Closing the Deal: General Principles for High Performance Job Descriptions
Job descriptions are a crucial step in the candidate journey, yet often overlooked. Following some general principles can increase conversion rates by over 40%.
In this in-depth guide, we'll explore common mistakes and present four sets of general principles creating effective job descriptions. We’ll cover length, job titles, structure, contents and writing style, with data from Appcast, LinkedIn, and Adobe.
We’ll show how to leverage theories from motivational psychology. And look at non-fiction writing guidance from William Zinsser and online writing advice from Nielsen Norman Group.
Finally we’ll share a field test which put these general principles into practice, resulting in a 44% increase in conversion rates.
You say ‘jump!’ They say ‘er…’
Job descriptions are uniquely important. All other pre-application touchpoints lead to this – the inflection point between someone choosing to make the leap with you. Or not.
A recent Indeed survey found that 52% of candidates are very or extremely influenced by the quality of a job description when deciding whether to apply. And yet all too often, they're overlooked and unloved, resulting in missed opportunity. For employer and employee.
Job Descriptions are a core service at Maximum. We see six common mistakes that can harm their effectiveness.
Six common job description mistakes
1. The kitchen sink
The key problem here is too much information, revealing a lack of focus. We’re not clear what is important or relevant or compelling. So we put everything in to be safe. We’ve seen some job descriptions exceeding 1,500 words.
Kitchen sink traits
- Way too much text
- Irrelevant details
- Unrealistically demanding responsibilities, skills, requirements
2. The Wall
Often the visual result of a kitchen sink job description. Although even shorter variants can fall prone to this too: Lack of appropriate formatting. The effect? An imposing, impenetrable wall of text that not even the keenest of candidates is willing to scale.
- Long sentences
- Deep, chunky paragraphs
- Minimal formatting
- Lack of subheadings
3. The Desert
The pallid, malnourished sibling of the kitchen sink, the desert suffers from the opposite problem: a dearth of information. Likely as a result of not wanting to include too much. But taking that admittedly noble goal too far.
- Short in the extreme
- Often just a small set of bullet-points
- Insufficient explanatory text
4. The Ratched
Terse, dispassionate, aloof. The Ratched is often the result of outdated ideas about how to write professionally. ‘The candidate will…’ ‘The employer reserves the right’ ‘Applicants shall…’ For all the best intentions, the net effect is an overly strict, alienating tone.
- Refers to all parties in 3rd person
- Doesn’t address reader
- Doesn’t sell
5. The Buddy
At the other end of the Ratched scale is the Buddy. Over-friendly. Over-casual. What is intended as levity and wit comes across like a used car salesman in a plaid jacket trying to grease you up. And we’ll see, being over casual can be more damaging to your brand than being over formal.
- Causal imprecise language; slang terms
- Closed questions
- Puns and jokes
- Exclamation marks, emojis, hashtags
6. The Narcissus
Perhaps the most common mistake of all. Narcissus job descriptions frame the job from the employer’s point of view. And although it’s the employer’s job description, it’s the employer’s job, and they do have needs, the writing fails to describe ‘what’s in it for me?’
- Pronouns: More us and we than you
- Emphasises requirements over opportunities
- Emphasises what we need, rather than what you do
So that’s the bad. Next are four sets of general principles for writing job descriptions that avoid these mistakes and encourage more of the right people to apply.
Four general principles for increasing the conversion rate of your job descriptions
Building on the work we do at Maximum, we’ve developed four sets of general principles for crafting high performance job descriptions. When field-tested, they increased the conversion rate by over 40%.
Job Description General Principles
According to a great dataset from Appcast (50 million clicks, 3.7 million applies) application rates are highest when the total length of your job description ranges from 300-800 words.
That’s quite a big range. But as we’ll see, how information is chunked is important. In most cases, for most jobs, you can write something both comprehensive and high performing at the lower end of that range.
Based on the same data set, applications are highest when the job title is 1–3 words long. And avoid symbols. Job titles with symbols (#, $, !!, *, %, etc.) can result in as much as a 35% decrease in applications.
