An Interview with Lindsay McMahon: Transcript

This is a rough transcript of an interview between Mignon Fogarty and Lindsay McMahon in May 2020. You can listen to the interview here.

Mignon: Grammar Girl here. I’m Mignon Fogarty, and you can think of me as your friendly guide to the English language. We talk about writing, history, rules, and cool stuff. Today, I’m talking with Lindsay McMahon of the All Ear English podcast, which is for people who are trying to learn English. She had an interesting experience recently when she tried to hire someone for her business, and ended up going through a lot of resumes and cover letters with problems, and she has some great advice on how people can improve their chance of getting an interview by improving what they say in those all-important pieces of writing that are the first thing a potential employer sees. I hope you find it useful!

Mignon: Hi, Lindsay, thanks for being here with me today.

Lindsay: Hi, Mignon. Thank you for having me on the show. I'm excited to be here.

Mignon: Yeah, you bet. Well, so you recently did some hiring and you said you have some advice about language and words that people should use when they're applying for jobs, for both new college grads and probably anyone who's applying for a job.

Lindsay: Right.

Mignon: So you think things are a little different now, so why don't you start by talking about what is different now?

Lindsay: Absolutely. I think that the game has really changed. I mean, it is all about the words that you use, right? That's what gets you the job, whether it's in a cover letter or the way you reach out on LinkedIn. It's so important. But I think this is especially important now that we are kind of moving into a, hopefully soon, a post-COVID-19 world. A lot of businesses are maybe moving from a brick-and-mortar space into an online or are going 100% remote. Teams maybe getting smaller, more nimble. So it's so important the way that we approach the application. And again, it's all about the words that you choose. So I do have some advice. After looking over our hiring round back in October, we got a great team member as another podcaster or for "All Ears English." But we got a lot of cover letters that had some interesting language that I would advise against, especially for a fast, action-oriented team. Yeah.

Mignon: Right. There's nothing like getting a stack of applications that makes you start thinking about the way people use their language.

Lindsay: Right.

Mignon: So what is it . . . what do you think people need to focus on first?

Lindsay: All right. So the first and most important thing, I think, is to connect on the philosophy. And we can know this from the words that the company uses when they talk to their, what we call, "tribe."

Mignon: Right.

Lindsay: Different business philosophers have used this word "tribe," like Seth Godin, for example, You know, a lot of online businesses, they're audience-based. They're based on a large or small group of people that follow them, and they connect on values, values and philosophy. So what you need to do is understand what that is by consuming their content, you know? And if you are a fit for that value, go ahead and communicate that first and foremost in your, whether it's a cover letter, an actual cover letter, or reaching out. You have to connect on that level, especially with smaller online teams, because that's what gets their attention.

Mignon: Yeah. And so when people who are applying for a job with you, what were some of the things they did that were right?

Lindsay: Mm hmm. Yeah. So are value -- our slogan, but it's so much more than a slogan -- it is this concept of "connection, not perfection." We teach ESL, English as a second language, and business English to non-native English speakers around the world. So maybe people who want to immigrate or they want to do business abroad. And our philosophy, and we show this in every episode, it's everywhere, is the idea of connection, not perfection. That means that when you are trying to speak with someone, it should always and almost only be about maintaining the human connection, and other aspects of the language come second. Like grammar, like vocabulary, like mistakes. We need to maintain the connection all the time, regardless of the mistakes we're making. So I could tell in cover letters whether people saw that, first of all, in the words they chose, and whether they would be a good fit with us.

Mignon: Right. And I saw that when I went to your site and your social media, I immediately saw that that was your philosophy. And I think that's a lesson for small businesses, too, that it's important to, you know, are you communicating your values and your philosophy through all your all your material that's out in the world? You want to make sure not only that, people who are applying for jobs with can see what you're about, but also just your customers or the people you want to work with. So words, the words matter.

Lindsay: They do. Words matter completely. It goes both ways, too. Yeah, you're right. Exactly right.

Mignon: So what are some things that you feel like people really shouldn't say in their cover letter, or their email that goes with resumé they're sending?

Lindsay: Yeah, completely. So as I was combing through our cover letters that we got in the fall to prepare for this episode, a few things really stood out. So the first thing is, please just avoid words that are already, you know, statements that are already expected or assumed. Right. For example, a lot of people said, "I'm very enthusiastic. I was very excited to find this job." The problem with that is that it's a waste of space, and it really adds no extra information. I assume you're excited, right? I assume you're enthusiastic. Otherwise, why would you apply? It seems obvious, but I know I used to write these things in my cover letters or my e-mail applications.

Mignon: Right. So would something more appropriate to be something like, "I was excited to hear that you care about connection and not perfection"  something more specific like that or...?

