Friday, January 27, 2012

P.S. Don't Do This!

I've been writing more cover letters than usual lately. Maybe you have been, too.

In my case, all of them have gone out digitally, none printed and mailed. These letters are not always letters, actually, some of them have been only notes. But all of them have been one of the following:

  • attached to an email
  • attached to a job application
  • inside the body of an email
  • inside a text box as part of a response on a website

Today's topic, cover letters, will address the types of cover letters as listed above--the kind that most often accompany our resume submissions, position inquiries and job applications. We'll talk about the way you're sending them, how they are presented, plus how they present you.

The ideal cover letter will do three things:

1. Make the desired impression
2. Serve the desired purpose
3. Prompt the desired action

In some ways, your cover letter can be considered a small piece of sales literature. First, it should make the desired impression. In all cases, even for the most creative positions, it should be professionally presented. Everyone says it, everyone agrees, but so often we mess this up, despite all the warnings. So it bears repeating: No typos. No grammar errors. Get the person's name right.

Another thing about making a professional impression: know your audience. Do your homework. Don't phrase a cover letter to a recruiter as if she's the company founder. And don't gush over your passion for a certain product line when in fact the company sold that line off two years earlier. Check your facts before making statements that you intend to make an impression with.

Now, about the purpose of your letter. You do want it to inform (about you, what you're sending, and why the reader should care). But it won't have time to educate. How long can your letter be? Well, that depends. If it's a typed document, formatted like a traditional business letter that you attach to your email or job application, great. You have more leeway there to sell yourself and provide evidence that matches you to this position beyond what your resume can do. By more leeway, I mean one page at most, comprised of two to three short paragraphs surrounded by address, date, salutation, closing and all the proper spacing. But if you only have a small text box, you'll have to pare down to a couple of really important sentences. A cover note, if you will.

The purpose of a shorter cover note is to highlight the most important reasons the reader should examine your application, and/or what you believe they will find exciting about your resume as it matches this position. Basically, tell them what you want to tell them more about, in a personal interview.

By the way, the type of position you're applying for also makes a big difference in how long your letter should be, and affects the purpose of it, too. If you're applying for a copy editor job, you probably want a pretty short, succinct letter. If appropriate, you might write it in close to the same tone of the type of publication or materials you'd be editing. If you're applying for IT management position but previously only held highly technical programming jobs, you might use your cover letter to communicate your soft skills in the human language HR folks can read.

Finally, there is the call to action. Even if you are only writing an informal letter inside the body of an email, to, say, a friend of a friend that you don't expect much from and don't want to come off too stuffy with, you still need one of these. You MUST tell the receiver of your letter what you want them to do, now that they have gotten it.

They might not do it, of course, but call upon them to do so, or risk making the impression that you really don't care, that there was no real purpose to your inquiry. Imagine,


I'm pleased to submit my resume in response to the job posting for the Fantastic Leader position at The Best Company in The World. I have also attached a separate document listing many of the industry clients I have worked with of interest to The Best Company, including key competitors Second Best and A Little Better. I believe you will find this experience relevant to your needs for a Fantastic Leader. I look forward to continuing to develop new market opportunities in the industry, like the Giant Profitable Product Launch I did for Second Best in 2009.

Thank you for your consideration.

Someone Who Assumes You Will Call Me (I mean obviously, if I didn't want an interview, I wouldn't have sent in my resume and this letter. Do I really have to ask you to please call me to discuss further? Do I really have to tell you I'd like to talk with you in person about this opportunity?)

YES. As with many things in business, in writing, in etiquette, in life.... it might seem unnecessary, but it's more of a crime of omission if you don't. So do.

But one thing not to do, is include a P.S.. There was an old school direct marketing/sales letter "technique" that used to go around a lot, and it probably still does, in fact I know it does because I still get a little junk mail from the people that want to lure me back into their write books for children and win the poetry medal of honor schemes. This old technique called for putting a P.S. with the most compelling call to action at the bottom of your letter. Because people might not read the rest of your letter, but their eyes will naturally be drawn straight to the P.S. --and you know what that means. They will do whatever it says.

I suppose it works as well as anything, depending on how many free Shirley Temple commemorative statues the P.S. has to offer. But not for our purposes here. It's just cheesy so don't do it.

P.S. Don't use a P.S. in any serious business letter, especially a cover letter for your resume! Also don't use exclamation points! You can see how awful they look now in this context. Triple check your spelling and facts. Have someone else proofread if you're not a grammar guru. But don't panic. The letter needs to be well done, that's all. Not a limited edition work of art--that's you.

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