Searchability trumps Nuance
Job descriptions are essentially ads, so it's crucial to use simple titles with relevant keywords for searchability. Accuracy in labelling organisational nuances can come later. Focus on 1-3 searchable keywords instead.
Including more benefits in job postings leads to more applications. Job postings with 4+ benefits receive 22.5% more applications. And including any meaningful benefit is better than none.
Include a salary range. Especially if you want to hire anyone in the 18-24 age group. In Adobe’s Future Workforce Study a whopping 85% of surveyed Gen Z respondents said they were less likely to apply for a job if it did not disclose salary information.
Sidebar: I’m old enough to remember creating national press job ads. We always used to include a salary range. Somewhere in the last 20 years we stopped. It’s time to include them again. Besides, if your salary is so “competitive” why hide it?
Transparency on the rise
A report by GoBankingRates showed a significant increase in willingness to discuss salaries, among younger generational cohorts. Be prepared for previously private matters to become more exposed.
- Total length: 300-800 words.
- Job title length: 1–3 words, no symbols
- Benefits: 4+, any better than none
- Salary: Include a range up-front
Job Description General Principles
It's the role, stupid
Spoiler alert: A good job description is first and foremost about the job. That's according to jobseekers who took part in a LinkedIn report. When asked to highlight which parts of a job description were most helpful, they rated Salary, Benefits, Tasks, Vision of success, and Skills and Experience above Culture, Company, and Mission.
Company info coldest; Specific performance metrics warmer; Salary warmest
Use the inverted pyramid
The inverted pyramid is a metaphor used by journalists and writers to explain how to structure information. The broad end of the pyramid at the top represents the most important information. The pointy end of the pyramid represents the least important details.
Nielsen Norman Group say ‘this style of writing is highly suited to writing for the web.’ Maximum say this style of writing is also highly suited to structuring job descriptions.
Using the inverted pyramid for job descriptions
Exact structure could vary but our recommendation is to arrange the information something like the below.
- Job title: 1-3 words + salary range
- Role: Describe the main job details in 100-200 words.
- Team: Explain how the role contributes to the department.
- Skills: Detail required experience, skills and traits, in that order.
- Benefits: Highlight 4+ benefits.
- Company: Consider excluding this if your company is well known, or if this text can readily be found elsewhere.
Creating boilerplate statements for the Team, Benefits, and Company sections can increase consistency and reduce workloads. It saves time and ensures communication is consistent.
If benefits are so important, why are they in the middle?
Placing them higher could be interesting to test. But our view is that the benefits are a critical hygiene factor. But also what Dan Pink calls extrinsic motivators. And as we are about to see, intrinsic motivation is the key to engagement.
- Role before company; don’t focus on culture
- Use the inverted pyramid: most important — least important
- Create boilerplate copy for elements which will be reused across roles
Job Description General Principles
Combining Simon Sinek and Dan Pink’s conclusions about motivation, Maximum have a developed set of content principles. They are broad enough for any role but specific enough to focus your writing.
Pink’s Three ingredients of engagement
In Dan Pink’s 2009 book Drive: The Surprising truth about what motivates us he talks about the damaging effects of money and extrinsic motivators on performance when incentivizing high-cognition tasks.
The whole book is well worth reading. But the key points are distilled into this nice little animation done by the Royal Society for Arts, Manufacturers, and Commerce.
He points towards three components necessary for intrinsic motivation: Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose. We believe they are highly suited for job description content.
Autonomy is crucial, as people need to feel in control and have agency in their work. Job descriptions should highlight main tasks, required tools and resources, and decision-making opportunities.
Mastery involves providing "goldilocks challenges" that are neither too easy nor too difficult, but lead to success. Job descriptions should highlight a vision of success and the challenges employees will need to overcome to achieve it.
Purpose is essential, as people need to feel a sense of intrinsic reward and value in something greater than themselves. Job descriptions should focus not only on what and how, but also on why the job is worth doing in the first place.
Where to begin?
Simon Sinek describes three very similar themes in his 2009 book Start with Why: How great leaders inspire everyone to take action. His ‘golden circle’ of Why, How and What maps neatly onto Pink’s motivational drivers of Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose.
