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CVs. We need to talk.

It’s that time of year again when fresh-faced young hopefuls hit the public affairs market all scrubbed, shiny and optimistic. And my time-trampled, jaded face is held in my hands in anticipation of the horrors to come. 

Sometimes I’m pleasantly surprised but often I’m compelled to offer help.  In fairness to grads, those of greater experience can also disappoint but before you’re overwhelmed by my positivity, let’s crack on.

Why write a CV?

The sole purpose of a CV is to get an interview and therefore a job, making it a pretty important document.  So for that initial impression, make it clear and easy on the eye. What does this mean? 

  • Bullet points – love them! They’re aesthetically pleasing, look punchy and help you arrange your thoughts;
  • Short paragraphs – a dense piece of text requiring one to pick out the good bits makes my poor little heart sink. In my worst moments it can make me quite cross that writer assumes reader has that much time. Personality flaw, I know;
  • One font, one colour, no underlining and go easy on the italics – a mix of these creates mind boggling jumble, inducing the reader to roll her eyes and sigh deeply. Never a good start;
  • No photo –while it’s common on European CVs it’s not considered appropriate in the UK. Lovely as your face certainly is, for me, a photo creates a little question mark over why you have included it – you’re not selling yourself on your appearance. Please do put one on your Linkedin profile but beyond that, as writers of romantic fiction say, “Always leave them wanting more”;
  • Definitely no writing in columns or tables and no coloured paper.  Isn’t this a little unimaginative? No. You’re not in consumer PR;
  • Obviously douse every hard copy in aftershave or perfume. Just kidding. Glad you’re still reading.

Who do you think you are?

Start with a three-line profile beneath your name. No need for the title Curriculum Vitae – if I haven’t realised this already, my need for a new job is greater than yours.

Write a profile in the third person without using your name (delusions of grandeur). This sets the scene and paints a picture of who you are and how you position yourself – your own bit of personal branding. Use it to sow the seed in the mind of the reader that you have what they need.

Try to avoid using tired phrases like “good communicator and excellent team player” which are subjective and think a bit laterally, perhaps “engages easily with people” and “naturally collaborative”. But ideally, use the profile to highlight your quantifiable experience that is indisputable “Politics graduate with 2 internships in public affairs consultancies and a painful case of ingrowing toenails”.

Is the message getting through?

The foundation of a CV should be based on two things:

  • Transferable skills;
  • Achievements.

As a reader, I want to know what you’ve done but more importantly, how well you’ve done it. If you fail to blow your own trumpet while describing your experience (and please do qualify those claims) you might as well be writing your job description. So, uncomfortable as it may be, blow that trumpet you must.  If you find this challenging, ask a friend what they think you’re good at (wait until they’ve stopped laughing) and apply it to your professional life. Or imagine you are justifying to your boss your request for a pay rise. Lose headings like “Responsibilities” and “Duties” lest you sound like the Reception Class Milk Monitor.

Your undoubted brilliance

Assuming you have achieved an array of outstanding feats in multiples aspects of your past life, you might like to add a separate Achievements bullet point or two beneath each position, possibly in italics but only if it doesn’t look too busy.

Education and Interests come last (unless you have no experience in which case, Education will take pride of place beneath your profile) BUT if you have a First Class degree, do mention it in your profile. Particularly in the sphere of politics, there are elements of some peoples’ history that should be closely guarded secrets – but gaining a First isn’t one of them.

Career fledglings:

Admittedly, it’s tough to stand out in a crowd when your experience is limited. You’re not yet an expert in much, so such claims won’t sound credible.  But don’t be afraid to put a bit of your personality into your CV.  Interesting hobbies or experiences can be an icebreaker and something that makes a subconscious connection with the reader – the relentlessly disappointing football team you support, the appalling level of golf you have achieved, the unplanned tour of hospitals you made while travelling in Asia, etc – nothing wrong with showing your sense of humour. Sure, we all need a level of skill and competence but people also like to work with people they can engage with. 

Meantime, gather those skills – write some articles, blog away, volunteer somewhere, get some campaigning experience, support a charity and network your socks off. In the immortal words of Paolo Nutini “I’m out and about so I’m in with a shout”.

Career veterans:

Picture the scene. You are hoping to get a new job in Communications. As a Public Affairs professional it’s a given that you can distil complex pieces of information into bite sized chunks that are tailored to a specific audience, in fact, this is often mentioned in CVs – but do consider that if your CV is 4 or 5 pages long, the weary reader is likely to become sceptical of any claim that you’re good at this. Keep it to 2 pages.

One more thing: be kind to those of us with a phobia for long cover letters. In general, the majority of this information can and should be incorporated into your CV. The purpose of a covering letter is to highlight the relevant parts of your experience in relation to a particular job – not to repeat the majority of the contents of your CV. If you are responding to an advertisement that has asked for A, B and C, your cover letter is there to signpost that you can offer A, B and C. That’s all. “Brevity in writing is the best insurance for its perusal” (Rudolf Virchow).

Speaking of which, I can hear the cries of “pot, kettle, black”, so that’s it from me – with one final disclaimer… no two people will agree on the definitive way to write a public affairs CV, so this is just my two pennies’ worth. Thoughts and questions? Always happy to chat so do get in touch. 

Amanda Johnson, Director