Cover Letters And Awkward School Dances

Do you write cover letters when you are applying for jobs? If you don’t, I think you should in order to improve your chances; unless of course the employer specifically asks you not to. However, even if you do write cover letters, I wonder if yours are effective as they could be.

When you make a decision to craft a cover letter, a logical place to begin is to know what the purpose of the cover letter is in the first place. Well it does a number of things when done properly; it introduces you to the employer, sets up your resume, and describes your motivation for the position. That’s all great of course, but there’s one other key thing that a cover letter should do in its design and that is to express your desire for an interview.

When I read cover letters composed by job applicants, a great deal of the time I find myself drawing a similarity between these letters and all those movies depicting a high school dance scene. Stay with me, it’s going to become crystal clear and you can learn perhaps from this analogy.

Go back in time with me and picture the scene at the high school dance. (If you never went to one, surely you can envision the scene if you’ve ever watched a movie where a dance occurred.) You’re on one side of the gymnasium standing there somewhat awkwardly with your best friend. Across the dance floor is the girl or guy you find dreamy and you’re trying to work up the nerve to walk on over and ask them to dance. You’re nervous, trying to compose the right words that just don’t seem to come, and the pressure is all because it means a lot to you and you don’t want to blow it.

You make sure you do everything in your power to make just the right impression. So you check your hair, your breath, dry your sweaty hands the best you can and ask your friend for their advice on what to say. Finally, you work up the nerve and ask yourself, “What’s the worst that could happen?” Of course you quickly answer your own question with, “They might reject me and then what?!”

Now meanwhile on the other side of the room, the person you are all stressed out about meeting you; the one who looks so attractive and is just waiting to meet you is doing their best to send out the right signals and cues that they are approachable. Maybe it’s a smile or a wave.

Just as you decide it’s better to do something than nothing and are about to take your big first step in their direction, somebody pushes past you and walks right over and starts a conversation with your intended target. They make it look so easy and comfortable. Soon, they’re on the dance floor and the chance is gone. The worst part is you know the two of you would be perfect for each other.

Sound familiar? Or maybe you were the one back in high school that just picked out your target and walked on over realizing there was more to gain than to lose by asking someone to dance. You were the one the rest of the wallflowers said was so confident and self-assured. You were the one everybody else wanted to emulate but couldn’t due to a lack of confidence.

Okay so back to cover letters. Pull out one that you’ve recently put together and read it over. Did you actually ask for an interview in the cover letter or just hint and infer you’d like one? Surprisingly, many people don’t just come right out and request an interview. Like that awkward high school dance scene, many people are afraid of asking for an interview because they are intimidated and don’t want to appear aggressive and risk the chance the employer will say, “No.” However, the employer at their end is eagerly anticipating being approached by job applicants and is sending out all the right cues in the job postings as to what they’ll find attractive and who’d they’d like to meet.

Why not start your cover letter with an opening such as, “I am requesting an interview for the position of __________.”

Why you can even make it a stand-alone statement and begin a new paragraph just as I’ve done in this blog. I know this is my own strategy, and I also start my concluding paragraph in the cover letter repeating this request. My final paragraph usually begins, “As I stated earlier, I am requesting an interview at a time of your convenience….” So now I’ve told them right up front what I’m writing them about and it’s also the last thing they read which hopefully prompts a response.

A job interview is what you want isn’t it? Sure it is. So then take this advice and try it even if it seems bold. It’s assertive but not aggressive. Aggressive demands an interview, assertive simply states what it is you want; and believe me, employers tell me it’s what they want too.

You may wish you’d gone up to that person in the gym years ago and wondered to this day what might have been; but you can change how you approach employers here and now in 2016. Go on, give it a shot.

How You Write Becomes You

Many of the people I deal with on a daily basis are decidedly against the practice of including a cover letter with their employment applications. While they may give various reasons at the outset for their reluctance or outright refusal to use them, what it really comes down to eventually is their inability to communicate in words what they wish to express.

This inability to effectively communicate in writing is often because of weak grammatical skills, a minimal vocabulary and a low education. Despite their lack of grade 12 education, many have a strong history of employment where the work they have performed has been largely devoid of communicating using the written word. Some have even been extremely successful, coping and hiding their poor literacy skills. Their specific jobs are where their expertise exists, and different skill sets are required.

So it is not a surprise then that when the time comes to apply for work, some are uncomfortable if and when it is suggested to them that their chances of gaining an interview would be enhanced with the inclusion of a cover letter. I’ve personally witnessed some of these people sitting before a keyboard. Their heads are bowed down not looking at the monitor as they make error upon error, looking up only to find their mistakes. They tap or pound the keys with one finger – sometimes one from each hand. What they communicate often has punctuation and grammar issues, spelling mistakes and doesn’t express well what they intended.

