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Get the Job You Want: Write a Good Cover Letter

March 13, 2014

I know it’s not easy for people to get the job they want these days. But, as a business owner, it’s not that easy to find the right candidate, either. A big part of the problem is that some candidates don’t know how to write a good cover letter. Frankly, their letters are terrible! They are either so poorly written to be incomprehensible, or they are completely inappropriate for the job posting.

I recently advertised to find a qualified person for a position in my organization and was pleased to get a good number of responses. Pleased, that is, until I realized the erratic quality of the responses. In some instances I received only a resume. There wasn’t even a note in the body of the email indicating the position for which the person was applying, let alone a cover letter. In other instances, I received cover letters that explained, in detail, all of the qualifications the person applying had — for a position that bore no resemblance to the one I advertised. The job I posted was targeted toward someone with good administrative and social media skills. You can imagine my confusion when I received cover letters of this ilk:

“Dear HR,

I am determined to pursue my career in the medical field as I have an overwhelming desire to spend time in laboratories. Plus I am a very positive person and can provide wonderful customer support. You need me! I need you!”

Actually, I’m pretty sure I don’t need to employ a person who wrote the above.

Of course, in the instance where the person applying for the job clearly did not have English as his or her first language, I understand that “lost in translation” element to the cover letter. But for someone whose first language is clearly English, and who has had to write exams and essays at the college or university level, it really shouldn’t be that difficult to create a good cover letter.

What can be difficult is to know how to present one’s accomplishments and illustrate them in the persuasive manner necessary for landing that all-important interview. Writing a good cover letter takes a lot of careful writing, re-writing and editing. So here are some tips to help anyone writing a cover letter head in that direction.

Four Tips for Writing a Good Cover Letter

Size Matters: A cover letter should be no more than one page, limiting you to three or four succinct paragraphs.

Logic Rules: Your cover letter should have a logical flow; a beginning, middle and end. Start by saying what position you are applying for. Continue by demonstrating the skills you possess that best match the skill set of the job. Conclude with a sincere comment that demonstrates a personal connection to the job for which you are applying, and/or to the company.

Specifics required: Don’t just say, “I am excellent at such and such”; illustrate your excellence with brief examples. Use action verbs to demonstrate your achievements.  Use key words that reflect the job posting. (For example, if the posting asks for someone who has excellent filing skills, you probably want to mention your excellent filing skills.) But don’t pad out a cover letter with every key word in the job description; that will fool no one.

Originality counts: Don’t simply present the contents of your resume in the cover letter. Demonstrate that you know the company to which you are applying, and use a tone that is appropriate to that company.

I also recommend taking a look at Business Insider’s 7 New Rules for Writing the Perfect Cover Letter for more ideas. And one more recommendation: if you are writing a cover letter for an administrative job, don’t start out by announcing your desire to work in a medical laboratory!

To get help for your writing skills, contact me at the Language Lab info@languagelab.com to inquire about our writing courses.

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Business Communication: Think before you speak

February 15, 2013

If you don’t, you might end up eating your words! The best way to illustrate what I mean by this comment is to describe what began as a simple business transaction but ended up as an awful, unforgettable experience. Recently, I was at a client meeting with a person who was clearly in a terrible mood. And it was evident right from the start.  At one point during the meeting, she simply lost her cool. In the course of losing her cool, not only was her tone of voice inappropriate, her language was abusive, shouting obscenities at me. To add to this abuse, she informed me that she would not pay me for my work.

Needless to say, I was shocked! In all my years of business, I’d never experienced anything like this before— this verbal abuse. And I trust it will never happen again. I determined to forgo payment and never have anything more to do with her.

But later that day, I received a call from her assistant - not with an apology from my former client, but with an assurance that the bill would be paid. Letting me know how truly sorry she felt about what happened, she explained that this outburst was definitely out of character for her boss.

It’s apparent, of course, that it was the support staff who did the eating of the words. And yes, it’s true; my former client never did apologize. At the same time though, this ill-behaved woman realized she was wrong.