But in Sinek’s trifecta, there’s a hierarchy. As the book title affirms, you should start with why.
1. Start with Why: aka Purpose
Why do the job? What makes it inherently worthwhile? Opening your job description with credible answers to these questions. Helping the candidate understand why their future role is intrinsically worth their time and effort.
2. Follow with How: aka Mastery
How do you succeed in the role? What processes or methods need to be deployed? What challenges will our candidate face? Describe How the vision outlined in Why is attainable, and the broad approach needed to attain it.
3. Finish with What: aka Autonomy
What tools are available to me? What tasks, choices, and resources will I have to perform my role? End by describing what your candidate will be equipped with, in order to feel in control of the way in which success is delivered day to day.
Why start with Why?
Sinek speculates that starting with why is effective because it aligns with the way humans make decisions. He posits that "why" and "how" are fundamentally different from "what" and activate different regions in the brain.
Why and How are about emotions: Understanding activates our limbic system, the part of the brain governing emotions and behaviour but without capacity for language.
What is about reason and logic. What questions activate the neo-cortex, the brain region driving rational thought and language.
Emotions drive behaviour
Decisions are almost always emotional judgments made by the limbic system and later post-rationalized by the neo-cortex. And so starting with why aligns with this decision-making process.
Manipulating emotions drives advertising
This neuroscience of all that is debatable. But fulfilling emotional needs has been the cornerstone of brand-led marketing since Ed Beynays pioneered the use of Freudian psychology in advertising after World War I. Emphasising the why of a job in a job description aligns with that approach.
Let’s finish this chapter with two sobering quotes from the man himself.
Sidebar: If you feel like going down a marketing rabbit hole, The Century of the Self by Adam Curtis is compelling, uncomfortable viewing.
- Structure role information around three engagement ingredients:
1) Purpose aka Why. 2) Mastery aka How. 3) Autonomy aka What
- Start with Why, follow with How, finish with What.
- The heart rules the head: emotions drive behaviour, logic supports feelings.
Job Description General Principles
The final principles focus on improving readability and persuasiveness through effective writing style.
Tone: Plain vs Formal vs Casual
Plain language performs better. And it's safer to be too formal than too casual. LinkedIn tested three job descriptions with different tones and found that tone affected candidates' impressions of the employer and their likelihood to apply.
Beware the friendly stranger
The informal job description, which included conversational language and phrases like "don't half-ass the cover letter" and "#Spreadsheets4life," performed the worst. Respondents were 2-4 times less likely to apply and 4 times more likely to dislike the employer.
Job descriptions are a non-fiction writing exercise, and there are many guides available with tips for improving writing quality.
Writing that works by Kenneth Roman and Joel Raphaelson and The elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White are both well regarded. But I personally like the opening section of On writing well by William Zinsser for job descriptions.
Seven principles of non-fiction writing. Summarised and modified with respect, from the late great William Zinsser
- Writing is a transaction: the writer's effort in exchange for the reader's attention. Writing a compelling job description requires deliberate effort and concentration. You have to try. Hard.
- Keep it simple: Small words. Plain language. Natural cadence. Boiling down ideas to their basics is crucial in job descriptions with a word count target.
- Eliminate jargon: Especially in the world of work, jargon is rife. Avoid colloquial phrases. Always write out acronyms in full the first time.
- Keep it natural: Avoid over-stylizing job descriptions. Prioritize plain language. Use a natural voice without over-embellishing. Focus on verbs instead of adjectives.
- Write for yourself: Put yourself in the candidate's shoes. Imagine what would convince you that the opportunity is good. Try to recruit yourself. If the argument is compelling to you, it likely will be for your reader.
- Use precise language: Consider nuances and select the most appropriate words for the ideas described in your job description. Direct, Lead, Shape, Influence, and Guide all convey subtle but important differences.
- Obey common usage: Correctness and pedantry. It’s a grey area. There’s no clear answer. Be conscious and judicious about whether your phrasing is really part of common everyday parlance or just lazy writing.
