6 tips for writing kick-ass job ads that attract great graduates

MT EXPERT: Big businesses attract mediocre candidates when they write mediocre ads, says Neil Taylor of The Writer.

by Neil Taylor
Last Updated: 17 Mar 2015

Big companies have been bemoaning graduates who cut and paste their job applications and get the company’s name wrong in the process. Clearly, that’s a fairly hefty clanger to drop. But if most grads think they can send the same old CV to every job they apply for, the fault lies just as much at the door of the megabrands trying to recruit them.

That’s because most of their job ads sound every bit as formulaic as the responses they get. And they’re missing a big trick. If there’s a war for talent, your job ad is the front line: an unadventurous ad gets you unadventurous candidates.

So, how do you write an ad that actually gets an interesting response?

1.  Cut the cut and paste

Most businesses do just what their applicants do. So every business says they’re innovative. Global. Committed to the communities they serve. And, of course, that people are their most valuable asset. Blandness in, blandness out.

Instead, do as writers are often told to do: ‘show, don’t tell’. Don’t say your business is innovative – include a fact or story that proves it. Cisco, for example, talks about how they invented the router, making the internet what it is today. No need for hyperbolic adjectives there.

2.  Start with the job, not the company

Most job ads start with a load of blether about the business that’s looking for applicants. That’s important to include somewhere, but probably not right at the beginning. Start with the actual job - candidates are much more interested in that.

3.  A job ad is not a job description

HR departments are, ironically, often among the most inhuman business writers. Most job descriptions are riddled with competencies and tasks that make even the most exciting of jobs sound as dull as ditchwater. Sadly, many of those soul-destroying phrases find their way ad verbatim into the ad. So ditch them, and tell candidates what’s enticing about the job. Instead of ‘delivering against the product sustainability agenda’, how about ‘It’s your job to make the whole company greener’?

4.  Tell the truth

While you want your job ad to be appealing, you don’t want to get the wrong people applying because you’ve oversold it. If you’re honest about the bits of the job that most people would find tricky or boring, you’re much more likely to attract the right person – after all, some people love proofreading, or reconciling receipts. An old boss of mine even used to ask potential senior recruits in interviews, ‘How’s your photocopying?’ just to weed out the people who liked the idea of the job, rather than the day-to-day reality.

5.  Imagine they’re there

A good tip for avoiding the sins above is to imagine your target candidate is right in front of you. What would you actually say to them? You probably wouldn’t talk about ‘proven experience in a pressurised, high-volume service environment’. You might ask ‘Have you ever worked in a pub on a Saturday night?’ (and get a more interesting reply). Writing more like you speak will automatically cut some of the corporate platitudes and industry jargon.

6.  Use your culture as a filter

Once you’ve got what you want to say into everyday language, see if you can push it. In companies with a really strong, distinctive culture, their ads have a clear tone of voice, brimful of that spirit. So how people respond to the ad is the first filter. If people apply and pick up on that tone in what they write, chances are you should meet them in person. Miss it, and they’re straight onto the ‘no’ pile, however good their degree and however many lonely old ladies they do the shopping for in their spare time. And that first filter is a damned sight quicker and cheaper than a ton of psychometric testing or disappointing interviews.
Neil Taylor is managing partner of language consultancy The Writer and author of Brilliant Business Writing.

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