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What Being a Television Reporter Taught Me About Writing Good Cover Letters

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TV reporter

This past week I read a post on Careerealism.com (say that three times fast) titled “Do Recruiters and Hiring Managers Read Cover Letters?

It’s a valid question because if a particular job fields hundreds of applicants, who has the time to read everyone’s application from start to finish?

“My name is ____________, and I am interested in the position of __________”

Yea, we’ve all started a cover letter like that.  It’s a safe bet and lets us start talking about our work experience right away.  Problem is, that line is predictable and a complete yawner for an employer staring at a mountain of job applications.  The opening few lines to a cover letter are valuable real estate that can hook a reader.  When used properly, they can also enhance the letter in general and make you a more desirable hire.

One of the many things I learned as a television reporter in Virginia was keeping a straight face while delivering “breaking news” updates on half an inch of snow. But here’s the most important lesson: don’t just report the news but tell stories.  I wasn’t just covering a military deployment.  I was covering how people were affected by the deployment.  I profiled two parents as they watched their only child go off to war and a wife who expected to give birth while her husband was away. Deployments can be a fairly routine exercise in a military community.   That’s why I had to find compelling storylines to make them meaningful, especially for an audience who witnesses the ceremony all the time.

Same goes for your cover letter.

Some of the most effective ones use a work experience/life adventure as a launch point for who you are and why you are different.  Your cover letter, like a solid piece of journalism, then becomes distinctive and has a twist. If I may be so bold, I will show you the opening lines to a cover letter I wrote a few years ago for a marketing job at a youth group I joined in high school.  I wrote:

It was April 1998, and I had to be the coolest kid in the world.  I had just arrived at the Jamestown 4-H Camp for my first youth group convention.  But I wasn’t supposed to be there.  That spring, I was a timid 8th grader who had just snagged the invite of the century: a chance to sit alongside my older cousin, a revered senior and president of the organization.  Man, was I excited…

Set aside, if you will, the fact that I did not land the position.  If I recall correctly, I lost out to someone with more experience, but the hiring manager did note that he enjoyed my cover letter and said it was clear that I had a passion for the job.

Do you need to have experience in journalism or creative writing to assemble a winning cover letter? Hardly, although it always helps to have a friend with strong editing skills look over your work once it’s finished (even Hemingway and Fitzgerald had an editor).

You just need to write your cover letter as if you are telling a story to a friend or parent.  How would you say it?  Tell an anecdote about your current workplace.  Think back to an experience that made you want to go into the particular field.  Find a way to relate your life to the job in question and give an employer something he or she will remember.

Bottom line: be interesting.  Hiring managers expect your cover letter to be a dud because most of them are.  A colorful and well-composed letter that starts with a bang will surprise them and make you memorable.  Everyone’s cover letter will include work experience, job skills and salary requirements.  No one else’s will contain your stories.

So, I repeat: do recruiters and hiring managers read cover letters?

The answer is completely up to you.

Danny Rubin works as a consultant for the media research firm Frank Magid Associates. Prior to working at Magid, he was a television reporter at WTKR, the CBS affiliate in Norfolk, Va.

Brazen powers real-time, online events for leading organizations around the world. Our lifestyle and career blog, Brazen Life, offers fun and edgy ideas for ambitious professionals navigating the changing world of work.

  • Ashleychoffman

    I started my career in media and agree that thinking like a reporter can help you in so many ways, in addition to the cover letter. Like a reporter asks “What’s my unique angle,” in every story, so should everyone in marketing, sales, etc.

    • http://www.idownloadmovies.net free movie downlaod

      Cover letters can make or break the step in getting an interview

  • http://parisianfeline.wordpress.com Tatiana

    This is really great advice. I loathe writing cover letters, and have often avoided job openings that required it. It felt tedious, boring and after awhile, words started to run together. It got to the point when I wanted to do was click UPLOAD for my resume and jettison it off into cyber space.