Lindsay: Yeah. I mean, I think it's important, like we said before, to address that philosophy. But one thing I would do is prove that you're excited by picking out one product or one thing that they seem to be working on. It's hard to find out everything that's going on behind the scenes of a company. But dig into their website, their LinkedIn profile, everything that they've put out there, figure out what they're working on and mention, you know, what are you excited about that? Like, what could you move forward within that project? Would you contribute to that project?

Mignon: Mm hmm. And then I guess also I always liked it when people read the job description and then mirrored that language back to me in the cover letter. It showed that they had really read and understood what we were looking for.

Lindsay: Definitely, as long as it's correct. As long as it's true, right, about them? That's important to.

Mignon: Yeah, right. What's another phrase that really jumped out at you as sort of a waste of space?

Lindsay: Yeah. Waste of space. I would say this word: "I'm a hard worker." And again, again, this comes back to how times are going to be changing. You know, this fall, next winter, teams being smaller. Everyone needs to be a hard worker on our team. We assume you're a hard worker, right? We really hustle as a team because we are a small team. We are online. There really isn't any any room for wasting time. And so saying you're a hard worker is really saying nothing.

Mignon: So how could someone instead prove that they're a hard worker. 

Lindsay: So write about what you've done? Right. And I know is the limited amount of space, and we have to keep this short and concise. But write about something specific that you did, the results you created, ideas that you saw through to fruition. That's how we can show that we're a hard worker.

Mignon: Mm hmm. Yeah. What are some other meaningless words and phrases that jumped out at you?

Lindsay: So this is a common one. And you do see this all over the place. "I'm passionate about something." Again, it doesn't carry much meaning. Why would you apply if you are not passionate about it? And it's overused. It's just so commonly used and there's so many words out there that we just hear over and over. So they start to lose their meaning, I think.

Mignon: Yeah. Yeah. No, it's called "semantic bleaching." That's what linguists actually call it. That great because it's sort of bleaching, it sort of fades the meaning of the word, of the phrase. 

Lindsay: I love that. It's fantastic.

Lindsay: Yeah. And then to go to that end, there's also meaningless adverbs, like "very interesting." "This job application is very interesting." I truly believe I've seen that. I used to write that. But I cringe when I see it now because it's really not adding much to say "I believe" or "I think." Right. Keep it simple. "I believe my experience doing X prepares me to contribute meaningfully." It just feels like it's too flowery. It's too much. Save these things for conveying a powerful presentation in the interview. It doesn't add much when it's on paper.

Mignon: Right. I noticed that when I do the "Grammar Girl" podcast, usually it's scripted. And then I put the transcript up as an article on the website. And the biggest change I make between the script and the written word is removing adverbs. Because when we're speaking, you want. "I'm very interested. It's really important." You know, like when you're speaking, that conveys a lot of enthusiasm and it sounds natural, but it looks ridiculous on the page.

Lindsay: Yes, that's the key. And it waste time. But again, it comes back to people are gonna be so busy in this new era. And we don't have time to waste. I mean, to that end, another one is unnecessary verbs, saying things like, "I believe I can" instead of just "I can." Right? I mean, what does it add when we say, "I believe I can"? It almost conveys a sense of weakness in a way. And my mind just say "I can," right, instead of saying "I feel our industry needs to to change," say "our industry needs to change." It keeps it simpler and tighter.

Mignon: Right. Remember that that person who's getting your application is probably reading 30 more. You want it to be quick for them too. Be considerate.

Mignon: One word that always bothers me is "honestly," "honestly, I can, you know ...", and it's so unnecessary.

Lindsay: That's another good one. Yeah, exactly. You know what I'm saying here? Yeah.

Mignon: And what about jargon? What about corporate language or industry jargon?

Lindsay: Yeah, I think it's really important. If you are going to use corporate jargon, make sure you know the company you're applying to, because we did have some applicants use extensive corporate jargon, and we're not a really a big corporation. So it really kind of fell flat for us. Right. For example, "by leveraging my time as a classroom educator at Blank University, I transitioned into a more business-centric environment to scale impact," things like that. It's too much, right? It's just too much for a small company, a small, nimble company. And in the end, it doesn't say much at all.

Mignon: Right. Right. Yeah. I have gone to ... again on the company side, going to company web pages that have things like that on their landing page. And I honestly (Oh no, I just said "honestly." Oh my gosh) I can't figure out what the company does because they've used so much jargon. But those tend to be, they tend to be large corporations that are selling to other businesses. So...

Lindsay: I agree. Yeah. That's why it's so important. Maybe if we are applying to a large corporation, that may be great. That may be exactly what they're looking for. But I think the key is knowing who you're applying to and making the words fit.

Mignon: Right. Right. Well, we're going to take a quick break for advertisers. And then when we come back, you'll get some some final advice for all those people who are applying for jobs right now . . . So now we focused on a lot of the things that people do wrong when they're applying for jobs. What are some some things that you think they should do instead?