Her bad behavior convinced me that if her or her company’s name came up in conversation I would never recommend either. If she thought before she spoke, it would certainly have been a different matter. As you are no doubt aware, this story is proof that choosing one’s words carefully is never more important than during a business transaction. We all have bad days and we are all capable of speaking before we think twice, but we don’t want to end up eating our words. So here are three tips that serve as an excellent guide to ensure you think before you speak:

Think before you speak

1. Know thyself: Examine the instances where you have either spoken thoughtlessly or been tempted to do so. It is likely that they occur in similar kinds of situations. (For example, meetings with an impatient boss, a demanding client or difficult employees.) Once you recognize the kinds of situations that “push your buttons,” you will be more prepared when they arise, and will have strategies to avoid falling into the trap of not thinking before you speak.

2. Cultivate positive speaking: People often talk about the power of positive thought. It’s equally true that choosing positive words in your business communications may make what has the potential to be an unpleasant confrontational situation, remain a civilized, professional one. For example, if you are about to say, “I can’t possibly deliver ‘x’ by Friday?” stop yourself, and rephrase it to say something along the lines of, “I’d like to get ‘x’ to you Monday rather than give you work that is too rushed. Is that possible?” Take an internal mental moment to rephrase the negative as a positive. And if you do, you’ll realize it’s not usually too difficult to look at most situations as “a glass half full” rather than “a glass half empty.”

3. Keep your goal front of mind: In any given business situation or meeting, ask yourself what it is you hope to achieve. All of the words you choose should flow from that idea. Knowing what the end goal is, discard unnecessary, excess communications, verbal or written. Focus all of your attention on expressing ideas that are essential to achieving your goal. It is frequently true that less is more. So in any business situation, say only what really needs to be said. Strive to make your words positive, relevant and appropriate. If you do, you will not only have more success in achieving your goal, you will find people respond to you in kind.

Oh, and yes, of course you can also use that tried and true technique that your mother probably told you: “Count to ten before you speak!”

For more ideas about how to think before you speak, see The Power of Words: Words that Sell, Profanity and the Power of Language: When Words Offend, When the Boss Says You Don’t Write Well: What do you Do?

Have you ever landed in hot water for speaking without thinking? If you have any tips regarding what you learned from it, let us know at info@thelanguagelab.ca.

The Power of Communication: How Good Ideas Spread

October 15, 2012

Image courtesy of Lee Jordan.

The other day, one of the members of a LinkedIn group to which I belong posted the following question: “Has a small idea ever changed your whole life?” She also talked about the idea that “for every act of kindness and every bright idea, you are making a difference.”

It’s an inspiring thought. And when you think about it, we learn about bright ideas (or acts of kindness) through one medium: communication. Look at how the so-called Twitter revolution, literally helped shape revolutions. Or consider the viral video, Kony 2012. That video, while the object of some controversy, certainly got people talking about issues such as youth military service and war crimes. According to Wikipedia, as of September 19, 2012 it had over 93 million views on YouTube.

However, communicating a good idea in the business world may not be as easy or straightforward as doing it through a YouTube video. A picture, as the cliché goes, is worth a thousand words. It might also be true that a few well-chosen words are worth a thousand pictures — I certainly think it! So I offer the following suggestions for sending your good ideas out into the world.

The Language Lab’s top tips for how best to spread your good ideas.

  1. Choose your language very carefully. Use active language that best expresses your idea. Be clear, succinct, and to the point in every communication about your idea.
     
  2. Ask yourself why should anyone care? If you can answer that question in a tweet (140 characters or less), you are on your way to being able to spread that good idea.
     
  3. Remember, actions have consequences. Negative or unpleasant language (or gossip, for that matter) can be very damaging. Craft your message in a positive way, based on the result you want to achieve.

Although each of the above tips is important, the third one is key when doing business. If a good idea can spread the way ripples do when a pebble is dropped in still water, (sometimes called the ripple effect) the opposite holds true too.

Case in point. A few years ago I was looking for someone to work on a specific project. A colleague recommended a woman with whom he’d briefly worked. So I contacted this person (let’s call her Ms. Jekyll) and we began working together. Ms. Jekyll was extremely positive — at first.

