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CVs (or resumés) tend to be the bane of our professional lives.

We all should have one, and all know we should have one, but we approach the task of creating an effective one with all the zest and enthusiasm of a long overdue trip to the dentist. Minimum effort usually goes in to their creation, and they are seen as a chore more than anything else.

Of course this is an irrational state of affairs, as for many seeking a new job, any hopes of a better career often begin (or, indeed, perish) with our CVs.

When I was regularly interviewing and hiring people, I had the pleasure of seeing scores of CVs crossing my desk. At least 90% of them were spectacularly dull. Not poorly written, or unintelligible, but just dull. Failing to stand out in the job hunting process is a criminal offence.

These CVs often read as if they had been written by soulless robots. Long on facts, but terribly short on any passion, uniqueness or impressive achievements. I longed for the CV that had a little nugget in there which jumped off the page and forced me into a double take. I was rarely surprised.

The essential purpose of a CV

This is blindingly obvious, but let’s restate it anyway to ensure we’re on the same page: the essential purpose of a CV is to secure you an interview.

In the hands of an HR recruiter, it has to tick all the right boxes for keyword matches and minimum skills (academic and professional credentials). Much of this initial sorting is done by Applicant Tracking Systems which HR departments use to manage and filter out job applicants.

In the hands of a hiring manager, your CV has to get them pumped up about seeing you. They need to believe that taking thirty or more minutes to see you will be a useful investment of their (very scarce) time. It needs to excite them that you could be the one to come into their business and make an impact, bring something fresh, add to the team vibe.

How I filtered CVs as a hiring manager

As a hiring manager, for any given role, HR (or their equivalent external search consultant) would typically send me 7-10 CVs of promising candidates. I would look to choose the most promising three, and throw the rest in the bin.

Bear in mind that by this stage the CVs would have been filtered for relevant skills and experience. So when they landed in my inbox, I was looking not at skills and experience per se, but a hint of something special, or unusual, or compelling.

I once decided to interview a graduate partly because he had a good golf handicap and the address on his CV was at a very famous UK golf course. Instantly this suggested to me several things: he was probably steeped in the knowledge of the game and would be a good fit with clients who love to play golf (he was applying for a position on our sales desk). He performed strongly in every respect at the interview and was hired.

Those of you who either hate golf or abhor the idea of filtering candidates in this way may cry “foul!” and may have a point. But hiring managers are driven to find people who fit their needs – solve their problems if you like – in many different ways. The fact that his unusual address was at the top of the page caught my eye immediately, and was an effective ‘hook’ – accidental or deliberate, I don’t know – to compel me to read further.

So enough of the preamble, what then are these three simple steps to creating a powerful CV?

Step One – make it easy on the eye

By their nature, CVs tend to look like uniform blocks of text. Our brains don’t really like featureless text, we much prefer images to help us get excited or interested about something – a picture does indeed speak a thousand words.

Think about when you receive a long email in essentially one huge long paragraph. It makes you tired just thinking about wading through it. Our brains need help to onboard and digest information effectively.

Alternatively, think of a seven-course tasting menu at a fancy restaurant – it is served up in sequence with space in between each course for a reason. To allow you to enjoy and digest (process) one course before moving on to the next. Dumping all seven courses in front of you at once would make no sense.

Or imagine this article as one long, interminable paragraph. Would you read through it as readily as you are now, when I’ve helpfully broken up the article into several sections with a few images and lots of ‘white space’?

And so it goes with text on CVs – make effective use of white space to break up blocks of text and enable the natural sequencing of your career to be easily digested. I’d caution against using images or zany colours, but that still leaves plenty of room for helpful creativity – using tables in your Word document, effective use of shading, bullets and bold. All will make your essential text sing a little better.

So when I was determining which CVs to keep and which to throw in the bin, those which were excessively wordy, in tiny font size, or worse still, in hard-to-decipher fonts, usually got short shrift. Which is a shame because there were probably great candidates lurking behind some of those dull CVs. Make sure this doesn’t happen to you – get the basics right.

Step Two – use an Executive Summary for a powerful hook

In the battle for a busy hiring manager’s attention, your CV needs to start landing punches right from the off. Not jabs, or tickles, but a meaty hook. Something that get’s them sitting up and alert and excited.

My favourite tool for this, and one that I always use when helping clients to write a powerful CV, is the Executive Summary.

Your Executive Summary is essentially your ‘elevator pitch‘ on paper. It is the essence of why you are great. It is a compelling sales pitch, compressed into a few powerfully constructed sentences.

If your life is a lump of coal, your Executive Summary is the diamond that reflects the very, very best of you, twinkling away, tempting the hiring manager into ‘buying’ you.