Lindsay: Yeah, I mean, definitely, if you're applying to a job at a small business or a tech startup or a bootstrap company (I love that term-- "bootstrapped"--because it means they don't receive venture funding. They're trying to fund it all themselves) they want someone who can be, again, like we said, quick and direct. So simple is better. I think I learned in school that simple is not better. But what I've learned in the business world is that simple is actually more powerful. I do feel that way about your kind of learning. Like high school. College. Yeah.

Mignon: Yeah, absolutely. You know, in college and high school, it seemed like we were trying to make everything sound important. And I think people get into bad habit of trying to write to sound smarter. And usually it's counterproductive. You just don't. And in the business world, at least, it's important to ... the most important thing is communicating clearly. And usually that means keeping as simple as possible.

Lindsay: Yeah, completely. So it's almost like we have to unlearn what we've learned in our schooling and then go to a new a new way of being. So, I mean, to that end, you're making it about the company, not about you. Right. That's so important, because I think when the company is scanning through your cover letter, they're thinking about their problems or their challenges. Right. Or their goals. Right. They're coming at it from that perspective. So if you can meet them there, it's gonna be super powerful.

Mignon: Yes. I saw a lot of that. People say, "This job is right for me because X," and instead you want to say "I can can ... yYou have this need and I can fill it in."

Lindsay: Yeah. I think it's also important to be opinionated because I think people respect you when you're opinionated.

Mignon: Mm hmm. I have mixed feelings about that. I guess it depends on whether I agree with a person's opinion!

Lindsay: Sure. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. You don't want to kind of what's the term? Ruffle any feathers. I guess from the beginning for sure. But I think having certain opinions that maybe wouldn't be so controversial, certain things about a field and stating them would be really good to do and would make you stand out.

Mignon: Yeah. Yeah. No, I've definitely seen applications though, where people say, you know, "I think your company is doing this wrong, and I can help you do it better this way." And and I find that somewhat offensive because there they are, as an outsider, you're never that familiar with what a company is doing.

Lindsay: Mm hmm. Absolutely. Yeah, I agree with that. I think that you. Right. You don't know what's going on behind the scenes. And you definitely don't insult someone. I think doing it in a slightly less controversial approach, maybe saying, "Hhey, I have some ideas. I see you're doing this. I have some ideas that I think could add value," leaving a bit of a cliffhanger too.

Mignon: It's kind of interesting. What would be a cliffhanger?

Lindsay: Well, I just remember one of my colleagues that eventually joined the team, during our one of our interviews, we did a series of interviews. she did say at the end, "I see what we're doing. I do have some ideas." And that was intriguing to me because that's actually rare. When people interview that, they say, I have these ideas. It's just a different way of thinking in an interview as an interviewee.

Mignon: Right. And what about what about asking questions, you know?

Lindsay: Yeah, for sure. I think that's super important. I think that could also happen in the interview process. But maybe throwing something in somehow in your initial application. Yeah, I think that couldn't hurt.

Mignon: It shows that you're interested. Right. Yeah. You know, maybe, you know, "I tried to find this out about your company and it wasn't available in your public information. But I'm curious whether you X, Y or Z" or something like that.

Lindsay: Yeah, for sure. Yeah. I think the important thing . . . identifying gaps in the market also is really great because that shows the company that you think in that way. Right. I mean, for us, we're a small team of teachers, but we also have to do business stuff in marketing. So showing someone that's going to be hiring you that you can think in both ways as an educator and as a marketer is super important. Again, in this new new economy we're gonna be going into.

Mignon: Right. Well, yeah, the old rules no longer apply. So thank you for sharing what you learned going through this stack of resumes. That's always really instructive. 

Lindsay: Yeah, for sure.

Mignon: What would what are your final thoughts?

Lindsay: Yeah. So that really is it. I mean, things are going to change at this point. And they already were changing, to be honest. Right. Companies, I, like I said, are moving online. You may be competing with people all over the world. Right. For a similar job. So we want to be smart about our word choices and just kind of be simple and straight to the point is we can add value right from the start.

Mignon: Yeah, great. And if you're if you are someone who's trying to learn English, you know, the podcast, All Ears English. Lyndsey's podcast is great. And how can people find you, Lindsay?

Lindsay: Definitely. So just go wherever you download podcasts, wherever you listen and subscribe. Just type in All Ears English. And you can also come to our website to check us out at AllEarsEnglish.com.

Mignon: Great. Thanks so much.

Lindsay: Thank you.

Mignon: Thank you so much for listening today. If you’ll be applying for a new job at some point in the future, I hope you found that helpful. I’m Mignon Fogarty, better known as Grammar Girl. You can find all the Grammar Girl articles at the home of my network, QuickandDirtyTips.com. And you can find me on Twitter and Facebook as Grammar Girl, and on Instagram as THEGrammarGirl. Thanks to my producer Nathan Semes, and that’s all. Thanks for listening.