When somebody is thinking about working with, hiring, or investing in you, they're looking for reasons to say no. They want to know what red flags might be lurking in the background and would keep them from saying yes. You can tell them all day about how great your skills are or how conscientious your work is but your word only carries so much weight in the hiring, buying, or due diligence processes. Testimonials help them answer questions about you.
They'll ask themselves questions about you, trying to suss out red flags so that they aren't later caught off-guard. This is especially true for gatekeepers and people who specialize in CYA, like hiring managers, investment analysts and associates, and account managers. Some of these questions might be:
- "Who else has worked with this person? Were they serious people? Are they people I would want to consider doing business with myself?"
- "How does this person handle difficulty at work? How do they work under stress?"
- "How conscientious or creative is this person? What do they do when they get a lot of work on their desk?"
- "How trustworthy is this person? Will they stick around through hard work?"
Quality testimonials can be so powerful that they can be the determining factor as to whether or not you land a job. When I first got started building out teams to work on projects with me - whether that was organizing a conference or publishing The End of School - I would tell recruits that I couldn't pay them well (I was just starting out myself, after all). But I could offer them world-class testimonials. Some of them have gone on to land quality jobs at high-growth, top-tier startups and their dream jobs at other organizations based on those testimonials (and some introductions).
(This post is primarily for finding testimonials to ace your job hunt, but the concepts can be applied to starting a business.)
Testimonials as Social Proof
Testimonials work in the same way Google or Yelp reviews for a restaurant or Amazon reviews for a product do. A bit more abstractly, but even more relevant to your career, testimonials work for the same reason credentials do.
They let you broadcast, "other people trust me, so you should trust me, too."
If a former manager liked you and trusted you and is happy to put their name to that, that tells future managers you are trustworthy. If a respected institution is willing to put its name to you that says that the institution gives you their seal of approval (well, that's what it's supposed to say, at least).
This is social proof. Social proof is a form of risk reduction and signaling. When people look to hire others, they want to minimize their risks of hiring that person.
Hiring is costly. It takes time, money, and energy to go find qualified candidates, interview them, court them, onboard them, and train them. Flukes in hiring take a ton of resources out of a company that could have been spent elsewhere.
So, reducing the risk of hiring you is a hugely powerful tool for acing your job hunt. This is why companies put logos of their business partners on their website. This is why writers list in their signatures where they've been featured. This is why sellers hit you up for reviews after you buy something on Amazon.
You want trusted third parties to vouch for your positive traits.
Testimonials vs. References
"Why should I ask for testimonials if companies already ask for names and contact info for references?"
Testimonials and references aren't exactly the same thing. A testimonial is a short blurb that makes it easier for somebody to bite or justify a hiring or purchasing decision.
A reference is more like a case study. It's an in-depth part of the due diligence process. Sometimes, collecting quality testimonials lets you bypass the reference process altogether.
You should be prepared to offer both to a potential employer.
Testimonials are particularly important if you're the type of person who has a difficult time landing the first interview but you know that if you do, you can land the job. They help signal to the recruiter, hiring manager, or executive that you are worth talking to.
Quality testimonials matter. Here's how you can get them.
How to Get Testimonials
When I tell people that they need to get testimonials to help them with their job hunts, the answer's usually an enthusiastic "sure!" followed by sending a few emails to former employers, managers, teachers, and colleagues. Then, crickets.
Because the email usually looks something like this:
I'm working on my job hunt and realized it would be great to have a testimonial from you about working with me. Would you be open to providing one?
On the face of it, this isn't awful. It doesn't say, "give me a testimonial," and it at least makes an ask. But it doesn't usually work, even if the other person agrees to do it.
Most people aren't used to giving testimonials about other people and their work. If they are used to anything like this, it's in giving references, which is usually a more guided process in the form of a phone call.
Just like getting meetings with Very Busy People, you want your email to be clear and easy to reply to. If you make it a hassle to reply to, the reader will tell themselves, "I'll get to this when I get time." Very few people ever get time.
1. Make a List of People You Can Ask
Start by making a list of people you can ask for a testimonial. These should be people who have some kind of authority and know you well enough to provide a quality testimonial. This means that they should not be your friends, direct peers, or random superiors from your previous job.
The best people are those who bear some kind of responsibility for your work. That means that if you do a poor job, they get burned. These people have an incentive to look for the worst in you and if they say something great about you, that's a strong signal.