- Address the reader directly: Not Zinsser’s. But equally important. Speak directly to the reader in job descriptions. Present information from their point of view. Reframe requirements as offers to the candidate. "You" should appear more frequently than "we" or "us".
Writing for the web
Nielsen Norman Group’s How people read online best practices go all the way back to 1997 and for the most part still hold true today. And as Job descriptions are primarily online media, you should optimize text for online consumption. Here are two relevant insights.
People rarely read online: They are far more likely to scan the page than read word for word. And when they do read, are about 25% slower than offline.
People mostly follow a loose capital F-shaped gaze pattern: Eye-tracking studies show they read the top line of text, skip down and across the page, and continue to scan down. And whilst new UI trends have led to some new gaze patterns, they don't fundamentally change the recommendations.
Implications for Job description design
- Use clear, semantic subheadings that break up text.
- Consider limiting paragraph length to one or two lines of text. One idea per paragraph is a good rule of thumb.
- Place keywords up-front at the start of sentences so people can understand the message quickly
- Use bullet points and bold text where appropriate to call out key information visibly.
- Use plain, concise language. A notable NNG finding which correlates with the LinkedIn tone of voice data is that users ‘detest’ boastful marketing claims, especially when trying to complete a task. So watch the bragging.
Brand: Many companies have brand guidelines that specify writing style. They dictate a certain outlook, attitude, or even recommend a specific number of words per sentence. These should be factored when writing your job descriptions.
Gender: Ensuring you’re using inclusive, gender neutral language is simply good hygiene in 2023. Consider: Folks rather than Guys. Chairperson over Chairman. Workforce instead of Manpower. Spouse rather than Husband or Wife. Salesperson over Salesman. Small changes can make a big difference.
Prose vs Bullets: Prose builds a relationship with the reader, unlike job descriptions with only bullet points. Use bullets when listing specific items, but be selective. Use prose for the main body and bullets for skills and benefits.
Sounds great. But does it work?
Together with a biotech client, this is the question we asked ourselves. However logical or convincing our general principles seemed, they were at best hypotheses. References in many cases indirectly related to the task. So we decided to put them to the test.
A janky split test
We haven't been able to conduct a real A/B test with job descriptions. No ATS or job board we have spoken to are willing / able to run one. Instead, we ran two job descriptions for the same role in parallel on the same platform for the same period and compared the results. Not ideal. But the best we could do. And certainly better than not testing at all.
Control job description vs best practice job description
Control variant A (original job description) was compared to variant B (agency rewrite) that incorporated the principles outlined in this article.
One platform. 14 days.
We ran the listings on Indeed for 14 days. Then we compare conversion rates. Whichever job description had the highest conversion rate was the most effective.
Variant A – Client control
Received 56 applications from 204 clicks, giving us a conversion rate of 27%.
Variant B – Best practice optimised
Received 69 applications from 177 clicks, giving us a conversion rate of 39%, a 44% improvement on the control.
The client had begun using Textio, the AI powered job description text editor with its own recommendation engine. How would our recommendations perform against a Textio optimised job description?
A second janky spit test
This time we did three versions. Variant A was the original job description. Variant B was a best practice rewrite. But this time, it was further adjusted with Textio, adjusting until it achieved a 100% score. Variant C was a pure rewrite using just the best practices in this article. We ran the three job descriptions in parallel for 21 days. Also on Indeed.
Variant A – Client control
Received 60 applications from 144 clicks, giving us a conversion rate of 48%.
Variant B – Textio optimised
Received 50 applications from 86 clicks giving us a conversion rate of 58%, representing a 21% improvement on Variant A.
Variant C – Best practice optimised
Received 46 applications from 66 clicks, giving us a conversion rate of 69%, representing a 19% improvement on Variant B, and a 44% improvement on Variant A.
Job descriptions are a crucial step in the candidate journey, yet often overlooked. Common mistakes include providing too much or too little information, poor formatting for online media, casual language, and an employer-centric approach. Adhering to best practices for length, job title, structure, content, and writing for the web can increase conversion rates by up to 44%.
We hope you find the insights and guidance in this article useful. If you’re interested in seeing how you might put these best practices into practice, we’d love to hear from you.