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5 principles for a great CV

2 MIN READ | 2021-03-20

Ask Google how to write a great CV, and it'll spit out over 120 million search results in under a second. Unfortunately for you though, these articles often regurgitate the same list of entry-level common knowledge, like avoiding spelling mistakes and making sure to write the document in chronological order.

In today's overheated job market, let's look at some more unconventional advice that will help you stand out when you're one of 100+ applying for a position.

#1 - Keep it real, keep it concise

Here's a quick mental assignment: try stepping into the shoes of a hiring manager. 

You're already overworked because you and your team are currently covering for one person more than you actually have, yet at the same time, you need to prioritize reviewing 100+ CVs to select the candidates you'll start interviewing next week.

It's not hard to understand that hiring managers are likely to spend less than 15 seconds per CV before adding them to the “Yes-or-No” pile. 

Use this knowledge to your advantage by making sure that you keep your CV as short as possible (preferably 1 page, maximum 2 pages). Make sure the layout is visually appealing and focus equal parts of your attention on creating content and removing unnecessary fluff or filler content that adds little value or context.

It might be tempting to write down 10 bullet points to summarise your skills, but can you bring it back to the 3 that matter most so that you have a fighting chance the hiring manager actually makes it all the way through to the end of the CV?

Marissa Mayer's famous CV is a great reminder that even business veterans can manage to visualize their career in a one-pager.

Lastly, forget all of that fancy job-application language you were incorrectly taught to use at school. Whether you're writing a Cover Letter, CV or sending them an email, hiring managers want to connect with you like actual human beings.

Have you ever tried speaking like this in real-life situations?

“Dear hiring manager, it is with much pleasure and enthusiasm that I submit my application and CV for the position of Marketing Manager at Startup XYZ.”

#2 - Entertain them with a story

Every CV should tell a story that tries to captivate its reader to read on, which is why you need to unleash the art of storytelling in the design and structure of your CV.

Using a headline summary — a short paragraph above your work experience — is a perfect way to design a narrative that guides the reader in understanding who you are and why you might be an ideal candidate for their company.

Let's stick with our Marketing Manager and give her a name, Alicia, to show what storytelling can do to entertain the reader of her CV:

HELLO, I'M ALICIA

I have 12 years of experience in designing marketing strategies that have helped startups (< 10 FTE) grow into successful scale-ups (>150 FTE). Most recently, I spent the last 3 years helping Startup XYZ get their products in front of new customers in Europe's biggest growth markets. Having studied and formerly worked in business development roles, I enjoy creating marketing campaigns that drive meaningful commercial growth and are held accountable against their contribution to company performance.

This type of introduction takes the reader on a journey and starts to paint a narrative of who Alicia is and how her work experience and education tie into that persona.

Writing a great headline summary can be the most challenging aspect of your CV, so consider asking friends or business acquaintances for feedback on this part. Better yet, if you have any friends who are marketeers, journalists, or content editors — ask them!

#3 - Avoid listing overused platitude character traits

When hiring, young startup-type companies often look at culture-fit as an equally important factor as bringing the right skillset. 

The problem with trying to put too much emphasis in the CV on the culture-fit with your potential future employer is that you usually end up listing character traits that are overused and highly subjective to your own biased perception of yourself.

"I'm an energetic self-starter, a great team player and I like to think outside of the box to find solutions to problems."

You might be all of those things, but until a hiring manager speaks to you in person or conducts a reference call to verify whether these qualities apply to you, these opinions of yourself don't add much value.

If you do want to bring across that you're a team player, try showcasing a concrete achievement to provide some context for why you are.

"In 2020, I led a cross-departmental team of 8 people responsible for the launch of a new product called XYZ; I see my ability to work as a team player as a key factor in the success of this project."

#4 - Focus on achievements as much as responsibilities

Hiring managers aren't just interested in finding out what responsibilities you had at your previous employers, they want to know whether you were any good at them.

Instead of simply listing your tasks and responsibilities at a previous position, carve out space to list meaningful achievements that showcase how you performed. Make these statements concrete and quantifiable, so it's clear it's not just your own evaluation of how good you are at what you do. For example:


  • "I designed 17 quarterly marketing campaigns that included blog content, social media, podcasts, and advertising; during these 4 years sales revenue from inbound leads grew by 375% under my lead."

