The Way We Work
January 25, 2011 by Tamara Rice

When it comes to setting up your online profile or portfolio, the language and words that you use to describe your particular gifts and abilities really do matter. The importance of choosing your keywords carefully for your online presence can’t be overstated.

A recent study at Rice University showed that in letters of recommendation, words and phrases that communicate communal value and abilities (e.g., helpful, kind, agreeable, takes direction well) were perceived as less impressive than words and phrases that communicate more independent characteristics (e.g., assertive, ambitious, influential, initiator of tasks). Unfortunately, the study also found that the communal characteristics described in these letters of recommendation were generally associated with females, while the more favored independent characteristics (what the researchers called “agentic” adjectives) were usually attributed to males — exposing evidence that gender bias in hiring is still a problem.

So, what does this study show independent contractors and others trying to market themselves online? That the way we describe ourselves — and the ways that others describe us — matters. (Especially if you are a female and are, if what Rice University’s study shows is true, already at a disadvantage to your male counterparts.)

Here’s what you can do about it:

1. Choose your words wisely. While your field will certainly dictate the language you use to describe yourself, remember that when it comes to nouns, adjectives, and phrases about your characteristics, you should choose your keywords carefully and stick with words that convey strength and your independent, successful nature.

Just a few of the good nouns, adjectives, and phrases to use in your portfolio that leave a strong and positive impression are …

  • words matter post twoleader (communicates strength)
  • initiative (communicates motivation)
  • skilled (communicates expertise)
  • achieved (communicates results)
  • expert (communicates that you are uniquely gifted)
  • assertive (communicates that you have drive)
  • outstanding (communicates that you are valued)

And a few of the nouns, adjectives, and phrases you might want to avoid because some employers see them as keywords that may actually have a negative vibe are …

  • potential (may communicate you haven’t achieved success or your best yet)
  • helpful (may communicate that you are a follower and not a leader)
  • quick learner (may communicate that you have a lot to learn)
  • kind (may communicate that you are not a strong person)
  • growing (may communicate that you are inexperienced)

Note: Karen Burns over at Working Girl recently wrote an article on the topic of resume keywords, and she encourages resume writers to stear clear of adjectives and adverbs as much as possible in favor of strong nouns and verbs. Take a look!

2. Suggest ways for others to describe you. That’s right. When it comes to letters of recommendation or online feedback, it can’t hurt to tell your employer how you’d like to be described and what sort of keywords they might want to use. Be polite, ask nicely, and never ask an employer to lie. You are merely suggesting what areas are helpful for others who are looking to hire you.

Simply say something like …

“When you leave online feedback about the work I’ve done for you [or write this letter of recommendation for me], it would be great if you could use keywords and language that emphasize my work skills over my personality, as I’ve found that this is an effective way to communicate my worth in my field. Please use words that communicate strength and energy, if you feel they apply to me and the work I’ve done for you.”

Words matter! Use the comments below to tell us about the keywords you avoid (or try to emphasize) in your online profile.

Tamara Rice

Freelance Writer and Editor

Tamara Rice is one of several freelance writers on the oDesk Blog team. She joined the oDesk marketplace in 2009, after more than six years on staff at an award-winning national magazine.

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