Phrases To Kill Your Search

In my travels, I get to hear and see a lot of elevator pitches, marketing messages, sales pieces, cover letters, résumés, engagement bios, etc.  Most of these include phrases that range from meaningless to unhelpful to seriously detrimental to any attempt to market yourself or your practice.

No Trespassing Signs


Over the next several weeks, I’m going to publish my thoughts on many of these.  I invite your comments, and suggestions as to other phrases that frustrate you.  Insert your phrase in a comment here, and I’ll promote it to a new topic.


OK, here’s the first:

“I have transferable skills.”


Ask yourself what the potential hiring manager or networking contact is hearing.

“I hope someone will consider me for something that my skills might apply to.”




“I don’t have the confidence to present myself directly for a role I might want, so I’ll simply say my skills are transferable.”



“I’m not willing to commit to any one thing.”


Not exactly awe-inspiring messages, are they?


Instead of saying this, come up with a description of the type of problem you can solve with those ‘transferable skills’, as relevantly as you can make it to your ideal target area, and then talk about that!


Here’s the next in this series.

16 thoughts on “Phrases To Kill Your Search”

  1. Some commenters seem to miss the point – the issue isn’t whether or not HAVING transferable skills is positive or negative, it’s whether SAYING you have transferable skills helps in marketing yourself. To get a good conversation going, to create a strong networking connection, to succeed in an interview, you have to engage the listener. You need to be focused on the core marketing maxim, “Leave them wanting to know more.” Telling someone you have transferable skills doesn’t accomplish that. It’s an empty phrase that many people use, and consequently is generally ignored.

  2. Agreed, John. Always believe that you have transferable skills but never actually use the words "transferable skills". It tends to give the wrong impression. Such as, I have skills just not the ones you are looking for. I also like John’s suggestion (though not in so many words) that you use C-A-R (Challenge-Action-Results) that shows how you made use of some of those transferable skills.

  3. I do agree with this. However, how should I respond in my situation in a stress interview when asked about a particular technical skill when speaking to a non-technical person who can’t relate to the industry? I am going through a lot of job interviews in the technical industry which is very competitive.

  4. I think this may come down to a game of semantics. I tend to think in terms of "core fundamentals" instead of "transferable skills" although I may be talking about the same thing. Nobody is an expert in her or her new job at the beginning. BUT, hopefully she has (less tangible) building blocks, concepts and philosophies that she can apply to her industry.

  5. When one says "transferable skills" what I think an employer may hear is, "I want this job so badly that I’ll mold my answers to fit what I think you want." I’d rather give a concrete example of how my skills have solved a like problem with another employer. I’d rather find if my skills fit the job requirements than attempt to be somebody I’m not.

  6. Mark and Mason have exactly the right idea here. You need to give examples of how you have used that particular skillset to solve a similar problem. That is much more convincing than talking about “transferable skills” – it gives the evidence that backs up why they are transferable.

    To Paula’s point, I assume you are talking about an HR or recruiter screening interview, where they don’t have the technical ‘chops’ to be able to judge the skill on their own. In that case, you will need to much more carefully draw them the road map, so that they are willing to pass you on to the next stage.

    You need to dig in a bit with them as to what it is that they understand the technical skill will be used to accomplish. If you can do that, you will be able to make your story of solving that related problem more convincing, and how you have closely related technical skills that will make getting up to speed on that particular one they are looking for a “no brainer.” Then you can also tell a story demonstrating how fast a learner you are, and how quickly in the past you have mastered a technical skill and produced results with it.

  7. Actually, having "transferable skills" is quite a positive, the issue isn’t whether stating it is really a problem. The real problem is the number of HR Professionals (an oxymoron if there ever was one) and Hiring Manager types have cranial cavities filled with mush. I have found that a significant percentage of the general populace and a majority of HR "people" are completely devoid of any higher critical thinking skills.

    Of course, I never use the term, having determined that most of these idiots need an actual picture drawn for them to make the connection. So, I draw them the picture.

  8. I couldn’t disagree with you more re: your comment re: "transferrable skills" – now more than ever, hiring managers have this mistaken impression because the unemployment picture is so soft that they can find a person who can do everything they want and then have the audacity to charge a fraction of what it is worth.

