The Almighty Letter
Spend Time on It, and You Can Change Your Life
Jan. 19, 2006: Vol. 2, Issue No. 5
IN THE NEWS
More Jobs Being Found Online, but That Doesn't Mean It's Easy
One of the first things Brooke Christiansen did as college graduation neared last spring was post her résumé on three of the largest Internet job boards: Monster, CareerBuilder and HotJobs. For the most part, she said, it was an exercise in frustration.
—Barbara Whitaker, The New York Times, Jan. 15, 2006
Cover Letters Get You In the Door, So Be Sure Not to Dash Them Off
A great cover letter is the golden key to any job search. Yet despite a glut of advice books and Web sites, an estimated 85% of cover letters are so flawed that senders never land an interview, career coaches say.
—Joann S. Lublin, The New York Times, April 6, 2004
A couple of years ago, a guy with impressive credentials and seemingly many contacts in the world of book publishing contacted me about co-authoring a book.
His title: "Advertising as Literature."
I spent a week on research and found, among other things, a couple of interesting quotes:
"Advertising is the greatest art form of the twentieth century."
"The force of the advertising word and image dwarfs the power of other literature in the 20th century."
—Daniel J. Boorstin
I went back at the guy with a revised title: "ADVERTISING AS LITERATURE: What Authors Can Learn from the Great Copywriters."
He said OK, we signed an agreement, and I put together a book proposal.
It never got off the ground.
Around the same time, I saw Joann Lublin's article in The New York Times on the importance of the cover letter when submitting a résumé. The story started:
Eager to snare a hot job opening, you quickly scribble a cover letter and attach it to your flawless résumé. Too bad. You probably just blew your chance to be hired. Your hastily written missive missed the mark—and you misspelled the target company's name.
Lublin's story must have resonated with a lot of readers, because it was the most e-mailed column from that day's Wall Street Journal.
I suddenly realized that not just authors could benefit from the work of the great copywriters. Such a book would be valuable to every person in business, starting with that most basic communication—the cover letter—that goes with a résumé submission.
The World's Most Boring Reading: a Stack of Résumés
Put yourself inside the head of a prospective employer who has run a help-wanted ad online and in print. Suddenly your e-mail contains a blizzard of résumés. Several days later, printed résumés start arriving on your desk. Within a week, you have more than 100 résumés.
Let's face it. All résumés look alike—one or two pages of dense copy in a Times font with the usual categories: Contact Info, Objective, Experience, Education, Skills, Summary.
What sets one résumé apart from another?
The cover letter.
The head of human resources at one of New York's largest investment banks once told me, "If a résumé arrives without a cover letter, I throw it away."
The chairman of the search committee at a major Philadelphia church that had advertised for a new rector said she would never consider a candidate who did not include a cover letter.
Why is the cover letter such an important element?
Quite simply, it's the catnip that enables a résumé to stand out from the crowd.
In addition, it's the one shot at making a personal—and possibly emotional—connection with a prospective employer.
Where the résumé is essentially a series of dry facts about a life and career, a carefully crafted letter can give a glimpse of the warm human being behind the résumé.
The great direct marketing guru Dick Hodgson wrote, "Of all the formats used in direct mail, none has more power to generate action than the letter."
E-mail or Snail Mail?
Everyone is so used to e-mail these days that we tend to forget old-fashioned snail mail.
However, e-mail can arrive surrounded by a ton of Spam and can be inadvertently deleted in a moment of acute exasperation.
A First Class letter is not one click away from oblivion.
Direct Mail 101
Think of a résumé submission as a direct mail package.
The typical direct mail package has five elements: outside envelope, letter, circular or brochure, order form and business reply envelope. The last two—order form and BRE—are generally not part of a job application.
Freelancer Herschel Gordon Lewis points out that the carrier envelope has just two purposes: to get opened and to keep the contents from spilling onto the street.
Once the envelope has been opened and discarded, the letter and circular remain.
Freelancer Malcolm Decker considers the direct mail package to be a team. The envelope knocks on the door. The letter is the main salesperson. Decker writes:
The letter is likely to be the only "person" your market will ever meet—at least on the front end of the sale ... I develop as clear a profile of my prospect as the available research offers and then try to match it up with someone I know and "put him in a chair" across from me. Then I write to him more or less conversationally.
To Decker, the circular or brochure is a third member of the team—the "demonstrator"—who has all the facts. This person sits in a chair nearby pointing to photographs, drawings, charts and tables, and saying, "You see, everything that the person in the letter says is true."
