Do you know your (development) audience?

A development job application – from the font on your CV, to the closing line in your cover letter — is essentially an act of persuasion: convincing the short-listing staff to place your application in the interview pile.

Persuasion, however, is not a skill we typically learn…

Our university coursework may have helped us learn the structure of sound arguments or difficult to master knowledge. Work experience given us a proven method to deliver on deadline.

But learning the behavioral psychology of persuading others takes most of us a long way out of our comfort zones.

We won’t here dive deep into neuron sensors or brain patterns.

Yet a few techniques can help us make the case that our names should be on the shortlist for an interview.

Here are some important ones:


Recent behavioral science research shows that influence begins from the first moment of contact even before we make our pitch.

In our case, the file name of a CV document, the font style and size, and the use of real estate on the page speak volumes.

I have seen the file names of CVs include:

  • img261
  • P11International DecACCOUNTANT79
  • My submission
  • <link sent to a website in lieu of proposal>
  • Document 3

Of course, on its own, these are not reasons to reject an application.

But why not demonstrate with extreme clarity your attention to detail, your helpfulness as a colleague — and perhaps most important of all, minding the time of your application reviewer.

Find the burning pains

A job is on the market because there’s a need.

Given the nature of the sector, every development organization or team is always at an inflexion point. There is always some crisis lurking around the corner.

Someone has resigned. Someone else did not do their job on time. A deadline to spent donor funds suddenly is upon the hiring team.

Understanding the underlying pain point that gave rise to the solution of advertising a job on the web or through word-of-mouth can make all the difference in how you position your application.

Use their language

A common piece of advice in development jobs is that we use the ‘key words’ from a ToR in our application.

This is with good reason, but not the one commonly given.

Most people think it’s about secret CV reading algorithms that scan a document for the code words, and automatically discard those on the wrong side of an algorithm.

These may exist in some parts of the development world: but in 20 years, I have never seen them.

Anyway, keywords is about far more than beating an algorithm.

Using the language of development, of the organization or the issue area is an act of persuading the real person reading applications that you share the same means of communication, the same values, and the same solutions.

Let’s see how careful, judicious application of these principles can help persuade your CV reviewers to invite you for a chat on how you’re a strong fit for the role.

Understand how hiring works

To begin with, develop your understanding of how hiring takes place in development organizations. This isn’t fool-proof, but the pattern holds in the vast majority of cases.

Most international organizations work by a hiring process that looks like this:

  • Define a hiring need. Confirm the budget availability.
  • Write the ToR – the job description in development parlance.
  • Work with HR to get the job posted on the website.
  • Hassle HR to get the login and password rights to access the applications. Because you always get locked out of the system.
  • Review the CVs to form a long-list of candidates.
  • Discuss with your managers or colleagues to dwindle down to a short-list.
  • Reach out and set-up interviews.

Do your homework: Reading in-between the ToR lines

Maybe you’re on your 10th application in a row with no response. Graduation is finally in sight. Or you’re ready to get to the next level in your Impact Journey.

If there’s one critical step you must take it’s to understand the organization from the inside-out.

What is it known for and how do other stakeholders view it? What type of programming or reporting does it do? What are its strategic and funding priorities?

Knowing these points can make all the difference.

There are plenty of ways to do your organizational, team and job homework.

  • LinkedIn. A quick search will surface people in your network’s network that have worked in the organization. Or the profile of a senior manager. What do they say about their work: what words do they use to describe their responsibilities or results achieved, how often do they have other people from their same organization in their network, do they re-post stories from their organization? Interpret the signs.


  • Glassdoor. Then there are the people indirectly telling you what the organization is looking for. Most major development organizations have at least a handful of reviews on Glassdoor, including pay scales, how tough the job interview was and – critically – how the employee feels about them. Are they disgruntled with the latest strategic vision shift under new management? Did they feel their skills went underused? This is rich stuff ready to inform your understanding of what the organization wants in-between the lines of the ToR.


  • Organization websites, Twitter feeds, and Facebook pages. And then there’s the organization telling you what they want. What does their recent spree of hiring for WASH experts say about where the funding is going in the organization? What do their press releases focus on? And what do strategic plan documents tell you about emerging priorities?

Once you’re armed with these insights, how can it help inform your application?

Go back to the ToR: it gives you a wealth of direct and indirect information.

Be aware of what measures of success the organization considers important. Drawing on them from even your application will help show how you’re a fit for the team.

Use your research to get underneath the ToR, to understand what the real need is, where the organization is heading, and tailor your application to meet those needs.

Use their language

Development language is driven by two difficult to master problems: acronyms, and jargon-based buzzwords.

Acronyms capture everything from organizational names, wide-spread sectoral concepts, and team-specific issues. The more commonly used, the less frequently they’re spelled out. And the larger the organization, the more acronyms refer to everything.

The UN agencies are notorious for this, but it infuses the sector from top to bottom.

Here are some Acronyms examples:

  • CVE — Countering Violent extremism
  • DHS — Demographic and Health Survey
  • FGD — Focus Group Discussions
  • ICT — Information and communications technology
  • HDI — Human Development Index
  • M&E — Monitoring and Evaluations
  • RCT — Randomized Control Trial
  • SRH — Sexual and Reproductive Health
  • TOC — Theory of Change

Buzzwords, on the other hand, are the result of emerging concepts, new sexy results or the latest framing of a problem.

As social challenges are rarely static, even terms like “poverty” when used in the development sector can take on their own meanings, from absolute poverty to relative, and in recent years, multidimensional poverty.

Other current terms range from RCTs, to institutions matter and fragile states.

Buzzwords have one additional feature, though: there is often little agreement on their definition, use or meaning.

In fact, how someone uses specific buzzwords can say how well-read they are, if they are up to date in the latest intellectual debates.

It can also signal what schools of thought an organization subscribes to. Either way, buzzwords tell a lot.

Just as much as NOT knowing the right key words.

Here are some Buzzword examples:

  • Big data for development
  • Capabilities approach
  • Data science for social good
  • Fragile and conflict-affected
  • Human-centered design
  • Institutions matter
  • Systems Approach / Complexity thinking
  • Thinking and doing politically

Neither acronyms nor buzzwords make for easy terms of communication or clarity of exposition. But fighting them is a hopeless task.

It’s just how development and humanitarian organizations communicate. Go with it.

More than this: embrace it.

Identifying the language of an organization or job is an open-door to persuasion.
Mastering a few special acronyms and noteworthy keywords or buzzwords used by an organization or job field is essential to breaking in and doing good work in the sector.

So leave a comment and let me know:

What keywords matter for the organizations and teams you want to work with?

Talk soon,



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