Left on their own, they might actually be better off sending out their resumes without a cover letter at all so that they are not revealed as a weak communicator. It might be useful for those who struggle with written communication skills to take courses in basic literacy and an introduction to the computers. However, while such courses would benefit them, they are often happy to have the cover letter made for them in the belief that when they get their next job, they won’t be needing those skills again for a long time if indeed at all.

On the other hand, some people can communicate most effectively in their writing. Their words engage the reader, prompt an emotional response, readers can’t get enough, look for other publications by the same author because they like the style etc. Such people are gifted to be sure, but that gift didn’t come by birth. They’ve worked extensively in their writing, practice it daily or on a regular basis, maybe write blogs or daily journals.

What is important no matter what your skill level when it comes to the written word, is that you fully understand what’s happening in the mind of the reader as they go over your work. A representative of a company for example who has received your resume, cover letter, manual or on-line application, and perhaps an email can’t help but form an impression about you as a person based on what they’d received.

The general thinking is that when you have responded to a job posting, or are sending an unsolicited request for a meeting etc.,this sample they’ve received is likely you at your very best. If the document they are looking at is mistake-free and gets to the point the overall impression is positive, and by association, they feel positively towards you. On the other hand if they notice spelling and grammar mistakes and the overall quality is poor, then by association so is their impression of you.

Communicating effectively is a transferable skill; it moves with you from job to job, can be useful in a volunteer position, your personal life, even when filling out your yearly performance evaluation at work. Because it’s a transferable skill that can help you both personally and professionally, investing in yourself by taking a writing class in the evenings might be an excellent use of both your time and your money.

One of the most often cited frustrations for many of those out of work is when they know they have the skills to perform the work they are applying for, but their hand writing and spelling is so weak they can’t even fill out an application form. These are the kind of people who long for the old days when they could just ask to demonstrate their skills on the job site and get hired on the spot. Those days are largely gone.

Being able to confidently communicate both verbally and in writing are prerequisites which will make other skills easier to master such as using technology. Whether it’s using MS Word instead of a pad of paper to write a letter, or delivering a message to a group of co-workers, communication skills can limit or accelerate your career and open or close off future promotion considerations.

This idea of communicating effectively, mastering spelling and expanding your vocabulary should also be of major interest to people who now regularly communicate in abbreviations, brief text messages and acronyms. While it may be perfectly acceptable in some communications, it has yet to become mainstream in the professional world of employment.

You are who your writing skills reveals you to be. Good advice is to take some time, make the effort to improve, proofread and communicate clearly what you intend.


My Boomerang Won’t Come Back

In 1961 a British comedian by the name of Charlie Drake hit the airwaves with a catchy song called, “My boomerang won’t come back”. A novelty song, it was about the son of a Bushman in Australia who couldn’t get his boomerang to come back and I’m not sure by today’s standards it’s all that politically correct. Even back then it was controversial for some but it did hit # 1 on both sides of the pond.

In 2013, I wonder if you’ve had the same experience when you throw out a thought on the internet via a blog, leading a discussion or issuing a general plea for help and no one and nothing comes back to you? Knowing there are millions on the internet, surely SOMEBODY would respond?

But that’s the Catch-22 of the internet and the digital age we are in. There are so many electronic gadgets out there and social media platforms; so many interesting websites and an equal or greater number of entertaining time-wasters, that I suspect there are many more people posting than choosing to respond. I’m guilty of this myself. I read far more than I respond to, only because in my case once I respond, I more often than not feel I should respond with something thought through instead of a couple of words only. However, I can appreciate that whoever took the time to compose some thoughtful engaging piece would probably like to have other people add to the process. That’s what I’m hoping others do when I pass on making a reply myself.

Last week I read an appeal to the general public for help with getting a foot in the door in a line of work that I myself have no expertise or connections in. My ability to help in that respect was nil and much better left to someone else. Still I read the appeal and any help I would have been able to pass on would have been very generalized. So what did I do? I realized I had no contact to help them, so without being able to refer them forward or add anything meaningful myself I clicked the ‘x’ at the top of the screen and closed the window. Sometimes it’s best to leave the replies to those in a better position to help. No return boomerang here with my name on it. Glad it wasn’t a personal appeal.

On the other hand, a woman in Australia couldn’t find a job and made a short video which a member in the group passed along, plus the newspaper story on her plight as an example of a young person out of work. There I chimed in with a thought or two, and that single post was the focus for many other members in one of my discussion groups on Linkedin. If she checks to see whose been viewing her Linkedin profile, she’d find many have and might be contacted to read all the advice and suggestions from her Linkedin associates. The ‘boomerang’ she threw out to the world has apparently resulted in advice, exposure, at least one job offer (which I recall she turned down), and lots of feedback.

Now the thing about the wonderful world of the internet is that you can either send out requests for help in a broadcast format or you can do a little homework and narrow your call for help to a smaller but perhaps more focused group that can better address your specific needs. This is true of those job searching, seeking medical opinions, looking for children’s activities, or recipes that will use up that pork loin in the fridge. When you roll the dice on the internet, who knows what you’ll get.