In responding to a job opening, think of the résumé as the fact-filled brochure or "demonstrator."
So what goes in the letter—the so-called main sales person?
How People Process Information
Psychologists have separated humans into "right-brain" and "left-brain" types.
Right-brain folks process information emotionally and irrationally. Their left-brain counterparts, on the other hand, are rational and analytical.
Obviously, when writing a stranger you cannot know whether your mailing will arrive on the desk of a person who is right-brained or left-brained, or which of the two elements will be read first.
A left-brain person—with a rational and analytical mind—will reach for the résumé first. The emotional, irrational right-brain recipient will want to make a connection with the sender and will read the letter first.
The Tone and Style of the Letter vs. the Résumé
One of my early mentors in copywriting was the former circulation director of Reader's Digest, a hard-drinking, hard charging former naval officer and political fundraising pioneer named Walter Weintz.
"There are two kinds of copy," Weintz once told me. "There's 'you-me' copy and 'it' copy."
The "you-me" copy is what goes in a letter—a personal me-to-you message that is read in the quiet of an office or living room. A letter is the most intimate of written communication and is what makes direct mail different from any other advertising form.
The "it" copy shows and describes "it"—the product or service that the mailing is trying to sell. In response to a job listing, the "it" copy is the résumé that describes, in a clinical and unemotional way, the features of the candidate's life in terms of experience, dates and places.
The point of the cover letter is to take those features and turn them into benefits—in other words, "what these features will do for you, Mr. or Ms. Future Employer."
Simply repeating or highlighting features from the résumé in the letter won't do. It turns the letter into more "it" copy and wastes the one opportunity to connect personally with benefit-oriented "you-me" copy.
What's more, if the prospect reads the letter first and then sees the same copy in the résumé, the immediate reaction will be, "I've seen this before, so I can lay it aside and go on to the next applicant."
Same thing, if the résumé is read first.
In direct mail, the most complex element is the circular in terms of design and amount of verbiage. If printed in full color, it is also the most expensive piece.
The letter, on the other hand, is relatively simple—letterhead, salutation, copy, close, signature, P.S.
Since the résumé—the circular equivalent—goes to everybody, the cover letter can be used as the vehicle to versionalize your communication. It can show how your experience and background relate to—and can directly benefit—the chemical company, software developer or sales organization you're contacting.
In short, don't dash off a cover letter. As Lublin wrote, "It is the golden key to any job search."
Takeaway Points to Consider
- If you expect a letter to be read, the lead sentence must be a grabber.
- Chances are your lead will be found somewhere in the second or third paragraph of your first draft.
- Make the letter look different from the résumé. If the two elements look alike—with the same letterhead and same type style—it won't be immediately obvious which is which. "A letter should look like a letter," said the late guru Dick Benson.
- Avoid "gray walls of type." Try to make the first paragraph no more than three lines, and no paragraph longer than seven lines.
- Make your letter easy on the eye with wide margins and decent-sized type.
- Use ragged-right margins.
- One of the most-read elements of a letter is the P.S.
- "Don't overlook the size and vitality of your signature. It is your handshake."
- "When emotion and reason come into conflict, emotion always wins!"
—John J. Flieder
Letters to the Editor
Note: Denny personally replies to all correspondence.
Readers respond to "Be Careful What You Say About Yourself," which was published Jan. 17, 2006:
I had to comment on your Jan. 17, 2006, newsletter about James Frey. I was very curious to find out what James himself had to say about The Smoking Gun's claims. I found out that his Web site is private, for "members only." Luckily, Google can sometimes bypass such security. A quick use of the Google "site" command revealed the following page: http://tinyurl.com/cdzxx.
It appears that Frey is sticking by his story! I'm not sure if that is bold or if he has lied so many times, he has convinced himself that it's the truth.
Don't you wonder what all the noise from The Smoking Gun did to boost James Frey's book sales? Sounds like it could have been a great PR move.
Regarding your reactions to "Munich": To state that these old gentlemen were not directly involved in the massacres misses the point completely. They were the masters of the plot and were deemed as guilty as the actual hit men. The real dilemma of this story is, does a nation have the right to pursue and kill known perpetrators or bring them to justice, as Israel did with Adolph Eichmann?
—Asher B. Abelow
I just wanted to say I agree completely with your thoughts on James Frey. Much ado about nothing! I could not believe it when I read that Random House was giving refunds. As you said, Mr. Frey can write what he wants about his life and embellish all he wants. As long as the end result is that it helped people, what's the big deal?