You are the product – when writing your c.v.

I have been helping a friend to update his CV.

Writing CVs has never been my part of my professional service however in the course of my work I have read and indeed written many CVs myself.

I believe there are three basic questions one should ask before writing a CV:

  1. what’s it for?
  2. who will read it?
  3. how will it come to them?

These questions seem to me to be very important because they may lead to the understandable conclusion that one CV is not sufficient. Most people need different versions for different purposes. The questions of what it is for and how it will come to the reader are crucial.

If you are offering your CV in response to a published job vacancy then it has to do just three things, but it has to do them better than any other candidate’s cv. Together with its accompanying letter it must deliver three punchy and confident messages:

  1. you need it
  2. I’ve got it
  3. let’s get together.

So you might say something like:

“You need a confident and senior professional who has a well-established reputation in community development in the non-governmental sector, can speak Spanish and English and has some medical qualification.”

 The important point here is to resist emphasising qualifications or qualities that you have if they do not seem to be relevant or interesting to the readers or their organisation. An obvious and simple but effective trick is to reuse words in the person’s own published goals, aims or job advertisement.

“Since 1969 I have made important contributions to the work of 6 organisations  in the etc., etc., etc.”

And then you’d finish with something like:

“I am happy to talk with you face-to-face, by phone or online so that we can explore how we might work together to support your aims in …. [whatever they’ve said they are].

“When are you available in the coming period and would you prefer to meet remotely or in person?”

Many people recoil in horror at such a cocksure and assumptive statement but fortune favours the brave.  You have to ask yourself, do I want a job or do I want to display my sensitivity and restraint? Be sure that the main aim of a c.v. in job-searching is to get you in front of people to state your case in person. If you are diffident and restrained I believe you are less likely to achieve that aim.

If your cv is speculative and you’ve broadcast it to any potential employer within a region or industry sector, then do whatever you can to demonstrate your interest in THEIR needs rather than in YOUR need for employment. So you might begin with a well-researched statement such as:

“Since 2009, report after report has found that South-East Asia will depend upon a highly motivated and well-organised workforce if it is to…. etc. etc.”


“The year has hardly begun and yet already there have been three avoidable incidents in …”


“The world of learning and development has changed beyond recognition and yet still it lacks…”

And then of course you go on to emphasise how your own experience, knowledge, skills and personal qualities make you an ideal solution to the stated problem.

Of course, some c.v.s are never really meant to be read at all. They might be used even after the person has already been selected. They serve as a kind of talisman to suggest that the person building the company, team or project has used some due diligence in selecting the people. Or they may be like an insurance policy so that if someone really screws up badly their sponsor can avoid blame. For these types of c.v. more detail is preferred to less.

Once you are clear about the purpose and the audience, it is useful to apply some basic principles to the CV itself.

Always be truthful.

If you lie on your CV you may get away with it. But if your little exaggeration is uncovered, it is a position from which you may never recover trust or credibility, and it might even result in serious punitive consequences.

Truth is good; modesty is not.

In the real world modesty may be an admirable trait, but in a CV it is unhelpful. If it makes you feel uncomfortable to “blow your own trumpet” then I suggest you ask your greatest admirer to write your CV for you.

Keep it brief 

There is no doubt that the best c.v.’s I have evaluated in the past where those that focused on matching qualities and accomplishments to the role being sought. They were a good fit for the culture of the organisation that was being approached. The worst ones were those which simply copied-and-pasted role profiles or job descriptions and didn’t even bother to change the grammar and syntax to make it person-centred. You cannot include everything so I try to think of words I might like spoken as my epitaph or written on my tombstone. As for the chronology, I think it is a mistake to have huge amounts of detail about jobs you did a decade or more in the past. A general summary is surely enough unless you did something really exceptional like win an Oscar, a Gold Medal or a Nobel Prize.

Use a structure that is fit for purpose

Personally I like to begin with top qualities and then main accomplishments followed by a chronology. I refer to myself in the third person rather than “I”, and so I begin with something like “Phil is a well-qualified and mature person who has made a major contribution in the world of learning and development.”

Focus on real accomplishments

Every cv will tell you that its author is an outstanding leader, a creative designer, an analytical thinker etc., but where is the evidence, and how will it resonate with the person who is reading it? It’s probably not enough to say I led and managed the implementation of this project or of that organisation’s goals and objectives. People are far more impressed with product than with process.

“The project was completed on time, but before my input it had suffered several months of costly delay.”

“My approach to project tracking has been praised and adopted by numerous other teams.”

“Not only did my work comply with international standards, it was published as a case study in how to make best use of volunteers in child-centred community development”

“I met standards with complete consistency so that I was accepted as a peer coach and used as a model of excellence and reliability.”

“Participants in my People and Culture initiative recorded some of the highest levels of satisfaction ever measured by an organisation in this sector.”

“The evaluation I did in 9 countries was widely regarded as fair, perceptive and accurate. Everyone accepted it and it has led to process improvement in a number of key areas.”

Quality check it

You deserve everything you get (or rather fail to get) if on the one hand you stress how you always pay close attention to detail and then demonstrate it by loading your cv with spelling mistakes, grammatical errors and careless layout. it is always useful to get someone else to read it after you finished. Whenever you review your own script there is a high risk of seeing not what is actually on the page, but what you intended to put there.

Good luck

I’ll finish with a disclaimer. These ideas are mine and mine alone. I’ve not lifted them from a textbook and I’m not an acknowledged expert in c.v. writing. If you see something you like then feel free to apply it. But please don’t sue me if my personal observations fail to comply with the wisdom of experts and worst of all if you don’t get the job! Be prepared to put some time and effort into your c.v. and make sure it is very persuasive and shows exactly what you will bring to an employment. Don’t let it become (in marketing parlance) a feature-dump. You are selling a product and the product is you. As with any product the consumer is far more interested in benefits and advantages than in features.

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