And not knowing what you’ll get when you ask help or advice from a general appeal is one way to get a variety of ideas, opinions and suggestions. By default, some of that feedback will be aligned with your own way of doing things and looking at the world, while others might provide you with pause to think or outright reject. Be careful to consider the source of the information and the credibility of those providing it. Just because you read it in a newspaper or on the internet doesn’t make it right, good, tested or true.

One day when I’m ailing or gone, maybe (and it’s a big maybe) my descendants will follow the breadcrumb trail I’ve left with this blog I do weekdays. “What was on Grand dad’s mind when he wrote that?” they might say. Now that’s a boomerang I’d be slinging far into the future and it certainly won’t be coming back to me personally, but the words might bring a memory or glimpse of me back to those alive and reading it. Isn’t this true too of classic novelists we read in 2013 whose words echo back to us from hundreds of years ago?

Don’t get discouraged if you’re putting out your thoughts and ideas and not getting all the feedback you’d like to validate the process. Do you write to write, as therapy, an exercise, for the glamour and fame, for money, to help, to seek help, to aid to inspire? What’s the point behind your words just before and after you hit that, ‘send’ button on the keyboard?

Oh and that lick by Charlie Drake can be found on YouTube like most things in this world. Type, “My boomerang won’t come back” into your browser of choice.

An Hour With Jacques Demers

So today I find myself out-of-town attending a conference with several of my work colleagues from my own office, and many more from across the Province of Ontario.

In addition to the planned workshops on topics of interest to those in my field of Employment Counselling, yesterday we were fortunate enough to have Jacques Demers address us as a keynote speaker. For those of you that don’t know him, Jacques is a former coach in the NHL, and won the cup back in 1993 with the Montreal Canadiens.

Now being a fan of the team, I was intimately aware of Jacques and thought I knew his story. In short, I knew he had literacy problems and that he revealed these upon his retirement and wrote a book about his problem in an effort to help others.

The man had the groups’ attention from the moment he took to the podium. Speaking from the heart, he described his early life, raised by an alcoholic father who abused his wife and son. He described hiding his literacy problem from his sisters, his teachers, his fiance and others all the while living in fear that someone might intentionally or accidentally reveal his dark secret and destroy his dream of coaching in the NHL. What fragile self-confidence he had, was constantly just a word away from being stripped from him. What he told us was that he didn’t have option of having people like us in his early life who could have given him a chance, and reached out to him.

It saddens him to realize that there are more illiterate people than ever in an age of electronic readers, I-Pads, Blackberry’s etc. and while the climate has changed and people can be more open about their literacy problems, the problem nonetheless grows.

While I had gone to hear Jacques because of his affiliation with the Montreal Canadiens, what I really heard was an ordinary man speaking about his problem with literacy growing up, dealing with an abusive father, and making a commitment to himself to improve his situation. Back then he didn’t have the opportunity to speak up and get the professional help. He said that in those days you kept your problems to yourself for fear of being branded as stupid and dumb. No way could he risk being found out and his career aspirations destroyed. Hockey would provide his family with its livelihood.

Upon his retirement from the NHL and subsequent revelation, he was contacted by Stephen Harper and asked to accept a position as a Canadian Senator. “Why me?” he asked. After all, he was a hockey guy not a politician. Apparently the Canadian Prime Minister said he needed people like Jacques who had overcome adversity and knew what it took to succeed. Jacques was being given an opportunity to take his past experience and use it to better the lives of others through his new role as a Senator.

Funny how life sometimes works this way. In order to end up in a position where he could inspire others and help them to better deal with their problems, the man himself had to endure a tortured youth, constant worry, hide his problem from those he loved most, and throughout the entire ordeal, still find a way to get by. He didn’t plan on ending up as a Senator working with Aboriginal people to improve literacy and their quality of life but he did.

The message Jacques also conveyed was one of thanks. He thanked all of us seated there for choosing to do what we do. He said we were people of character, and he thanked us on behalf of all those who don’t stop to express their thanks. I don’t know what it cost to get Mr. Demers to come and speak to the group yesterday. I do know now that his words made an impression on me personally and perhaps I would say on most people in that room. When he spoke, he spoke with genuine sincerity. He brought no notes, he used no script, he just stood at the podium and shared his story and expressed his appreciation for our capacity to care when helping those less fortunate than ourselves.

So to you on his behalf I say this. If you have a problem or secret of some kind, whether it be literacy, alcoholism, drugs, anger, or any other of the many issues that can get in the way of living a better life; the life you want to lead, seek out help.
And if you happen to be in the people profession, dedicated to helping others, I extend my personal thanks echoing Jacques, for doing what you, what we, do.

Oh yeah and I did get his autograph!