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The Powerful Words That Should Always Be on Your Resume and Cover Letter
Terri Williams image
Terri Williams

"Words aren’t just strings of alphabets sewn together with ink," writes The Persuasion Revolution. "Words are cues. Words are triggers. Words when used correctly can transform an 'eh whatever' into 'wow that’s it!' Words can make you go from literally ROFL to fuming with fury to an uncontrollable-urge-to-take-action-NOW-or-the-earth-may-stop-swinging -on-its-axis. And [some] are capable of transforming an absolute no into almost yes and a 'perhaps' into 'for sure!'"

The article explains that, "when you are trying to sell people a solution, what you are REALLY doing is evoking desire by making them imagine their best possible future with your solution.

"When you are trying to get them to take an action (like, share, subscribe, buy) what you are REALLY doing is arousing them (not THAT way… get your mind out of the gutter) to make it impossible for them NOT to take an action.

"When you are trying to get people to click and read your article, what you are REALLY doing is evoking curiosity so fierce that it claws at the minds of a casual browser and forces him to click that link and read that piece.

"When you are trying to get someone to agree with you, what you are REALLY doing is trying to evoke empathy so they see your point of view."

It then shares a list of 380 power words. But before getting to them, it explains that there are important steps you must first take in order to make the most of these power words.

"Step One: Determine the desired action you want your prospect to take (e.g. like, share, read, subscribe, comment, buy etc.)," it reads. "Step Two: Determine the exact emotional state that will drive that action (e.g. curious, relaxed, fearful, inspired etc.). Step Three: Choose some of the words from this list and sprinkle ‘em throughout your content."

Powerful words have a place in your job applications, too.

Madeleine Bury of The Balance explains: "If you're wondering how much of a difference word choice can make, just consider which of these two responses makes a better impression: 'I helped brainstorm ideas for campaigns' or 'I generated ideas that were used in award-winning, successful campaigns.' Both answers are reasonable, but one conveys significant accomplishments, and the other is a bit forgettable."

She says that, the word "helped" in the first answer is vague and, to an interviewer, this could mean that you presented a list of powerful ideas — but it could also signify that you were "a near-silent participant on a conference call to discuss the campaign." The second option, however, removes the vague verb ("helped") and replaces it with a more active-oriented option.

"Plus, powerful adjectives are added; not only did you come up with ideas, but they were good ones!" she writes.

Of course, using power words on your resume and cover letter to even get you the interview in the first place is equally important.

Although the economy is getting better, the job market is still tight enough that you’ll face stiff competition for “good” jobs, and will need to put your best foot forward. During the application process, this requires a resume and cover letter that not meets, but exceeds, expectations. This includes using the “right words” to demonstrate your skills and abilities.

However, opinions vary on those exact words, so we gathered input from a variety of experts to help you make the right decision.

Applicant Tracking System (ATS) Keywords

Have you ever applied for a job that you weren’t even slightly qualified for? If so, you’re not alone — millions of people apply for jobs without even a fraction of the skills and abilities listed in the job description. As a result, the vast majority of large companies have implemented some sort of Applicant Tracking System (ATS) to weed out people who don’t let a small detail like being unqualified stop them from applying for jobs.

“Adding the right key words on your resume and cover letter is essential for you to pass through the system to be considered for the job,” according to Jayne Mattson, senior vice president of Keystone Associates

So how would you know which keywords the ATS will accept? Mattson recommends reviewing a handful of job descriptions that fit the role you’re applying for. “Also, if your title does not match the job description, but your skills and experience do, make sure you have the exact title somewhere in your resume and cover letter, since the job title would be one of the keywords the company would include in their search,” Mattson says. 

Specific and General Keywords

While many of the exact keywords you should use will vary by industry and job description, there are also general keywords that should be included for any position.

“On the specific side: if you are applying to any sort of technical position (whether in IT, Product, Marketing, Operations, or otherwise), make sure you include the specific tools in your toolkit,” advises Leela Srinivasan, CMO of Lever. “I wouldn’t hire a Marketing Operations person, for instance, who didn’t mention specific marketing automation tools and credentials on the resume.”

In the general category, Srinivasan recommends using such words as collaborative, team-oriented, data-driven, and curious.

“Also, without misrepresenting who you are, it might be worth tailoring your resume to reflect the parts of your target company’s mission, vision, and values that you identify with most strongly — those assets are often found on the company’s website.”

It’s important to make sure that you’re including action verbs.

