The Barnum Effect and your LinkedIn profile

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Warsaw, Poland – The 19th century American businessman P.T. Barnum ran an immensely successful circus, with acrobats, performing horses, strongmen, and – most significantly – fortune-tellers. Barnum was intrigued by the fact that so many people were more than willing to pay good money to be told their fortunes, even though they were all being told the same thing over and over (which he knew because he was listening from behind the scenes). And every customer was satisfied, because they were convinced that they were being given a fortune that was theirs and theirs alone, personal and perfect.

In modern vernacular, Barnum was a publicity hound. He printed and distributed innumerable copies of his autobiography, and as a result his observations have survived to this day, including the Barnum Effect (also known as the horoscope effect). When people are provided with supposedly tailor-made and unique descriptions of their personalities, they tend to rate them as highly accurate, even though these descriptions are so vague and general that they could apply to anyone. This effect is the bread and butter of fortune-tellers, astrologers, horoscope writers and tarot-readers. “You are a deeply compassionate and good-natured individual, although people aren’t always able to read your good intentions” – well, isn’t that about me? “It is exactly like me!” everyone says.

What does the Barnum Effect have to do with our CVs – or our LinkedIn profiles? Unfortunately, it is extremely relevant. Let’s start at the top with the Experience Summary, which is meant to encapsulate our professional track record for the benefit of an HR executive or recruiter who is reading it. How many of us write something like this?

“I am a creative, flexible, hard-working, committed, enthusiastic, highly energetic, dynamic, inspiring, independent, team-working, stress-resistant, pragmatic and creative, focused and target-driven decision maker (the tougher the decision, the better), a charismatic leader, whose vision and strategic thinking were instrumental to success in numerous key projects (the type and number of the projects are left to the imagination); I aim to build strong, long-term relationships based on trust and respect, I am experienced in change / P&L / team / project management, etc. And finally, I am able to work under time pressure.”

These are all direct quotes from real CVs that I have seen – but are all these pleasantly generic statements relevant? Do they actually convey valuable information? Not at all. They could be applied to every single one of us – I have never seen anyone say: “I am not creative and hard-working, I don’t have leadership skills, and I crack under pressure.”

And if these statements are about everybody, then in fact they are about nobody in particular. These bland, generic clichés waste valuable space, which could be used in much better ways.

Later on in the CV, we describe our experience in hard facts, and the Barnum Effect rears its ugly head again. A simple example: “Sales Director at Company X: sales team management / coaching (a popular, but overused word), full P&L responsibility, commercial strategy implementation, planning, supervision and execution of sales plans, Key Account management, creating a pricing policy, leading trade negotiations, etc.”

However, these duties and phrases are part and parcel of the job description of a sales director – any sales director. It is no better than saying that a bus driver is responsible for driving a bus, so he drives a bus. People who read CVs have a general idea of a sales director’s responsibilities, and they look for details that differentiate this particular sales director from all the others (numbers, tangible achievements, case studies). Horoscopes are ephemeral and unmemorable – people usually forget them straight after reading – and this is also true of horoscope CVs and LinkedIn profiles.

Barnum is also credited with coining the phrase "There's a sucker born every minute." Think about that for a moment, and decide who you want your CV to be about.

Pedersen & Partners is one of the fastest-growing, fully integrated Executive Search firms worldwide; it is 100% owned by its partners who all work full-time to serve its clients. The firm celebrated its 15th anniversary in January 2016, and to mark this occasion, it has created a timeline web page, featuring key milestones for the firm’s development and has released an anniversary video.


Dariusz Użycki  is the Regional Head of the Industrial Practice for CEE & CIS at Pedersen & Partners, based in Warsaw, Poland. Before joining the firm, he worked for more than 14 years as a senior manager within the recruitment industry focused on executive and senior management placements and B2B consulting across the CEE and CIS regions.  He has notable experience across the Industrial, Retail, Technology, and Life Sciences sectors. In addition, Mr. Użycki has professional experience in leadership development and executive coaching and has authored and co-authored articles within the Harvard Business Review Poland and Corporate Governance Review.


Pedersen & Partners is a leading international Executive Search firm. We operate 56 wholly owned offices in 52 countries across Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Asia & the Americas. Our values Trust, Relationship and Professionalism apply to our interaction with clients as well as executives. More information about Pedersen & Partners is available at www.pedersenandpartners.com

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