put my references on my resume is because it would make it three pages long and as it is not an academic resume this would be ridiculous. Ah! Of course, of course, she said, probably remembering, at long last, that she was interviewing a potential personal assistant, not a new graduate researcher.
      Anyway, sorry for the ramble, I don’t have any friends.

      • Colleen

        Really, MC? That’s a bit strange that the interviewer did that to you. Where I live, it is standard to not include references, and only provide them following an interview. Plus, as an interviewer, if you contact someone not specifically listed as a reference by the candidate, it may be considered a breach of privacy, and then your company could be in a load of trouble.

    • Katiej

      I don’t know who MC is – - – Hi MC – - – but I have to agree with his/her comments. This is a really interesting thought-provoking article. Great work, Jen.
      Having watched too many families obsess over the “perfect” resume, I wish they had put the same amount of effort into encouraging their children’s life skills and hunger for their chosen career paths. My only quibble – I don’t think great pitching always equals an article published.

    • Colleen

      Great article! Part of my job involves interviewing and hiring new employees, and let me tell you, some of the interviews I have conducted have been horrific. If you have a strong resume (written in English as opposed to text-speak is a good start), you get an interview with me. Then, the real work begins, as you have to prove that you have a brain and a personality and can be a responsible, dependable employee. I have seen some interviewees go completely blank on the simplest questions, which have made me wonder if they ever did any of the things listed on their resumes–the bullshit meter sometimes goes off the scale. For my workplace, your degree doesn’t matter as much as what you have done in the past, your willingness to learn new things, your approach to probem-solving and a good attitude.

    • Jan Morgan

      This is probably the best read I’ve had in a very long time about “personality” versus a resume. You are absolutely spot on regarding creating doors and pitching. I did this for people before the internet because it is so effective and I always got them something beyond their expectations. Creativity and research is so key if you take the time to take control of your life.

    • georgeelliot

      Another wonderful and insightful post from Jen Dziura. Your point about the importance of personality reminds me of something I read not too long ago about the lower incidence of malpractice suits against doctors who underwent personality training. Though it’s perfectly obvious to anyone who thinks about it, people are much less inclined to sue someone they like, regardless of whether or not that person actually screwed up. The same goes for hiring.

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    • Anonymous ’12

      Hi Jen, great entry, I really enjoy reading your column. I am a 20-something recent grad as well, and your article is one of the many I’ve been coming across lately about the gap between grads’ high expectations and the reality of entry-level jobs. One phrase got me confused though: you mentioned that many hiring managers “simply don’t like the the personality qualities on display from these young people.” Can you elaborate on these qualities? I’m just a little confused on what you’re arguing for. Is it that companies these days think new grads are too arrogant, have too high expectations that snub most entry-level job, and not enough skills to actually do the job well? That was my first guess, but if you could clarify, that’d be great, as this issue is something my friends and I have all been discussing, since most people I know in my age group are dissatisfied at their first jobs.