“They will show the employer that you weren't a bystander but proactively addressed a challenge or problem and resolved it,” says Jessica Holbrook Hernandez, president and CEO of Great Resumes Fast.

Some of her action verbs are accelerated, championed, dominated, generated, leveraged, maximized, lowered, simplified or revitalized. While she’s not against using the word “teamwork,” Hernandez doesn’t advice applicants to lean on this word too much, because she says it can be viewed negatively by hiring managers. 

“Try using words that show you take charge. Use words that highlight your leadership skills: piloted, ignited, negotiated, coached, mentored, transformed, unified or won are all great options,” she says.

However, Monique Frost, director of career and professional development at Miami University's Farmer School of Business, agrees with Srinivasan that it’s important to highlight collaborative and teamwork skills.

Frost says that according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, the top five skills employers seek on a candidate’s resume include the following:

“When I advise students on resume writing, I recommend that they complete a self-assessment of the skills they possess, and use words and language that correlate with the top skills employers are seeking,” Frost says, adding that these skills include: 

  • Analyzed
  • Collaborated
  • Communicated
  • Led
  • Oversaw/Managed/Supervised 

Power Words That Will Get You Anything You Want

"There are words and then there are powerful words, words that get you what you want when you want it," writes Inc. writer Lolly Daskal. Here are some of the words she suggests you incorporate.

1. You

"In a Yale study, you ranked as the No. 1 most influential power word in English. You shows compassion and empathy, which are at the heart of persuasive speech. The only way to boost the power of you is by using the person's name. You know it's true.

2. Imagine

The word imagine expands the idea of what's possible. Imagine you've won the lottery. Imagine you have the funding you're seeking. Imagine living in your ideal house. It's a word that opens opportunity--a word that says to skip all the worries. It bypasses critical thinking and goes straight to what feels good.

3. Act

"Nothing is more powerful than action. When people act to make things happen, they move themselves closer to what they want — regardless of the outcome." 

4. Because

"The power of because lies on two fronts. For logical thinkers, there is great appeal in connecting cause and effect. But because works on emotions, too. If someone's in line  at Starbucks and asks to cut in front, the likely answer is no. But if that stranger adds '... because my child is waiting for me outside,' people are far more likely to say yes. Stating a reason helps people connect logically and emotionally."
"If you know the right words, you can just about get anything you want," she writes. "Power words are the secret weapon of persuasion."

The Importance of LinkedIn

Over 530 million people use LinkedIn, and at least 128 million of those users reside in the U.S. The social media platform provides an easy, one-step process for applying to the more than three million jobs listed on the site at any given time, and it also provides cues for choosing the right keywords to use on your resume and cover letter.

(BTW: If you’re not on LinkedIn, consider creating a profile as soon as possible. The vast majority of recruiters use the site to find qualified job candidates.)

Hernandez recommends that applicants include at least the top 15 keywords for your industry and profession on your resume and cover letter.

“Also, these same 15 skills are extremely important when candidates apply for positions on LinkedIn,” she says. “LinkedIn highlights the top 15 skills the applicant possesses and alerts the employer that they're a fit based on these endorsed skills.” 

Other Considerations

If you’re applying for a job that does not require employees to work onsite, don’t forget to include your ability to be productive while working independently at a separate location. “If you have any previous experience working in a flexible or remote office environment (even casually), you need to include those keywords on your resume,” according to Brie Weiler Reynolds, senior career specialist at FlexJobs. “Words like remote job, flexible schedule, flexible office environment, and related skills like independent work and self-managed can alert employers offering remote and flexible jobs that you've got the experience it takes to be successful in a remote position.”

There are also other types of skills that are in hot demand, and if you have them, be sure that they’re included and highlighted.  Nicole Cox, chief recruitment officer at Decision Toolbox, describes four specific skills:

  • Data analysis: Data analytics are big in all organizations. Companies are relying on data to help them improve their offerings.  
  • Foreign languages: This is very unique and can help you have an edge over the next candidate.
  • Risk assessment and risk management: Every company works hard to bring business in the door and doesn’t want to see it leave. Having this skill means you can help prevent this from happening.
  • Technical skills: Excel, Wordpress, CRM - particularly Salesforce - are hot ticket skills, so highlight those that make sense for that role.

Finally, if you’re applying for more than one position, it might be tempting to create a generic resume and cover letter that you can effortlessly send to a variety of companies. However, this is not a good strategy. “The most successful resumes and cover letters are tailored for each specific job application,” according to Chaim Shapiro, director of the Office for Student Success at Touro College.

