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I’m heading to Disney World with my family this month, and it is going to be an opportunity for me to revisit an earlier step in my career path. Although my postdoc was run through the University of Central Florida, I was physically based at Disney’s Animal Kingdom -- yes, that’s right, with Mickey and the gang.

You might think that a strange place to do a postdoc until I explain that my Ph.D. is in animal behavior. There are lots of real animals at the park (which is known as DAK), not just the giant-headed, costumed kind. Beyond my research into animal welfare, I learned a lot from my Disney experience and gained some great insights into the corporate world of mission statements, branding strategies, marketing campaigns and the laser-like focus that Disney has on customer service.

Some of those distinct aspects of Disney can also be relevant when it comes to thinking about your own professional branding, especially when it comes to documents like résumés.

Let’s take the idea of “theming” as an example. Yes, theming is based on the noun “theme,” which, like the word “friend,” probably should not be made into a verb. But anything is possible at Disney, and so that’s what they did. If you have been to DAK, you know it has several different environments within the park. The two main ones are Asia and Africa -- not anywhere specific in Asia or Africa, but some broad idea of what we generally envision when we think about those far-off places (or at least what Disney wants us to think).

When you walk around in Disney’s Africa -- looking at the range of fantastic wildlife, taking the safari ride and saving elephants from poachers -- you are meant to believe that you are actually there, not just in a theme park. The design of the buildings, the type of thatched roof used and the sights, sounds and smells that surround you as you browse the vibrant marketplace or wait in the train station have all been designed to help you feel that you are really there. The Disney Imagineers, those people in charge of conceptualizing and creating the Disney experience, traveled far and wide to get inspiration to use in the design of the theme park.

In Asia, you may walk through a temple as you wait for one of the rides. When the park first opened, visitors who entered some of the temple areas started to take off their shoes, because they saw a pair outside of the temple placed there as part of the theming. They didn’t have to, and Disney probably preferred they didn’t for liability/health and safety reasons, but people were buying into the theming. It seemed natural to take off their shoes in that environment.

Every object you see as you walk around DAK is there for a reason and has its own story. Perhaps the shoes are those of a local bicycle repairman, who spent the day repairing a bike that had been damaged when its owner crashed it after being chased by tigers near the old temple ruins.

So what does all this have to do with your job search? Now we are getting to the part where Disney can help you rethink your résumé.

At Disney, every object and building in the park has a rich context, but the Imagineers’ goal is for you not to notice them. The objects are not meant to stick out as something you need to look at and investigate; they are there to help you become immersed in the experience of actually being in Africa or Asia. In fact, the more you notice the trimmings, the less rich your experience becomes.

It may seem strange for the Imagineers to spend so much time on every aspect of their design only to want them to be ignored, but they realize that people value the overall experiences that they have at the end of the day more than the range of objects they have seen. They would be impressed by the objects if they realized how much thought has gone into them, but the objects are there to become the backdrop to the immersion experience, not the main parts of it.

If a career adviser has reviewed your résumé, you have probably received feedback not only about the content (your experiences) but also about the formatting (the trimmings).

  • Do you have consistent punctuation?
  • Are the hyphens between your dates the same size, with the same spacing either side of them?
  • Are the bullet points the same shape and indented to the same degree throughout the document?
  • Is the font used consistent, and is the size the same throughout the document?
  • Is there enough white space to make the document feel easy-breezy to read, or does if feel cramped and overwhelming?

But are these important issues? Will a misaligned bullet point really lose you the chance to interview for your dream job? In fact, there are some good, practical reasons to make sure your formatting is in order. If you are evenly matched in terms of experience with several candidates for a potential job, but your résumé formatting isn’t perfect, then perhaps an employer can make a short list of candidates to interview by thinking about who has the greatest attention to detail. In some jobs (think editing or medical writing), such attention is not just a bonus but also an essential requirement.

The Disney approach to thinking about your résumé helps you ensure that, by keeping employers from ever noticing the document’s formatting, they focus instead on the rich experiences and the relevant skills you’ve illustrated in it. Employers don’t really care about the formatting … until they notice an issue, and then that might be all they can think about. As soon as employers start detecting formatting issues, they are no longer concentrating on your skills and experiences -- the information that will actually get you the interview.

You don’t want employers to walk away from reading your résumé saying, “Those were some nice shapes they used in their bullet points,” or, worse, “Why don’t the bullet points line up properly?” You want them to walk away saying, “Those bullet points really illustrated how effective their analytical skills were.” You have to format your documents so impeccably that nobody even notices all the time you spent tweaking the look of the text and proofreading for spelling and grammar mistakes. You want the formatting to become the backdrop to the content you want to get across.

When employers are immersed in your skills and experiences, they will value you more. When a spelling mistake or misplaced comma interrupts that immersion, your theming is ruined and the key message that you are the most suitable candidate becomes obscured.

The relevance of the content itself is also important. If you were walking around the Africa area of Disney’s Animal Kingdom and suddenly came across theming that looked like it belonged in Asia, you would certainly notice that fact. And that is an important aspect to keep in mind as you think about how you talk about your experiences in a résumé. The more you can match your own experiences to the type of experiences that are relevant to the job for which you are apply, the easier it becomes for the employer to imagine you in the role.

You can do that by using the language of the industry or organization that interests you to describe examples of your skills in action. The best way to get a sense of what language is relevant is to have as many conversations as possible with people in the type of role for which you are applying. By being an active listener during such informational interviews, you can not only get a sense of what skills are valuable in the role but will also hear firsthand how people talk about using these skills on the job. You can then echo those descriptions when you are illustrating your skills.

Disney knows how to sell their brand and the experiences they offer. You may want to take a similar approach as you market your own skills and knowledge in pursuit of your future careers. Jambo, everyone!

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