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Posted: September 20, 2009

The key to a killer cover letter

Toss the template and start writing from scratch

Liz Ryan

Dear Liz,

I've been using the same cover letter template for years, and I think I'm in need of a makeover. I read this cover letter and don't get excited, so I can't expect an employer to get excited, either. Any suggestions?

Thanks -- Tom

P.S. Here's my cover letter template:

Dear Sir or Madam,

I was intrigued by your advertisement for a/an [POSITION TITLE] at [EMPLOYER]. In my attached resume I believe you'll see that my background suits me very well for this position, particularly because of my experience in [RELEVANT EXPERIENCE]. I'd like to talk further with you about the position when it's convenient.

Sincerely,

Tom Smith

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Dear Tom,

Leading with the positive: the brevity of your letter is great! Short is good. I'd characterize your template as a "find my resume enclosed" letter. It doesn't add much to the conversation; it says "You should read my resume." That's not terrible, but you can send a much stronger message via your cover letter. Here are some ideas.

If we think of your resume as a product description - a document that showcases you, the Product Tom!, then we see that the cover letter's function is to build the logical bridge between the employer's need (the one they wrote about in the job ad) and your background.

For this reason, a cover letter may be more important than a resume. The cover letter says to the employer  "I see what you're up against in your business, and I understand what you're looking for. In this letter, I'll briefly share with
you now how my background relates to the issues you're facing."

It's terribly important to begin your cover letter by talking about the employer, rather than about yourself. Why did they place that ad, in the first place? You can use the job ad itself, the employer's website and a bit of Google Web & News browsing to determine what sort of business 'pain' is behind the job opening.

There's always pain in their somewhere. If there were no pain, they'd do without the new hire - who wants to spend the money? Something is broken, or stretched to the breaking point, or there wouldn't be an opening to begin with. Isn't that an empowering thought?

We need to start our cover letter with a nod to the employer's success - and not a general kiss-ass nod, but a specific one that calls out something the employer (or your target person, a decision-maker you'll located using LinkedIn, ZoomInfo, the CoBizMag archives, Google, or your own network) has done recently that you can speak intelligently about.

You'll follow that observation up with a hypothesis about the business pain behind the job ad. That's critical. We want to make it clear that we see beyond the list of skills and certifications and protocols - that we see the dragons flying around this employer's castle walls.

Then, of course, we want to talk about our experience slaying these very same dragons before - in context! Broad statements like "I'm a strategic thinker with a bottom-line orientation" are worse than useless. Anyone can say them, so they mean nothing. Plus, it's graspy (and unnecessary) to praise ourselves - we can share the facts, and let the reader draw his or her own conclusions. Concrete examples carry the day.

We'll end our Pain Letter with a call to action. We don't need to say "I'll call you next week." Call or don't call - don't yak about it! We only need to mention that we'd love to talk further, and then say goodbye. Here's a sample Pain letter to get you started, Tom:

Declan McManus
Impostor Manufacturing, Inc.
123 Alison Way
Denver, Colorado

Dear Declan,

I was lucky enough to catch your speech at the Green Marketing Expo last week. I couldn't agree more with your observation, "Kelp is the new hemp." Impostor's new kelp and seagrass infant sleepwear line is bound to make a
strong impact, now that you've signed on Bread & Chocolate as your U.S. distribution partner. Hats off to you and your team on that milestone!

I wouldn't be surprised to learn that Impostor's rapid growth and expanding channel structure were taxing your talented Marketing team. When I was Marketing Director for Almost Blue Sleepwear, we faced the same growth-related issues, with the launch of our natural-fibers footed-p.j. line and our simultaneous acquisition of Slumber King Sleepwear. We prevailed - the footies earned us a Best New Product award that year - and I learned a tremendous amount about multi-tasking and brutal prioritization on a minute-by-minute basis.