“The goal of your resume is to convince the hiring manager that you have the skills that make you the perfect person to meet their needs.”

Shapiro recommends websites like Wordle that help you to create word clouds. “Creating a word cloud based on a job description or a series of job descriptions for similar positions allows you to tailor your resume and cover letter and include the most ‘powerful’ keywords for your application.”

And Now, a Keyword Naysayer

One person who doesn’t put any stock in “the right words” is Grant Findlay-Shirras, co-Founder of Parkbench.com. “The hiring managers at Parkbench know that there are tons of articles online that give you words to use in your resume, and universities try to help you with your resume to make it ‘sound’ as good as possible – we know this because we’ve done it ourselves.”

As a result, Findlay-Shirras says his team assumes that every resume is filled with untruths.

“Literally, we think everyone is lying or exaggerating on their resume, so the only things we look at are numbers and results that we can do a reference check on if need be.” He says they also look at the culture, “Because you can’t fake the person you became inside the culture of the company where you worked.”

Also, Findlay-Shirras says his company doesn’t like for job candidates to use big words.

“If you try to use big words in your resume or cover letter to sound smart, we don’t like you - we like simple people who just get results.”

However, he does agree that applicants should create a personalized cover letter.

“Just be you, be honest, speak the way you speak, and the right company that’s the right fit for you, will hire you,” Findlay-Shirras concludes.  

Books on Power Words

1. Powerful Words: Discover Your Secret Language for Personal Success and Maximizing Impact Through Emotional Connections by Clark Gaither Dr. (author) and Dan Miller (foreword) is a great resource for those looking to read upon the power of power words. 

"Are you ready to give your words the power to change lives?" the books asks of readers. "Imagine your communication moving people on a deep, emotional level, and catalyzing them to take action. Imagine delivering your closing line in a talk and bringing the crowd to their feet for a standing ovation. That is the promise of Powerful Words. To help you discover your secret language for personal success and maximizing impact through emotional connections. So dive in and begin your journey to more powerful communication with Powerful Words!"

2. Dictionary of Emotions: Words For Feelings, Moods, and Emotions by Patrick Michael Ryan is another great source for anyone looking to learn more about how words affect us in general. 

"Are you feeling elated, or are you more enraptured?" the book asks of readers. "Are you a bit glum, or is it more like melancholy? The words we use to express emotions are as plentiful and nuanced as the feelings those words describe. Dictionary of Emotions: Words for Feelings, Moods, and Emotions is a comprehensive reference book of such terms. The book’s accompanying definitions are based on the context of feeling and are intended to be a starting point to help shape an individual’s interpretation of both the word and their experience. Psychologists, therapists, actors, authors, and those who are associated with these fields will find Dictionary of Emotions an invaluable communication tool. The book will help anyone seeking to enhance their emotional intelligence with a vocabulary of emotional awareness and expression."

3. Emotional Intelligence 2.0 by Travis Bradberry (author), Tom Parks (narrator), Jean Greaves (author) and Brilliance Audio(publisher) is another great resource on the broader umbrella subject of emotional intelligence. 

"By now, emotional intelligence (EQ) needs little introduction — it’s no secret that EQ is critical to your success. But knowing what emotional intelligence is and knowing how to use it to improve your life are two very different things," reads the book's description. "Emotional Intelligence 2.0 delivers a step-by-step program for increasing your emotional intelligence using the four core EQ skills—self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management — to exceed your goals and achieve your fullest potential. For the first time ever in a book, Drs. Bradberry and Greaves unveil TalentSmart’s revolutionary program to help people identify their EQ skills, build these skills into strengths, and enjoy consistent performance in the pursuit of important life objectives. This audiobook contains proven strategies from a decade-long effort to accurately measure and increase emotional intelligence. Trusted by upper-echelon leaders inside companies worldwide, these strategies will enable you to capitalize on the skills responsible for 58 percent of performance in all types of jobs."

Powerful words have soul and spirit. They have ways to elicit emotions — positive emotions or negative ones — thoughts and feelings. A single word can change one's thoughts; it can be so persuasive and have so much power that, in time, that single word could change one's mind. Which means that how you word things could make or break your job application.

What's a power word or power phrase often used in your life that's not already among the aforementioned power words? Why is it persuasive to you, perhaps more so than other power words? In what ways does this power word elicit thoughts and emotions in your life?


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