Here's a solid list you can start with, ranked from strongest to weakest in terms of signaling:
- Former and current managers
- Former and current volunteer supervisors
- Former and current intern recruiters
- Former and current colleagues
- Former and current teachers and professors
- Former and current mentors
You also should not need to be asking people more than a year or two back for testimonials. If you collect them over time, great. But if your most recent testimonial is from 4 years ago, that's not a good sign.
I recommend putting their first names, last names, and email addresses in a Google Sheet with additional columns for, "Affiliation," "Title," "Agreed?" "Testimonial," and "Can tweak?"
It should look like this:
This will let you keep track of who you asked, who said yes, who said no, and their information.
2. Prime Them With a Clear Ask
When you reach out to the person, make your ask very clear and give them context for the ask. Don't just tell them you want a testimonial for your work. Tell them you are trying to get a job in a specific industry doing a specific set of roles and that you value their testimonial and the time you spent with them.
People are human. Be straightforward with them but also be appreciative of their time and what you've learned from them. Don't manipulate them by trying to start the conversation on a separate topic. Also don't treat them purely as a means to an end.
Here's a script you can use to start the conversation if it is somebody you know well:
Subject Line: Would you be open to giving me a testimonial?
I hope you are doing well. I am reaching out to you because I am on a job hunt for a job in [specific industry], specifically doing work in [specific role]. I enjoyed the time I spent working with you and wanted to ask you for a testimonial.
A short blurb about why you hired me/what you enjoyed about working with me would be helpful in landing a job doing [specific role].
Is this something you'd be open to? If so, I can send along an example and some questions to guide the blurb.
PS - I really enjoyed [recent relevant piece of content from this person or their company].[Specific, sincere compliment about it].
Here's what that could look like:
I hope you're doing well. I'm reaching out because I'm on the job hunt for a job in tech, specifically doing work in sales and business development. I really enjoyed the time I spent interning with you and I learned a ton from the experience. I wanted to ask you for a testimonial if you enjoyed me working there.
A short blurb about why you hired me and what you felt you got out of me working with you would be helpful in landing a job doing sales and biz dev.
Would you be open to this? I can make it super-easy for you - I can pass along an example blurb and ask a few questions.
PS - I really enjoyed your recent article about growing your business in the early days. It makes me feel better and less-anxious about my own growth to know that people don't just come out of the womb knowing exactly what they want to do.
If you don't know the person you're asking very well or they are considerably more senior to you, here's a script you can use:
I'm not sure if you remember me, but I worked for you [timeframe] doing [role]. I [specific note that reminds them of your time there].
I'm currently on the job hunt for a job doing [role] in [industry]. I enjoyed my time working at [company] and learned a lot about [subject area]. I wanted to ask if you would be open to providing a testimonial about my time there. It would greatly help me in my job hunt.
Would you be open to this? If so, I can make it easy by sending along an example and a few quick questions. It should take no more than a few minutes of your time.
Here's what that might look like in practice:
Hi Dr. Franklin,
I'm not sure if you remember me, but I worked as a research fellow with you during the 2017 academic summer and year at Stanford. I organized the majors-only seminar on philosophy and psychology together while you finished your book on forgiveness.
I'm currently on the job hunt looking to do business development in tech. I enjoyed my time working with you and, although it was academic in nature, I learned a lot about staying organized and being conscientious in my research. I wanted to ask if you would be open to providing a testimonial about my time on the fellowship. It would greatly help me in my job hunt.
Would you be open to this? If so, I can make it easy by sending along an example and a few quick questions. It should take no more than a few minutes of your time.
These are all easy to reply to. Somebody can get this while running through the airport and say "sure thing."
3. Provide Examples They Can Follow & Ask Them Questions
Most people don't have a hard time getting others to agree to testimonials. They have a hard time collecting on those testimonials. Once somebody agrees to give you a testimonial, make it as easy as possible for them to give it to you.
Most people don't have an existing model in their mind for what a good testimonial looks like, so they don't know where to start. Make it easy for them by providing them with an example. The example should be detailed, nuanced (it should not be fluffy...fluffy looks fake), and only as long as it needs to be.
If you don't have an example, you can ask them a few questions:
- What was the obstacle or hesitation that would have prevented you from working with me?
- What did you find as a result of working with me? What did you think about my work and ability to handle adversity?
- What specific trait did you like most about me?
