Meet Sarah Sedo, who according to her LinkedIn profile is a food service manager at The Big Carrot. If you’ve never heard of The Big Carrot and aren’t sure what a food service manager does, Sedo’s profile won’t enlighten you right away–because, as personal branding expert and Fast Company contributor Kristi A. Dosh points out, “Sarah has allowed LinkedIn to automatically populate it with her current job.”
That’s a common mistake, says Dosh. “The headline, to me, is your chance to showcase your personal brand and really stand out in search results.” Those are two distinct yet related challenges, and they apply to the entire LinkedIn profile, not just the headline field. Unfortunately, many people fall short of both, either opting for generic, bare-bones information or leaving a lot of things blank. You want your profile to do more than just recap your resume: It needs to land in front of recruiters in the first place, then grab their attention once it does.
How do you do that? To find out, Fast Company asked three experts to size up three professionals’ LinkedIn profiles and offer a few pointers. Here’s what they said.
“I strongly encourage people to customize their headline,” says Dosh, whose own headline reads, “Publicist; Writer; Public Speaker; Corporate attorney turned national sports business analyst,” a litany of titles that already suggests the breadth of Dosh’s strengths, and hints at the career evolution that’s helped her build them.
And it’s good advice, too, considering that it’s echoed by LinkedIn’s own employees. Katharine Coombes, Asia-Pacific head of talent acquisition at LinkedIn (headline: “Visionary Talent Leader; Aspiring Mum of the Year; Speed Reader”), recommends using the headline field “to highlight skills, awards, or personal elements that would be interesting to a recruiter.”
Dosh points out that it isn’t just recruiters who use LinkedIn–potential freelance clients and even event organizers in search of speakers comb it for the right talent. And “if you simply use LinkedIn to list your jobs, and your responsibilities at those jobs, other people will define your brand for you when they check out your profile,” she says.
“Instead, use your summary to tell people exactly what you’re known for–or want to be known for–and how your past experience positions you uniquely in the marketplace. Don’t leave it to others to figure out why you changed industries or why you went from one job to the next.” Dosh points out that Sedo skipped writing a summary, as did Jonathan Ng, a software engineer whose LinkedIn page I also asked her to critique.
“His headline is a job title,” Dosh points out. “What kind of software engineer is he? Does he have a specific specialty or niche?” If you’re going to skip the summary, your headline needs to be that much more compelling, she says. “I’d include that in the headline, both so it shows up in more specific searches but also to give someone taking a quick glance a better idea of who he is.”
Tina Arnoldi, an SEO expert, explains that precision is key. Benjamin Samuel lists two titles in his headline–“Director of Programs at the National Book Foundation” and “Editor-at-Large at Electric Literature”–but Arnoldi says he still has room to tell a more coherent narrative about his career. Where Samuel’s summary reads, “Working to build community through books and literary activism,” Arnoldi asks, “How are you building community? I see a lot of job posts for community managers, meaning people who are managing online channels, so it’s important to flesh this out, since it means something different to people based on their industries.”
Many LinkedIn users save these details for the descriptions of their roles, but they don’t always paint a clearer picture when they do. Where Sedo writes that she “headed department evaluation, strategic development, and implementation of a drastic menu and service overhaul within one year’s time,” Dosh wants to know how she pulled it off and what the impact was. “For example, did the menu overhaul result in a 10% increase in revenue in the first 30 days?”
This is a common issue with resumes, too, where enumerating your job duties doesn’t always say what the impact was or what that achievement meant to you personally. But unlike a resume, your LinkedIn profile can be a lot more narrative and informal, saying something about you that your resume can’t.
This is particularly challenging for technical roles, where hard skills may feel like bigger selling points than anything else. Take one bullet under Ng’s last job, as a software engineer for Stroll Health: “Produced full-stack app in Angular, Node/Express, and Mongo, using responsive design, RESTful API, iterative development, and TDD.” Dosh says this leaves Ng’s profile feeling “very technical and sterile. I don’t get any sense of the person behind the profile. What’s his passion? Why is he in this field? What does he enjoy doing?”
She adds, “He’s really missing a key opportunity to tell his story and differentiate himself” in a competitive pool of developers who all have similar expertise. “Use the job description to give a brief introduction to their role,” she suggests, “discuss goals going into the role when possible, and then focus on achievements, not just job duties.” That can help you shift from just describing a role to describing the actual human who’s in it.
Uncomfortable talking about yourself? Let others do it for you, Coombes advises. “A recommendation on your profile from a former colleague, manager, or mentor can provide this credibility and validation.” Recommendations can also shed light on your character, she adds.
Of the three profiles under review, only Samuel’s includes a header image, but Coombes still finds room for improvement. “Your photo is your virtual handshake, and members who include a profile photo receive up to 21 times more profile views,” she says.
But “visually, Benjamin’s profile photo, banner, and media are not very engaging. I would recommend he update his banner photo to be inspiring and easier to comprehend [and] choose a clearer and more engaging headshot.”
Since LinkedIn lets users add multimedia work samples, Coombes says Samuel should do more of it. He has two media links for his role with The National Book Foundation, but no examples of his work as an editor at Electric Literature.
Dosh says even a developer like Jonathan could try this, even if it’s not something most coders would do. “For him, maybe screenshots showing his work make some sense. Not only does that media allow people to learn more about his skills, it also adds a little color to an otherwise bland profile.”
Bland profiles, after all, are the bane of recruiters who spend hours slogging through LinkedIn to find top talent. The good news is that it only takes a little thoughtful tweaking to liven yours up. Remember: You already have a resume, so let LinkedIn do for you what your resume can’t.