    Clearly – this isn’t the best approach to job hunting.

    Then I learned that you’re supposed to tailor your cover letters, show how your work experience is relevant to the job at hand. So I tried that, but immediately became burnt out, trying to re-create my (limited) work history into something professionally relevant.

    Now – I have read this. Telling a story to show my passion (versus trying to glam up my work history) is significantly more fun and a better way to weed out job openings. I’m almost at the point where I’ll take anything, but realizing that applying to jobs can at least be momentarily interesting (if not outright fun) has made me feel a little bit better about the whole process.

    Thanks for your post! :D

    • Anonymous

      Thanks, Tatiana. I give the same advice to people who have to make a speech. The best way to dazzle an audience is to tell stories. That way, you’re entertaining and memorable. The key is to capture someone’s attention. And who doesn’t like a good story. Best of luck with the job search!

    • Anonymous

      Tatiana–I can’t even count the number of bad public speakers I’ve come across in my life. The reason: the speaker just stood there and spouted words that weren’t specific, descriptive or interesting. They talked to hear themselves talk. I’d take a person who tells a great three minute story and sits down versus someone who spends 15 minutes blabbing and says nothing memorable.

      It’s all about being creative, different and noteworthy. People remember a great story. It stays with them, and you never leave their mind.

      You don’t need to be a literary giant to pen a winning cover letter. You just have to think like one :)

  • Bernadette Hageman

    This is one of the best pieces I’ve read on how to write the hated and necessary cover letter. Excellent!

    • Anonymous

      Thanks, Bernadette! Much appreciated.

  • Anonymous

    Love this post! Your experience as a reporter lends itself well to blog posts too. Having read many cover letters when I was in a hiring position at a last job, I can still recall the best cover letters I’ve ever read because they were so unique and really made an impression.

  • http://twitter.com/dansmolkin Dan Smolkin

    For a good two years, I had my dad read my resumes and cover letters and provide critiques for me. Not necessarily to be my editor but as someone to offer advice. More often that not he would respond with a, “This is great, but it doesn’t really capture you (and what you’re really capable of).”

    So I decided to buck the idea of the traditional cover letter and instead to tell the story of my greatest accomplishment. In telling this story my aptitude, my work style and my personality all come across clearly in just about three short paragraphs. In the remaining two I explain how this relates back to the mission of the organization and my qualifications for the position. (Luckily most of the positions I apply for are related to what I am passionate about).

    When I shared this cover letter style with my dad his response surprised me. He said, “I was engaged from the very beginning and it pulled me through reading every subsequent paragraph.” Thanks for writing this post and articulating this in such a great way. I’ll be sure to share it with others!

    • Anonymous

      Thanks, Dan! You nailed it: it’s all about ensuring someone reads from the start to finish. The best way to is be colorful and tell a great story. Who doesn’t love a great story?

  • Moe

    More generic, useless advice. Great.

    • http://jwschiff.tumblr.com Jaclyn Schiff

      Hey Moe, what type of advice would you like to see on this blog?

  • http://twitter.com/DanaLeavy DanaLeavy

    This is a great point of view – it’s really about communicating what makes you the best candidate for the job. And from a qualifications standpoint, well that’s the resume’s job. The cover letter is where you can make that connection between your qualifications and your personal interests in working for that company, or being in that role. You told them in your resume why you’re qualified – now tell them something that compels them to want to know more about YOU as an individual, and why you’ll be successful and happy there. Thanks for sharing!

    • Anonymous

      Thanks, Dana. Glad the blog post made sense to you. Exactly—let the resume show your personality. The resume gives all the facts. Cover letters provide the flavor.

  • http://inlandauctionhomes.com Redc Charlie

    So true…I once started off a cover letter with “If we were in high school, I would be voted…” – I got the job…

  • Trish

    Great article Danny. So many people do not understand that you use your cover letter to entice the reader to read your resume. You have to make it interesting, or your resume and cover letter will get tossed into the trash can with all the others!

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