If you'd like to talk about Impostor's branding, channel-strategy and MarCom needs, I'd love to get on the phone with you or meet in person when our schedules allow. Congratulations on the success at the Green Marketing Expo and continued success to your team,

yours,

Ian Dury


-------------------

Every cover letter needs to be specific to the employer and it needs to hit the mark, Tom. I'd throw away that template and start writing cover letters from scratch, with a little help from your browser and Thesaurus.com, a wonderful source of non-boilerplate cover-letter and resume words. We've got over one million strong, pithy words in our language - let's start using 'em!

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Liz Ryan is a former Fortune 500 HR exec and an advisor to organizations and job-seekers. Reach her at liz@asklizryan.com or www.asklizryan.com.

Enjoy this article? Sign up to get ColoradoBiz Exclusives. The opinions expressed in this article are solely that of the author and do not represent ColoradoBiz magazine. Comments on articles will be removed if they include personal attacks.

Readers Respond

Hi Kent! I like your thinking; the only hitch is that we don't get much if any "lead time" as the recipient of our letter reads what we've written. Rather than start with a set-up, a la "I'll start by telling you what I'm going to tell you" could we jump right into the heart of the argument? Our job is to illustrate for the hiring manager that we understand his or her business pain and have relevant advice to share. That's something we want to demonstrate rather than to assert. It's strictly the manager's (reader's) job to determine whether we know his pain, or not - we don't want to make that claim outright, as doing so could very likely elicit the response "Not so fast, Bucko" - I'll make that call." If we simply describe what we believe the pain to be, and then share a relevant dragon-slaying episode of our own, we've allowed the reader to do what he or she wants to do, namely, to evaluate our fitness for the job. You raise a very good point Kent, and that is the distinction between showing and telling in a resume. We can yak yak yak about our strategic vision and our superior communication skills and our experience leading complex multi-functional pan-continental yada yada 'til we're blue in the face, and somehow the whole things reads like lifeless dreck. That's because we're standing back and characterizing ourselves - never an appealing habit, in a cover letter or in a Personals ad ("I'm smart and cool and sexy, and chicks dig me.") In every way - credibility-wise, readability-wise and likeability-wise - we're better off saying "I have a feeling you have a Welsh green dragon flying around your castle, and I bagged one of those last year in the Hebrides." Cheers -- Liz By Liz Ryan on 2009 09 24
I read your article and think one of your lines, would make a great first sentence to a cover letter. Your thoughts? “I see what you’re up against in your business, and I understand what you’re looking for. In this letter, I’ll briefly share with you now how my background relates to the issues you’re facing.” By Kent on 2009 09 23
BTW we are starting a new seven-week, job-search coaching group in Broomfield on Wednesday 9/23. We'll meet at the Meritage Restaurant in the Omni Interlocken Hotel for seven consecutive Wednesdays, from 8:30 to 10:30 a.m. Details are at http://www.asklizryan.com/broomfield.html By Liz Ryan on 2009 09 22
Hi Mary Ann! We don't write a cover letter for the corporate recruiter who, as you say, is not likely to read it, but for the hiring manager - the person with the pain. You never want your resume or cover letter in front of a junior HR person, or any HR person at all if you can help it. There are a number of ways to get your resume in front of the hiring manager. I've detailed some of those in past CoBizMag columns. You could join the Front Range Career Forum at http://www.yahoogroups.com/group/frontrangecareerforum to get tons more information on that topic. Cheers -- Liz By Liz Ryan on 2009 09 21
You say cover letters are important, as do all the job hunting books out there, but I have talked with corporate recruiters who say, "Don't bother! We hardly glance at the cover letter." I have written killer cover letters to employers, focusing on their business, their current challenges, and the ways in which my experience matches their desires for the position. Zip. Zippo. Zero response. I guarantee you, if they had read the cover letter, they would have hired me without even looking at my resume. With all the bases to cover in a current-day job search, does it really make sense to tell people to spend 2 to 4 hours on a good cover letter that will likely be set aside by a junior HR person who is only scanning keywords in a resume? By Mary Ann Tate on 2009 09 21

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