    Conversely, I have seen situations where candidates who appear to have directly relevant experience who sound jaded at best, entitled at worst and usually feel that the job should simply be handed to them because of it. Usually those people are the ones who feel that they deserve *my* job and while yes, moving up the corporate ladder is a good thing, at other times, I don’t need to have to watch my back because an employee is eager to take my job before proving him/herself.

    If I had to take between a) a person who does have "transferrable skills" whose eager and has the potential to do great things and b) a person who has the skills already and is bored with the role at best or is using my company as a temporary refuge in the current economic climate, I’ll take a) every time.

  9. Just semantics. How many ways can you say transferable skills?

    Brought to you by Word Thesaurus:
    Transportable Expertise?

    But I do agree that the phrase ‘transferable skills’ must wear like sandpaper on those poor HR folks.

  10. The older I get, the more I come across this problem: What if you are the kind of person who likes new experiences? For me, job heaven is something I’ve never done before that requires me to pull together old skills in entirely new ways. Job hell is doing something I have mastered. Again.

    I went from being a typical overweight, unhappy office worker to one of the top-selling personal trainers in a health club (and fit!) within six months. Then I went from being a personal trainer to a full-content writer. From there, after a layoff, I ended up as a recruiter for a consulting firm.

    Did I say I have "transferrable skills" in those words? No. But problem-action-resolution has never worked to get me the kind of work I want.

  11. I have to go along with Pakvi. In most cases, after job interviews I walk away and scratch my head and wonder how these hiring "managers" keep their jobs. In most cases they have no clue what they are hiring for and sometimes have to be told to come in out of the rain. It is possible for a person to go to an interview and BS their way through it and get the job. After the interview is over, it’s time to do the job. In smoe cases the person hired comes up short – I’ve seen it happens many times. Basically, I present myself as I am: a person that rolls up his sleeves and works at getting the job done. All of John’s advice may be good. But why can’t the people that do the hiring be qualified to hire the right people and know what to look for? Wouldn’t this be better than teaching people how to talk to a trained monkey?

  12. "Transferrable skills" is a positive term when used correctly. Your example leaves the interviewer without knowledge of those unidentified skills. When used correctly, however, "transferrable skills" is the best career bridge for overcoming the objection about having no experience in an industry. The candidate should go on to identify the skills that have been used successfully in previous employment and that would qualify the candidate to make a positive contribution to a new employer.

  13. My comments:
    I totally agree, having experiences that demonstrate your ability to have a certain skill or accomplishment will more likely convince employers that you would be competent in the position in which you are interviewing for. Past performance is an indicator of future performance.

    My own personal situation:
    My job search situation is a complicated one. 1.I have monstly clerical skills 2. I have a Masters degree in Human Resources and Bachelors degree in Information Systems 3. I have limited experience (internship and volunteer experience in Human Resources) 4. Because of the limited experience, I dont quite have the knowledge to be a Human Resource Generalist or Manager.

    Transferable Skills: I have used some version of this in an interview because I dont quite fit into one catagory. I am either over qualified for a clerical/Administrative position or underqualified for a Human Resource Generalist or Manager. At this point I’m not quite sure what my job search strategy should be.

    Danielle, MHRM

  14. I think we ALL agree that having transferrable skills is a good thing … however, I don’t think using that phrase ever buys you anything.
    As Glenn suggests, IDENTIFYING the skills that you have used successfully to produce results for past employers is powerful. Going straight to that demonstration, and skipping the intro “I have transferrable skills” is much more powerful.

  15. As a project manager, I want to move into a people manager role. At work, my mentor suggested thinking of transferable skills, such as managing people and their tasks on projects as a project manager, even though those people don’t report to me. Further, I do a lot of adjunct teaching and I consider my students similar to people I manage as I set expectations through a syllabus with assignments governed by a grading rubric, I work with them throughout the semester on their assignments, and, at the end of the class, I assess their performance and submit final grades. The university adjunct model I feel is similar to a people manager who develops employee goals at the beginning of the year, monitors employee progress and quickly helps with any issues, and lastly performing an assessment at the end of the year. So, I think both adjunct teaching and project management serve as good examples of applying transferable skills to future people leadership roles.

    1. Jim: Thanks for sharing!

      When the question comes up in a conversation or interview, they both definitely qualify as good examples. The key is to let them come up naturally that way, vs. making a statement up front that “I have transferable skills.” Using that statement sets up potential baggage in the other person’s mind that doesn’t need to be there. Simply demonstrating those skills via your examples is much more powerful.

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