But, just as we were in the midst of the project, she left a phone message to say she was quitting because she was “too busy with other matters.” Besides, she wasn’t “enjoying the work.” And by the way, would I drop off a cheque at her place?

This too caused a ripple effect. I contacted the man who originally recommended her to ask if he was aware of her “Mr. Hyde” behavior. When another colleague turned to me for recommendations, I mentioned that Ms. Jekyll was someone I didn’t think he’d want to hire.

It wasn’t vindictive; it was simply passing along information. And passing along information, whether by tweet, video, or word of mouth is how ideas spread.

So if you want to spread your good ideas about your business or services, think of that ripple effect — and don’t be a Ms. Jekyll!

Do you have an example of how a good idea spread? Let me know, through the comments, below.

Don't shoot the messenger

April 16, 2012

When I was in my early twenties I had a revelation while playing paintball with my buddies. There we were, a group of inexperienced, loosely organized players, having had little practice, up against a highly skilled, well-oiled machine of a team. Yet, I managed to capture the opposing team’s flag, winning the game for my team. What an amazing thrill it was and such a sense of accomplishment.

Sitting there in the sunshine on the grass after the game, somewhat spent, I thought to myself, “How is it that our team managed to win the game.” What I realized was that, unlike my opponents, my team, a closely-knit group of friends, used to getting slaughtered, were more efficient at collaborating and communicating with each other. Although highly skilled, and superior in their ability, they seemed to play beside each other rather than with each other. They lacked that collaborative spirit and the ability to interact and communicate efficiently with each other, as a team. For them, it was more about each man acting as an independent unit, whereas for my buddies and me, it was about talking about the next move, communicating and connecting with each other.

Photo by West Point Public Affairs.


Like winning a paintball game, success in business relies on collaboration and effective communication, be it with your client, your customer, you colleague, or your employees. And the method we use can have a profound impact on the nature of the communication and whom it reaches.

Over the past two decades I have witnessed the emergence of a whole host of new methods of communication: fax machines, mobile telephones, text messaging and, of course, the web and social media. Each offers or has offered a new and exciting way for people to connect with each other in a way that was not possible before. Each new innovation resisted or shunned, in its own way, by the generation that preceded it.

I vividly remember hearing a businessman friend of the family spitting bile about fax machines, and complaining that no one needs a fax. In his mind, you could just as easily put a document in the post. He wasn’t succumbing to the lure of a new electronic device for communicating that was now faster, bigger, and almost irresistible. I sometimes wonder if our fax-loathing friend thinks that fax machines are now almost a thing of the past.

And today a similar situation exists with social media, whose impact expands far beyond the reaches of the almost antiquated fax machine. Today’s generation of social media participants and evangelists can’t even conceive of what we all did before. At the same time though, there is a generation who can’t believe there are so many people who are willing “to waste their time with it.”

But social media is different. Fax machines, mobile phones and text messages did not come with an implied promise to revolutionize your business. The web and social media do. So ignoring the web and social media is not an option – the lure of a revolutionized business is even stronger with a communication tool that is now, faster, bigger and more far-reaching. But did this situation turn social media into a time waster?

Picture the scene: back in the mid-eighties, a businessman grudgingly buys the cheapest fax machine he possibly can. He then starts going through the phone book and tries to fax his brochure to everyone. A month later he has a massive phone bill and a broken fax machine. So why do people treat social media in the same crazy manner? Why do they race to follow/fan/connect with total strangers regardless of their interest? Why do they broadcast automated meaningless adverts?

When social media is done properly as a part of inbound marketing, a process for getting your clients to seek you out, rather than you having to hunt them down. All you have to do with social media is attract your potential clients as you do in real life situations when trying to make friends. Be friendly, thoughtful and interesting. People will be attracted to you in the same way they are in real life.

If you want to realize social media’s promise to revolution your business, it’s like winning a paintball game on your first try – communicate, but do it a collaborative and interactive way!

The Language Lab Guest Blogger: Jason Rudland is an inbound marketer and owner of Get Me In Google! a full-service inbound marketing agency, specializing in attracting website visitors and generating high quality leads.

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