  • "I helped ideate 14 sponsored marketing campaigns for key clients, including Google, Adobe, and Coolblue; one of these campaigns won a Cannes Lions award in the category ‘best media campaign’ in 2019."

#5 - Tailor each CV to your recipient

Never ever make false claims on your CV, or lie about achievements to make your CV appear better than your actual experience. If you get caught, and most people do, mistakes like these can haunt you throughout your career.

That said, there is a lovely shade of grey in content creation that allows you to:

  • selectively choose which strengths and achievements to highlight;
  • selectively choose what things you want to pay less attention to in your CV;
  • selectively choose wording that matches the tone of voice of the employer;

Let's go back to Alicia for an example.

As a marketing expert that has worked for tech startups, she could use her own headline summary to easily switch between describing herself as a Marketing Strategist, a Startup Marketing Expert, or a Digital Marketing Manager, depending on what she feels fits best with the company she is applying to.

She could also decide to list different achievements or responsibilities in her previous work experience, like shifting emphasis between points that cover:

  • how and which clients she has interacted with ( +if client experience is a must)
  • how much her work contributed to profit ( +if a commercial mindset is a must)
  • how well she collaborated with international colleagues ( +if it's remote work)

A final tip that should only be used in moderation, is to feed some of the hiring companies’ own language back to them in your choice of words in the CV.

Are they looking for someone that is great at “deploying growth strategies at scale to capture new relevant audiences”? Then talk about how you deployed growth strategies instead of saying you executed marketing strategies that helped bring in new users.

In summary: a great CV should be like a living work of art, one that you're able to adapt and improve for every new encounter with a potential employer.

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Taking the lead

How does that sound? It sounds great is what it does and I'll tell you why.

1. Most people are busy making decisions all day long and there is nothing more pleasant than hearing somebody suggest that they can sit back and relax because 'this first part is covered'.

2. It exudes confidence. The kind of confidence that your potential employer will start to realise you could be using on their behalf in the future, should they choose to work with you.

3. You're in control of the conversation and just created an opportunity for yourself to start off with your story.

Instead of being at the mercy of whatever opening dialogue or question your meeting partner puts forward, you can start off on your own terms. Consider how controlling the opening narrative gives you the strategic ability to:

  • Most people are busy making decisions all day long and there is nothing more pleasant than hearing somebody suggest that they can sit back and relax because 'this first part is covered'.
  • It exudes confidence. The kind of confidence that your potential employer will start to realise you could be using on their behalf in the future, should they choose to work with you.
  • You're in control of the conversation and just created an opportunity for yourself to start off with your story.



Be careful to make sure that this story can be delivered within a maximum of 5-10 minutes, which would be a reasonable amount of time to ‘hijack’ for an introduction in a 60-minute interview. You'll want to align the time you take with the length of the interview to avoid being cut short half-way because your interviewer wants a chance to ask questions.

The advantage of taking the lead and sharing your story first is the opportunity you have to practice that opening narrative at home. You can even practise delivering the narrative in turns with your spouse or a friend, to experience the effect from both sides of the table.

Closing it off

Interviewer: I think I've asked about everything I wanted to know from you. Do you have any other questions for me/us?

You: Same here, no more questions, thank you.

In reality, this is a wasted opportunity not to execute a similar strategy for owning the closing narrative of your conversation together.

In the art of debate it's common practice to deliver closing arguments, and there's a subtle way you can do the same in a situation like this.

Close off the conversation with a 30-second summary of why you're the right man or woman for the job. You can practice the majority of this part at home, although there's definitely bonus points if you manage to reference anything the interviewer mentioned during the conversation. Finally, don't forget to ask about their timeline and next steps from here.

Interviewer: I think I've asked about everything I wanted to know from you. Do you have any other questions for me/us?

You: No more questions, but I'd like to summarise why I think you should hire me for this position. From our conversation it's become clear to me that you're looking for someone that has experience doing X, Y and Z, and can bring that expertise to the current team. Between my years at Company A and Company B I have X years under my belt of managing exactly these processes. Our conversation has also reinforced my belief that this is exactly the kind of company I want to work for.

You: Thank you again for this interview. Before we close off, is there any information you can share about the next steps and the timeline within which you'll be making a decision?

You'll never know how an interview will run and what challenging questions you'll get, but by taking the lead you'll always be able to start and finish it on your own terms.