By reading your Executive Summary, the hiring manager needs to have two immediate thoughts:

1) “This candidate seems great, I’ll read through the rest of the CV in detail.”

2) “I already want to get the candidate in for an interview.”

Possibly, just possibly, there might be a third thought:

3) “Wow, I hope this person is the real deal, I want to hire him/her already.”

You see, without even requiring the hiring manager to plough through every detail in your CV, they can get hugely excited about interviewing you within seconds of just starting to read.

How to craft that all-powerful Executive Summary then? Well, I recommend the following simple formula:

Firstly, three or four lines capturing the essence of you, giving a taste of your unique qualities / strengths. What is it about your background and experience that makes you the perfect fit? Every word is careful chosen to have maximum impact. No waste here. Pure, distilled excellence.

Secondly, a series of bullets capturing the biggest achievements of your life. If you are a grizzled 45-year old senior executive, you will probably have six to eight bullets showcasing succinctly your biggest professional ‘wins’, where you had the greatest impact (I have seven on my CV). If you are a 23-year old graduate, you will probably have three to four bullets which inevitably will be more about major academic or sporting achievements (which hint at a great business career in the future).

This is a tidy formula, and actually makes the task of writing your CV quite a lot of fun as it forces you to sit back and remind yourself of why you are brilliant. Quite an uplifting and rewarding process as it happens!

Step Three – make your career history ‘Action-Oriented’

If, like me, you’ve been around the block for a few decades, you’ve probably worked at multiple different firms, doing slightly different things, at different levels of responsibility. Hopefully trending better through time!

The default option for many seems to be to write out their list of different jobs in a descriptive, and rather passive way. It is typically responsibility-oriented.

“Worked at ACME Electronics Co as a sales manager, responsible for managing a team of three junior sales people. My duties included talking to key clients, running team meetings, year-end appraisals and updating the sales manuals.”

Zzzzzzzzzzzz. How dull and turgid is that? It is a perfectly accurate description of what you did for three years at ACME Electronics Co, but that isn’t getting me excited about hiring you.

By just describing what you did in a role, you are missing a major trick, one that separates highly powerful CVs from accurate, but ineffective CVs.

I don’t want to know what you did, I want to know what you achieved.

Do you see how powerfully different those two verbs are? “I did X”, or “I achieved Y” – which is likely to get my attention? Let’s go back to our friend at ACME Electronics Co:

“In my three years at ACME Electronics Co I overhauled the sales process, front to back, resulting in 43% compound annual growth in sales. I won budget to expand my sales team from two to three people and my team outperformed every other sales unit across the company while I was there.”

Doesn’t that sound more impressive? It sounds to me like you arrived at ACME Electronics, had a massive impact in their sales operation and were a star performer.

The lesson therefore is to fill your work experience section with real achievements, rather than just a description of your role. You don’t need to elaborate with details either. As a hiring manager, I will naturally see something like the paragraph above and grill you about it in the interview:

“Wow, 43% compound annual sales growth is really impressive. Talk me through the details of that. How did you plan this new process and get buy in from the various stakeholders?”

That will be a pleasure for you to answer, after all, who doesn’t like talking about their greatest successes (I think we all do, at least when encouraged!).

These career achievements are what I think of as ‘click bait’ on your CV. They are there specifically to pull your interviewer into asking about them and finding more about the substance behind the headline. That’s so powerful because you steer the whole course of the interviewer into safe territory for you – talking about your career home runs.

Without such ‘click bait’ on your CV, your interviewer (if indeed you get the interview) is more likely to throw his/her favourite random interview questions at you – which of course risks you being caught off guard and giving an unimpressive answer.

For every position you have held, think hard about the impact you had there and what you would honestly call your greatest achievement. Of course, exaggerate or lie about achievements on your CV, and you will be found out. DO NOT be tempted down this route!!

Pulling it all together

My three steps above hopefully show you a route towards a much more impactful CV. As a reminder:

Step One – make it easy on the eye

Step Two – use an Executive Summary for a powerful hook

Step Three – make your career history ‘Action-Oriented’

Inevitably it takes time to hone your CV to perfection, so do not make the mistake of rushing through any changes. Take the opportunity to think deeply about the impact you have had wherever you have worked, and how to best reflect that effectively within the confines of your CV.

Think about your greatest qualities, and how you can bring them to life on your CV. Also think about what is unique to you. Half the battle is simply being able to stand out amongst the sea of look-a-like competitors chasing the same job.

By making your CV an interesting, impactful and compelling document, you stand a much better chance of securing that elusive interview.