Writing that Makes a Winning ImpressionBack when I was in fourth grade, I got a homework assignment that involved writing about Abraham Lincoln. I loved Mr. Lincoln and plunged right in.
The result was a nice long text, largely cribbed from our family's encyclopedia, that I proudly showed my mother. Instead of being bowled over by my dedication and industry, she read the first few sentences and then looked at me and said, "Karen, you know, when you write something, it's supposed to be interesting."
I was mightily taken aback. The idea of being interesting had never crossed my little nine-year-old mind. However, as soon as my mother brought it up, it became firmly implanted. I've been highly conscious of the "make it interesting" criterion ever since.
This idea applies to just about everything one writes, including, for instance ... cover letters.
At the beginning of the month, Dan Heath wrote a brief column, "How Do I Make My Resume Stick?" for FastCompany.com. The whole half-page is worth reading. Let me just note his key point:
... the cover letter is the hero of our story. It's the place where you can make yourself memorable. Ideas stick because they are full of concrete details, emotion, surprises, etc.Heath provieds a two-item checklist:
- Give headlines.
- Defend the headlines with stories.
You can think of such practice as a convenient by-product of the job search process itself. The important thing is to set a firm standard for yourself of being not only responsive to individual employers' job specs, but also of presenting your match to those requirements in compelling fashion. Dashing off formulaic cover letters is not going to do make you stand out. Presenting a vivid, concise, and engaging pitch for yourself will.
Another, somewhat longer set of guidelines for making winning pitches is available in a short Hewlett-Packard Learning Center course called Marketing Writing Tips: Five Mistakes to Avoid. Though the course is addressed to product marketers rather than job seekers, much (not all) of the advice it offers is applicable to written communications with prospective employers.
There is a short section for each of the five mistakes alluded to in the course title:
- Writing headlines that fail to lead
(Recall that headlines are item 1 on Dan Heath's checklist.)
- Taking the wrong tone
(The course text reinforces Heath's advice to combine use of a prospective employer's preferred vocabulary even if it includes buzzwords with concrete detail concerning how you fit the employer's needs.)
- Creating content without focus
- Using too many words, too few details
- Failing to include a clear call to action
(Something to be appropriately restrained about in a cover letter to an employer.)