What Leonardo Da Vinci can teach you about job applications

Leonardo da VinciThe principles Leonardo Da Vinci used to impress a prospective employer over 500 years ago are just as pertinant today. He applied for employment in the court of Ludovico Sforza the Regent of Milan sometime in the 1480s with this letter, which looks a combination of a modern covering letter and CV.

I am indebted to @GuardianCareers and the Letters of Note blog for drawing my attention to Mr Da Vinci’s application, even though I do not have any suitable positions to offer him!

My Most Illustrious Lord,

Leonardo sent his letter directly to the man in the position to employ him rather than the Regency of Milan’s medieval equivalent of HR. He opened with an greeting appropriate to flattering a powerful ruler of the age, today you need to understand the cultural expectations of the job market you are operating in. Dear Mr/Ms x is suitable for a UK application but in other countries a more effusive style may be more suitable.

Having now sufficiently seen and considered the achievements of all those who count themselves masters and artificers of instruments of war, and having noted that the invention and performance of the said instruments is in no way different from that in common usage, I shall endeavour, while intending no discredit to anyone else, to make myself understood to Your Excellency for the purpose of unfolding to you my secrets, and thereafter offering them at your complete disposal, and when the time is right bringing into effective operation all those things which are in part briefly listed below:

A short introduction explaining the purpose of his letter. Regents were busy men, Leonardo knew he had to get Ludovico’s attention quickly.

1. I have plans for very light, strong and easily portable bridges with which to pursue and, on some occasions, flee the enemy, and others, sturdy and indestructible either by fire or in battle, easy and convenient to lift and place in position. Also means of burning and destroying those of the enemy.

Leonardo was a man of many talents, but he researched his target employer and decided that the skills that would be of greatest interest to him would be those related to warfare. Likewise you need to identify what the person who reads your application will be looking for and prioritise the content of your letter accordingly. Leonardo’s bridges are not the most important thing he is remembered for now, but he decided they would be the best item to catch his reader’s attention.

2. I know how, in the course of the siege of a terrain, to remove water from the moats and how to make an infinite number of bridges, mantlets and scaling ladders and other instruments necessary to such an enterprise.

Short pithy points. Leonardo did not go into unnecessary detail, but he said enough to engage the reader’s interest.

3. Also, if one cannot, when besieging a terrain, proceed by bombardment either because of the height of the glacis or the strength of its situation and location, I have methods for destroying every fortress or other stranglehold unless it has been founded upon a rock or so forth.

In the course of describing his skills Da Vinci demonstrates that he understands the work he will be doing and that he can deal with every eventuality that may arise.

4. I have also types of cannon, most convenient and easily portable, with which to hurl small stones almost like a hail-storm; and the smoke from the cannon will instil a great fear in the enemy on account of the grave damage and confusion.

Be as specific as possible without sacrificing brevity. Da Vinci does not just tell Ludovico about his amazing cannons, he explains the effect they will have on an enemy. Don’t just tell a reader you have skills in communication or time management, show them how you have used them and why you are telling the reader about them.

5. Also, I have means of arriving at a designated spot through mines and secret winding passages constructed completely without noise, even if it should be necessary to pass underneath moats or any river.

6. Also, I will make covered vehicles, safe and unassailable, which will penetrate the enemy and their artillery, and there is no host of armed men so great that they would not break through it. And behind these the infantry will be able to follow, quite uninjured and unimpeded.

Da Vinci answers the ‘so what?’ question: the reader of your CV must be able to see the relevance of what you say to his/her needs, they should not read something and think ‘so what?’. Why does a Regent need an engineer capable of constructing tunnels or covered vehicles? So his troops can travel safely. Why does a graduate employer care about your ability to work in a team? Because it is a vital and integral part of the job you are applying for.

7. Also, should the need arise, I will make cannon, mortar and light ordnance of very beautiful and functional design that are quite out of the ordinary.

8. Where the use of cannon is impracticable, I will assemble catapults, mangonels, trebuckets and other instruments of wonderful efficiency not in general use. In short, as the variety of circumstances dictate, I will make an infinite number of items for attack and defence.

9. And should a sea battle be occasioned, I have examples of many instruments which are highly suitable either in attack or defence, and craft which will resist the fire of all the heaviest cannon and powder and smoke.

Having covered the points that are likely to be useful most often first, Leonardo next moves onto those which, while still important, do not merit being at the top of the letter. You need to organise your own selling points in the order which will interest the reader, rather than putting those you are most proud of first.

10. In time of peace I believe I can give as complete satisfaction as any other in the field of architecture, and the construction of both public and private buildings, and in conducting water from one place to another.

Also I can execute sculpture in marble, bronze and clay. Likewise in painting, I can do everything possible as well as any other, whosoever he may be.

Da Vinci was certainly no slouch when it came to architecture, sculpture and painting, and he decided those talents were worth including in his letter in order to demonstrate that he would earn his keep in peace as well as in war. But peacetime skills were only given a small amount of space because Da Vinci thought they would not be as relevant to the Regent as his war-related skills.

Moreover, work could be undertaken on the bronze horse which will be to the immortal glory and eternal honour of the auspicious memory of His Lordship your father, and of the illustrious house of Sforza.

Good targeting! Ludovico Sforza may not have cared much about bronze sculpture in the normal course of events, but Da Vinci appealed to his vanity and gave a specific example of how his skills could be useful.

And if any of the above-mentioned things seem impossible or impracticable to anyone, I am most readily disposed to demonstrate them in your park or in whatsoever place shall please Your Excellency, to whom I commend myself with all possible humility.

Da Vinci’s skills claims may seem quite fantastic, but his offer to demonstrate any and all of his abilities gives them greater credibility. It is always vital to back up claims of skills with evidence.

If you need feedback on your draft application see if you are eligible for our Applications Advice service or for feedback via email.

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