Tuesday, February 17, 2009

How to write a good cover letter.

These days, with so many layoffs, everyone who's looking for another job needs to have a good cover letter to accompany their resume. Unfortunately, most cover letters are bad...really bad.

For one thing, they all look exactly the same. They all begin with the same word: "I". "I saw your ad on Craig's list....", or "I have just the background you are looking for...." and so on, and so on. This kind of cover letter will bore you to death. In fact, do this: if you can't get to sleep tonight, take a batch of cover letters to bed with you; you'll fall asleep, pronto.

Why does everyone write a lousy cover letter (and resume, for that matter)? For a couple of reasons. One, they listen to career counselors who don't know any better. Two, the cover letter writers are too lazy to craft an interesting letter. Three, the writers are unenlightened. Four, they don't understand that a cover letter serves as a marketing tool. In that regard, it has three obligations: attract attention, create interest, and move the reader to action, that is, call you for an interview.

If the letter doesn't attract attention, you might just as well write it on a piece of paper and then burn it. You must, absolutely must, attract the reader's attention. So, how do you do that? Simple, just use one or more of these devices: 1) Begin with a question, 2) Begin with a quote, 3) Begin with a brief story.

No career counselor will tell you to do what I just told you to do. They want every cover letter to look exactly the same. I have no idea why. But, this violates the rules of strategy and marketing. You can't look like every other candidate (or product). You must differentiate yourself. Philip Kotler, the guru of marketing, and Michael Porter, the guru of strategy, speak at length about using differentiation as tools for strategy and marketing.

So, let's return to my simple devices. One, the question. What does a cover letter with a question do? It involves the reader. It makes him/her answer. It also arouses his/her curiosity. For instance, if you are writing to Microsoft, begin your letter with this question: "What kind of employee does Microsoft want to hire?" Then, answer the question, "Microsoft wants energetic, self-motivated, educated, experienced, innovative achievers.... Microsoft has become a leader because it has hired people like this."

You will note that my style of cover letter talks not about me as a candidate but about the company I am writing to. We all want to hear about ourselves because we are all motivated by self interest. Marketers understand this. They know that carpenters don't want drill bits, they want holes. Microsoft doesn't want your skills; it wants to solve its problems. Therefore, talk about the reader, not about yourself. This will engage the reader. If you don't want to use a question, use a quote.

"The future belongs to the young engineers from India." Bill Gates

All right, so maybe Bill Gates didn't say exactly that; but, if I were applying to Microsoft, and I were a young engineer from India, I'd quote Bill, and then, of course, I'd connect the content of that quote to myself. I'd put this sentence immediately after the quote: "I am a young engineer from Bangalore and I heard Mr. Gates speak when he visited India. He inspired me to become a computer engineer and I vowed one day to work for Microsoft."

If you don't resonate with either the question or the quote device, tell a brief story. As we said in several posts, stories work. We all use stories every day. We introduce ourselves to others by telling the stories of our lives, we tell the stories of our businesses, we listen to the stories of our customers' needs. Our lives are the stories we live. And, we are all suckers for a good story. Remember, we are trying to attract attention, create interest and lead the readers to action, that is, call us for an interview! Stories get you on your way. They attract attention and create interest.

Everyone, I mean everyone, has a good story to tell. I don't care if you won the regional ping pong championship in Beijing; it makes an interesting and unusual story (differentiating). So, tell it in the first two sentences of your cover letter. In fact, italicize it and separate it as the first paragraph. Then, transition into the job you are seeking and your qualifications for that job. It's not hard after you have decided to give up the tired, old, trite, same-as-everyone-else cover letter.

That's the hard part, though. You can't believe how hard it is for us to give up our standard, worn-out ways. Give it a try. Send me your new cover letter. I promise to help you with it. Send it to edbarr@cmu.edu You will find you have the skill and creativity to attract attention and create interest about yourself, the product "you".

1 comment:

  1. The cover letter is the perfect opportunity for an individual to specifically address the reasons why a potential employer might want to consider an
    individual for a particular job position.the underlying concept is amazing..!@bose
    Sample Cover letters