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How to Write a Biography that Sells

Selling yourself to an investor, employer, or a school admissions committee is like selling a car in a magazine advertisement; you have very little space to tell an exciting story to your reader.  How can you make the case that you are a must-see candidate?

While earning my MBA, I worked part-time as a resume editor for the school’s office of Career Services.  During that time, I developed the five-step process below.

1. Determine what industries and positions you are interested in.

If you do not know where you’re going, then you certainly won’t get there

2. Develop a list of the characteristics that your readers are looking for in their applicants.

Ideally, you will appear to be precisely the sort of individual that your reader is seeking.

3. Write the document to highlight specific accomplishments that provide evidence of the reader’s desired characteristics.  In discussing your accomplishments, it is often helpful to keep the following three questions in mind:

  • Problem: What was the challenge?
  • Action: How did you overcome it?
  • Resolution: What were the specific results of your action?

Below is an example of steps II and III: a list of some common characteristics which recruiters may look for, along with suggestions on how to demonstrate that you possess those characteristics.  While these characteristics are common, they may not apply to your particular search.  These are listed, very roughly, in descending order of importance.[1]  I have included sample text from real resumes of candidates with whom I have worked.

To demonstrate this characteristic… here are some suggestions for supporting it in your profile
Unquestioned integrity Community service.  Military experience.  Security clearance.

“Graduate – Navy’s Commanding Officers’ School – US DOE/DOD (high level security clearances)”

Interpersonal/ teamwork skills Participation in team sports.  Mention of club/community activities (e.g., nonprofit organizations).
Sales skills Track record of successful salesmanship, fundraising, marketing, etc.  “Personally raised $500,000 from 35 alumni donors.”
“-        Founder and head, computer consultancy (35 clients, 110 consultants).-           President, advertising agency (50 clients, 10 employees).”
Ambition/commitment to continuous personal improvement Track record of great success in at least one field.  Continuing education (e.g., taking an accounting class while working full time).  Record of steady promotion.
“#1 college marathoner in Connecticut, 1990-94.”
“LEVER BROTHERS COMPANY, New York, NY           1975 – 1976 and 1969 – 1971Assistant Product Group Manager (1975-1976), Asst. Product Manager (1970-1971), Territory Sales Rep (1969)”
Leadership/ management skills Leadership of student clubs.  Quantification of the number of people you have managed.  “Recruited, hired, trained and managed 10 staff members.”
“Directed all company functions of $56M, 500-employee HVAC products manufacturer, marketing to hardware retailers, HVAC and plumbing wholesalers, commercial/industrial boiler engineers, and roofing dealers.”
Intelligence High grades.  Success in multiple disciplines.

“Harvard MBA.  Second Year Honors.  Received highest possible grade (“1”) in over 50% of classes.
Columbia BA, Economics and Psychology (double major).  Awards included: Distinction in Psychology; McLaughlin Essay Prize; State Farm Fellowship.”

Networking skills Membership in industry associations, school alumni groups, ethnic groups, religious groups, etc.
“World Affairs Council; Foreign Research Institute; Eastern Technology Council; Wharton Alumni Association; Board Member-YMCA; Member Turnaround Management Association; International Executives Group (IERG)”
Boardroom presence Frequent meetings with and presentations to senior officers at firms.
Communication skills Published writings.  Public speaking or debate experience.  Writing awards.
Quantitative skills Math major.  High grades in quantitative subjects.  High GMAT.  Quantification of results achieved in your positions.
“Raised profits from $50,000 to $150,000 in just one year.”
“MBA Finance & Strategy, The Wharton School, The University of Pennsylvania;
M.S. Engineering Physics, The University of Virginia;
B.S. Physics, Niagara University”
Multi-tasking ability and an ability to think on ones feet Multiple simultaneous leadership roles while attending school.  Multiple job responsibilities.
Willingness to work hard Experience working with tight deadlines.