- What would be three other perks of hiring me?
- Would you recommend me? If so, why?
- Is there anything you’d like to add?
This helps generate sincere, detailed testimonials. Quality testimonials communicate detail and thought. Thought gets communicated by showing that you may not be perfect and others know that. You don't ask the first question to highlight your flaws. You ask it to acknowledge existing concerns that the reader has and then counter them before the person can even ask you.
This set of questions also answers most of the questions in the mind of the person reading the testimonial.
So, let's say you're young and inexperienced. You're applying for a job where a lot of your competition will be more experienced than you. If you had a testimonial from a former employer who admitted they hesitated in hiring you because you're so inexperienced but you still turned out to be a great choice, that can help your chances of getting hired.
Here's an example:
(1) I was originally worried that you weren't experienced enough to succeed in this job. (2) I found you were a ridiculously hard worker who made up for your inexperience by staying late and learning from your more experienced colleagues. (3) I appreciated your humility in knowing that you had a lot to learn and would put in the time to learn it. (4) I also enjoyed your ability to connect with customers, to solve problems on your own, and to go out of your way to make your colleagues feel at home. (5) I'd recommend working with you.
These answers can then be compiled into a third-person testimonial:
I was originally worried that Sarah wasn't experienced enough to succeed in a software sales role. I ended up discovering she was a ridiculously hard worker who made up for her lack of experience by staying late and working closely with more experienced colleagues. I appreciated her humility in knowing that she had a lot to learn and would put in the time to learn it. She also had a great ability to connect with customers, colleagues, and solve problems on her own.
4. Get Permission to Tweak the Testimonial If Necessary
Finally, you should ask them if they'd be open to you making minor tweaks to the testimonial if necessary. Sometimes you will need to truncate the testimonial for brevity's sake or you may need to go into more detail about some positive trait or hesitation. Most people are open to you making small tweaks to testimonials but it's always best to ask.
FAQs About Testimonials
How Detailed Should Testimonials Be?
If you landed on a product page on Amazon and there were 5 reviews for a product, they were all 5 star, but they essentially boiled down to "great," "cool product," and "I love it," would you take those reviews seriously?
No. You would not.
A bad testimonial looks like this:
Zak was fantastic to work with. I would recommend hiring him. - Former Employer, Pennsylvania
It's vague. It lacks detail. It lacks sincerity. It doesn't have a specific individual's name affiliated. And it lacks an institution.
A testimonial should be as detailed as it needs to be relative to the complexity of the transaction on which you are trying to reduce the risk. That means if you're trying to get somebody to hire you as a one-day volunteer, you probably don't need a long, detailed testimonial. If you're trying to get somebody to hire you as their third employee at an early stage company, you want a detailed testimonial that counters any major objections about you.
As a general rule of thumb: If the role they are hiring for you is riskier, make the testimonial more detailed. If it is less risky, it can be less-detailed.
Where and How Should I Present Testimonials?
Testimonials should go on the home page of your website. If you don't have a website, start one. Outside of that, keep them in your Google Sheet and assemble them neatly onto an additional page of your resume when you send it in somewhere. Order them from most recent and relevant to least recent and relevant. You shouldn't need more than one page of endorsements.
As for the format of the testimonial, you want it to be as detailed as possible. List the individual's first name, last name, and their affiliation. There's nothing faker looking than a glowing testimonial with nothing other than a first name after it.
I like the format of testimonials on Angel List. They show a picture, first and last name, affiliation, and relationship to the person (as well as that person's own description for themselves).
What If They Say No?
Sometimes people say no to giving you a testimonial. This sucks and it burns. But you can either just let it suck and burn or you can use it as a learning opportunity and a chance to counter future objections. And sometimes it's just feedback on choosing better people for testimonials (i.e., some people will decline giving testimonials if they feel they don't know you well enough).
If somebody says no to your request for a testimonial, don't just ghost them. Instead, reply to their email thanking them for being candid with you and asking them why they've decided to pass on giving you a testimonial. They may not take you up on your question but if they do, it's a chance for you to learn about concerns in your own work history that you can work to counter going forward.
Here's a quick script you can use when somebody tells you they would rather not give you a testimonial:
Thanks for candidly letting me know. That's disappointing, to be honest, but I appreciate your honesty.
To help me better understand what I can do better in the future, would you be open to letting me know why you don't feel comfortable providing a testimonial? This is just for my own feedback.