My favorite television show has always been "Jeopardy." Forget that I was a "Jeopardy" winner back in the days when Art Fleming was the host and Don Pardo was the announcer, and that I was a big winner (although, back then, the questions were worth a lot less). Forget that I have had the privilege of passing on my winning secrets to several other contestants, who have also gone on to fortune and fame.
What makes "Jeopardy" so entertaining to me is that it is really a show for people of only moderate intelligence. Though many of the winners are high-powered, well-educated people, just as many are ordinary housewives and workers. What sets them apart is that they know the secret of winning -- not only at "Jeopardy" -- at life itself.
The secret is simple: The answer is always in the question. In every "Jeopardy" answer shown, a clue can be found to frame the question and win the points. For example, "This statue of a famous World War II leader stands on the soil of two nations." The question? Who was Winston Churchill? He was the child of a British father and an American mother, and his statue stands at the entrance of the British Embassy in Washington, one foot on the embassy’s grounds and the other on Massachusetts Avenue. The answer was in the question.
After all, how many famous World War II leaders were there? Churchill, Roosevelt, De Gaulle, and Stalin? By a process of elimination, you’d arrive at Churchill, even if you didn’t know much about history or his background.
The reason I’ve gone on about this is that when you look at a job specification, the answer is always in the question. In every classified ad, Internet job posting, or bid specification, an implicit question reads, “Are you the right person for this position?”
This tells you how to frame your reply, so if an ad mentions a proficiency in Dreamweaver, you’d better begin your letter or e-mail with an example or two of work you’ve done in Dreamweaver. If the ad says must know Boolean logic, be prepared to demonstrate your knowledge, even if it means writing your cover letter in a Boolean format.
A long time ago, I hired a person at Newsweek who applied for a position by using a mockup of a subscription letter. The language was so spot on I knew that even though this person was being hired for an editorial position, sooner or later she would end up in marketing, which is exactly what happened. She spent decades there developing the Asian edition of the magazine.
Potential employers don’t just drop hints about what they want. They are as explicit as possible because they want to limit the deluge of résumés that will flow their way. By being specific, they can “score” an application on the basis of how many of their criteria you meet.
This is the flip side of what I wrote about in a previous column. While you have the task of making your résumé and personal brand DNA fit as closely as possible to a potential employer’s needs, they have the task of creating as many filters as possible so that only a minimal number of qualified applicants makes it through to the next round of screening.
It’s a battle out there, but not one where you have no weapons at your disposal.
The answer is always in the question; you just have to figure out how to align your answer with an employer’s request.