It has taken me 13 years and 414 million people have got there before me, but last week I finally sat down to compose my summary for the networking site LinkedIn. The beauty of being such a late adopter is that all you have to do is find one person who has mastered this practically impossible form of composition and crib them.
My first stop was the summary written by a woman who I hope will soon be the most important in the world. Hillary Clinton’s effort goes like this.
“Wife, mother, grandmother, women and kids advocate, FLOTUS, FLOAR, Senator, secretary of state, dog person, hair icon, pantsuit aficionado, 2016 presidential candidate.”
Is this a spoof? Can the former FLOTUS really think her role as a grandmother (of which there are an estimated 35 million in the US alone) is more interesting to LinkedIn members than her shot at the White House? And as for the dogs and trouser suits, I can see she is trying to seem humorous, but it doesn’t work. I shan’t be copying Ms Clinton, but she has taught me my first two lessons: no jokes and stick to the point.
Next, I tried Reid Hoffman. As he founded LinkedIn, he really ought to know how to do it. His summary begins: “All aspects of consumer internet and software. Focus is on product development, innovation, business strategy, and finance, but includes general management, operations, business operations, business development, talent management, and marketing.” He lost me after a dozen words, but at least gave lesson three: don’t be boring.
After that I hopped from one profile to another, and discovered that no one has a clue how to write one. Some summaries are maximalist, others minimalist. There is Arianna Huffington padding out an already long one with an entire paragraph listing every TV show she has ever gone on from Charlie Rose to The O'Reilly Factor. There is another lesson here: don't be self-indulgent. Bill Gates, on the other hand, keeps his short.
“Co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Chairman, Microsoft Corporation. Voracious reader. Avid traveller. Active blogger.” He teaches lesson five: you are only allowed to mention your hobbies if, like Mr Gates, you have made them your life.
First or third person?
Not only is there no agreement on length, nor is there any on something even more basic: first person or third? Almost all grand business figures go for third, pasting in their official bios: "Jack Welch is one of the world's most respected and celebrated CEOs, known for his unmatched track record of success, enormous love of people, fierce passion for winning, and unbridled desire to change the world for the better . . ." From the former head of GE, I extract lessons six and seven. The third person is too stiff for a social networking site. And bragging like this is not just flagrant, it is borderline fraudulent. Unmatched record? Enormous love of people? Says who?
David Cameron, by contrast, goes for the first person.
“I became Prime Minister after the General Election in May 2010,” he begins simply enough, ending: “I am married to Samantha, and we have three young children, Nancy, Elwen, and Florence.”
This establishes rule eight, which says you can only refer to your family on LinkedIn if you are the prime minister, in which case your luckless wife and children are part of the package. Otherwise, leave them out.
All these famous people have it easy as we know who they are already, while the rest of us have to try to stand out.
Steven Burda, an unknown consultant, became the most connected man on the site in 2013 on the basis of a summary that said "I move mountains . . . One day I'll take over the world. Nothing is impossible for me." This leads me to rule nine. A lot of people on LinkedIn must be twits.
The only thing I’m sure about is the headline; I’m simply going to use my job title. To anyone who thinks that is too dull, I direct them to the horror composed by a senior banker at Lloyds: “Shaper Planter with strong Adaptive Dealer behaviours”.
As for the rest of it, I am still chewing my pencil. But that might be because I don't know what the site is really for. Some people use it to find jobs. Others use it to connect – but some don't even do that. Michael Dell ends his official third-person summary with the first-person plea: "Please do not request to connect with me unless we know each other or have worked together."
For him the site isn't for connecting, but one-upmanship. In that case there is a better way of doing it – to steer clear. Declining to be on LinkedIn is a position occupied by the queen, the governor of the Bank of England, Philip Green, Warren Buffett, the pope, – and by a man I sincerely hope will not shortly become the most important in the world – Donald Trump.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2016