“A spokesperson for the corporation: developing and communicating key corporate messages accurately and convincingly, under deadline pressure, to multiple audiences including investors, financial/business journalists (online and offline) globally, employees and customers”

Industry knowledge Experience in the industry.  Trade association membership.  Published writings on the industry.
“Supplier conference at FPL – “The Changing Definition of Supply Chain”Southeastern Electric Exchange Conference – “Collaborative Supply Chain- A Business Model”i2 Planet Conference – “Multiple Industry Solution Demonstration-An Integrated Supply Chain”
Personality, humanity Theater experience.  Interesting hobbies.  Something on the resume to make you more human and approachable, not someone who is focused 100% on business.
Comfort with technology Position as webmaster of a club.  Maintenance of a personal website.

“Built complex models for merger, debt and equity issuance, and leveraged buy-out options.  “

Comfort with unstructured environment/ adaptability Entrepreneurship.  Independent foreign travel.  Experience in diverse cultures and industries.
Desire to “give back” Volunteering in a nonprofit.

“Operated a consulting company while attending an MBA program at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Conducted Global client engagements in the United States, United Kingdom, Israel, Austria, Canada, and Eastern Europe.  Concurrently, taught three courses at the Wharton School: Entrepreneurship, Venture Acquisition, and Leadership Fundamentals.  Acted as advisor to the School’s Dean, students, and the Recanati Program staff in Wharton’s Marketing Department.”

4. Write the document to highlight specific accomplishments that provide evidence of the reader’s desired areas of experience. Following is a list of some of the major areas in which readers may look for experience, along with suggestions on how to demonstrate that you understand those areas.[2]

To demonstrate this expertise…  

here are some suggestions for supporting it in your document.

Interpersonal and Management skills Participation in team sports.  Mention of club/community activities (e.g., section positions).  A focus on the interpersonal aspects of your job.  “Mentored 5 programmer/analysts to project-manager level in 2 years.”

“Drove synergy across operating companiesInitiated joint quotation activity to capitalize on different strengths of operating units to serve business unavailable to any single company within group.  Established group-level sales/marketing function.  Brought in new business, customers from other operating group.”

Finance Financial language, even for non-financial jobs.  “Boosted operating margins from 10% to 14% in division.  Reduced inventory turns from 150 days to 79 days.”

“With a $2,000 PR budget, gained highly favorable coverage in the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, Financial Times, Red Herring, Tornado-Insider, Internet.com, and other leading publications in nine countries.”

Negotiations Mention of negotiating experience.
“Negotiated $50M+ contracts with four Fortune 500 customers.”
Technology & Operations Management Writing that indicates you think in terms of process improvement.  “Reengineered workflow to speed preparation of marketing materials from 51 days to 20 days.”

“Established quality programs that reduced Defects Per Million from 3500 to under 1000.  Drove programs that reduced overhead costs per direct labor hour from $160.00 to under $70.00.”

Marketing Experience in selling or fundraising.
“Sold company’s services to 55 diverse customers, achieving 120% annual sales growth.”
“Raised $50,000 from alumni worldwide.”“Communicated on the company’s behalf with media, resulting in high-profile articles appearing in Forbes, Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and Financial Times, as well as broadcast coverage on Bloomberg News and CNN”
Competition and Strategy Competitive intelligence-gathering.
“Researched competition and consequently positioned $1M new product to exploit competition’s weaknesses.”“Positioned facility for rapid re-opening upon economic recovery.”  (Shows that the writer is planning ahead for changing circumstances.)
Politics, Macro- economics and International Relations Travel.  Fluency in multiple languages.  Work experience in multiple locations.  Multiple citizenships.

“Lived and worked in Israel, Brazil, France, and Taiwan.  Legal citizenship in USA, Israel, and France.  Speak Advanced Hebrew. Intermediate French.”

5. Finally, double-check your format against the format desired by your reader. For example, make sure that you have included all the desired information, met all length limits, and answered all questions that are likely to be asked.  Incidentally, standard Harvard Business School format prohibits most italics.  Resumes are often faxed, and italics smear on faxes.

