You have about 14 seconds to grab a candidate’s attention with your job posts. But the uncomfortable truth is, many job posts are not worth a second glance.
“People are straight-up guessing,” says Katrina Kibben, CEO and founder of Three Ears Media. “We have never been taught how to write job postings. Honestly, most of us have never been handed a decent example.”
Katrina’s company is dedicated to helping recruiters write better job posts. After spending years helping Fortune 100 firms shape their brand content, she decided that every company deserves the tools to tell their story in a way that connects with candidates in a more human way.
“There are few things we can control when it comes to hiring,” Katrina says. “But the one thing we can control is how we ask.”
Katrina offers a free job post writing workshop once a month for hiring departments of one or two people, as well as more in-depth fee-based, customized training programs for larger departments. And to help you level up your writing skills right away, here are four of her top tips for crafting more compelling job posts that make candidates eager to apply.
1. Have three conversations before you start writing — and go deeper than just skills and requirements
“Every time I talk to somebody about job postings,” Katrina says, “they just don’t know what’s important. They don’t know if they should include that entire benefits paragraph. They don’t know if they need all 35 bullets. They don’t know what’s important to the candidate. So they end up writing something that’s really long because they’re trying to include everything.”
To suss out what’s really important and what’s nonessential, Katrina recommends having three key conversations to help you get to the heart of the role.
“The first is with the hiring manager,” she says. “That’s the one everyone talks about. But the other two are with the person who already has the job and someone who wants the job.”
While Katrina suggests starting with the hiring manager and the incumbent, in part because these conversations will help you generate referrals, the third conversation can help you learn a lot about a candidate’s motivations and interests. It’s important not to approach this final conversation in a recruiting context. The people you’re speaking with may already be bombarded with messages from recruiters, but they may be willing to lend a hand if you send a friendly, heartfelt note asking for some quick help.
“Use sites like LinkedIn to see connections, find people with similar titles, and simply reach out,” Katrina suggests. “Say, ‘I’m recruiting this role, but that’s not why I’m contacting you. I’m contacting you because I really want to understand the job better.’ When you approach this conversation with a little bit of vulnerability, you’d be surprised how people react.”
Katrina cautions against focusing solely on skills and requirements in any of these conversations. Try to gain a deeper understanding of what it’s like to work in the role, what the day-to-day experience is like, and what success will look like.
“Instead of asking what skills are required,” Katrina advises, “ask what this person will do every day. What systems will they use all the time? In one year, what will make you really happy that this person has accomplished? All of a sudden, we’re taking that big list of skills and making it a story that someone can see in their own life.”
In the job post below, for example, the description is not only transformed from a dull list of tasks to something more dynamic, but a candidate will also get a sense of how their career can grow and evolve with the position.
2. Move away from rigid templates and toward more flexible structures
Writing job posts takes time, but Katrina advises against taking one particularly tempting shortcut — the template.
“We instinctively want templates,” Katrina says. “We want a library of 1,500 options that we can copy and paste. But templates are what got us into this trouble in the first place. There are parts of job postings that I can literally recite to you.”
Rather than using a template, Katrina recommends building out a rough structure for your job posts — essentially saying, “This paragraph does this, and this paragraph does that.” This layout will be informed by your conversations with hiring managers, employees, and candidates.
Your three conversations will provide you with an understanding of what’s most important about the job and the structure you develop should reflect those aspects. “For example, if I know that a sales team is very motivated by outcomes,” Katrina says, “I’m probably going to talk about the outcomes we can create in the first paragraph every time I write a sales role. It can be that simple — this is what they care about, so I’m going to do that first.”
This method can be a little daunting at first since it involves trusting your instincts about what candidates want to hear. And while it’s more time-consuming than copy-pasting, it will yield better results. And if you really don’t have the time, Katrina has a compromise.
“I actually suggest that companies that really struggle on-time move to something that looks a little bit more like a Mad Lib,” she says, referring to the classic word game in which a player produces a list of nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs that are inserted into blank spaces in a prewritten story. “This is the bridge between structure and no-go template land. The Mad Lib gives you a really basic format with blanks so you can emphasize that you want someone focused on this versus that.”
If you do swap out your standard templates for more flexible Mad Libs, be careful not to slip back into generic territory. “You need more than one Mad Lib,” Katrina stresses. “If you’re going to take this approach, I actually think you need one Mad Lib per department at a minimum.”
3. Avoid clichés like a go-getter and top talent because they don’t speak to the reason people change jobs
On the other end of the spectrum from the template is the overly creative job post.
“There’s a fine line between creative and creepy,” Katrina jokes.
While a little creativity can certainly make your job post stand out, Katrina says people sometimes mistake jargon for fun language.
“I have a whole list of words that I tell people they have to ban,” she says. “Because ultimately what happens is people think they’re being creative and they end up putting a ton of buzzwords in that mean nothing.”
Katrina’s list of banned words and phrases includes classics like a rock star, ninja, and superstar, along with go-getter and top talent. The problem, she says, is not so much the words themselves but the disconnect between the emotional response they’re intended to trigger and the way that candidates often feel.
“Take a second and think about how you feel when you’re looking for a new job,” Katrina says. “No one changes jobs lightly. No one wakes up in the morning and goes, ‘Hmm, I’m going to quit my job today.’ You don’t do that. Something bad is happening in your life.”
Connecting with job seekers on an emotional, empathetic level can be incredibly compelling (more on that in a minute). This will ultimately make your post stand out far more than a wacky phrase ever could.
“Write words that mean something to someone who might not be in the best place in their life,” Katrina advises. “They want to be a go-getter. They want to be top talent. But they might not be feeling that right now. Why waste this moment to make an impression on them with something that doesn’t actually mean anything, that might actually make them feel worse?”
4. Mention important soft skills up front to create an “I get you” connection with candidates
Instead of hunting for ninjas, Katrina recommends talking about soft skills in the first paragraph of your job posts. Since these skills are more closely tied to a candidate’s emotions and inner life, they can make the post feel more personal and relatable.
“One thing you should always have is something that describes the soft skills you’re looking for,” Katrina says. “I think most people go out with this very strict standard of what a job posting should be, and they think that it has to be very professional and polished, and I don’t think that’s what connects with candidates.”
One example Katrina gives is swapping out a line like, “We are a Fortune 500 award-winning hospital that’s hiring nurses in Mayland,” for something more empathetic like, “Nursing is hectic, but at the end of the day, it’s always worth it.”
To see how powerful these small changes are in action, check out this before-and-after job post from one of the recruiters Katrina coached:
“You tap into the ‘I get you’ from the first sentence,” Katrina says, “and even if the rest isn’t perfect, you’ve already made a connection in those five seconds you had.”
Spend a little more time, get a lot more qualified candidates
The extra time you spend crafting your job posts can really pay off. It may help you boost the quantity of applicants. More importantly, since Katrina began teaching these tactics to recruiters, she says that many have seen a steep increase in the quality of hire.
“Clients are seeing the quality change,” she says. “They’re getting really smart, qualified people to apply for jobs that weren’t getting anything for a long time.”