 

I’ve listed below some general principles to keep in mind:

  • Be thoughtful about the reader you are targeting and structure your marketing document accordingly.
  • It is generally wise to include a permanent address (e.g., your parents’ address).  The average American moves every 7 years; it is to your benefit to help your reader find you in case you move.
  • I also strongly recommend you get a permanent email address (ideally from your university), rather than using an Internet Service Provider (ISP) email address (e.g., name@aol.com, name@verizon.net).  Using an ISP email address locks you in to that ISP, and makes you difficult to reach should you switch ISPs.  Better yet, register your family name at namecheap.com (e.g., teten.com) and get your own email address (e.g., david(@)teten.com).
  • Be aware of and fight the prejudices that operate against you.  For example, if you have a non-quantitative college major, readers will often assume that you are not good at quantitative thinking.  You will benefit by articulating why your reader should not make that assumption.  Similarly, if you grew up in a non-anglophone country, readers will often assume that your English is not truly fluent.  You will benefit by mentioning that you have “native fluency in English” (assuming that is the truth).  You can prove your fluency by talking about your frequent presentations in front of large audiences.
  • Quantify your achievements.   How many people did you manage?  “Completed equity offering for $2B pharmaceutical company.” “Turned around under-performing operating company:  moved rapidly to restructure management team, reduce headcount, reduce inventories 37% and receivables (days’ sales outstanding dropped from 46 to 40).”
  • Do not include hyperbole. Do not take the risk of weakening your entire document’s credibility by including claims that are not credible.  Tell the truth and only the truth.
  • Use boldfacing, underlining, and occasionally a box in order to guide the reader’s eye to the most impressive portions of your resume.
  • With the above exceptions, use simple text formatting in your resume: one font size, minimal table usage, no italics, no shadowing, and no graphics.  Resumes are often read on a word processing system different than yours, and fancy formatting makes them hard to read and harder to scan.  Do not use the automatic bullets in Word; instead, manually type in hyphens.  These are more likely to retain their formatting when viewed by a foreign word processor.
  • Give your resume a name in the format: “Clinton-Hillary-Resume-2016.doc”.  When the reader of your resume saves the file, it will therefore be easy for him or her to know later what is in that file.  Names like “Resume.doc”, or even worse, “Dad’s Resume.doc”, make your reader’s job much more difficult.
  • The average reader spends just 10 seconds glancing at your resume.  Evaluate: given that fact, what are the ideas/words that pop out?
  • If you have no summary statement, you are positioned by the most recent job on your resume.  Ask: is that how you want to be positioned?
  • A resume should answer questions, not ask them.  Be careful not to use acronyms and not to leave the reader unclear on your precise history.  When readers say, “I don’t understand what you were doing for 1991-1994”, that is your fault and not theirs.
  • Emphasize your brand names.  Well-known universities, employers, etc. all carry weight; they should be listed early in the document.
  • “Show don’t tell.”  Instead of “award-winning senior executive”, which is vague, try: “Winner of 11 Fragrance Foundation ‘Fragrance of The Year Awards’ (An industry record)”
  • Good luck!

[1] Harvard Business School uses a similar list in its admissions brochure, and judges its applicants in part based on that list.  Following is a list of the desired characteristics and capabilities of Harvard Business School graduates, according to page 1 of the 1996 Harvard MBA Program brochure:

  • Values and Qualities: Ethical Commitment, Commitment to Continuous Personal Improvement, Self-Esteem, and Orientation to Action
  • Skills: Creative Problem Solving, Rigorous Reasoning, Problem Solving, Synthesis, Communication and Negotiation, Teamwork and Collaboration, Entrepreneurship, and Leadership
  • Knowledge: General Management, Functional Expertise, Global Understanding, and Understanding of Technology

[2] This list is based on the 1997 Harvard Business School first-year curriculum, which subsumes almost all of the major areas of business management.