How to Write a Killer Cover Letter, with Susan Rich

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Transcript

Mac Prichard:

This if find your dream job, a podcast that helps you get hired, and the career you want and make a difference in life. I’m Mac Prichard your host and publisher of Mac’s list. I’m joined by my co-host Ben Forstag, managing director of Mac’s list and Jenna Forstrom our community manager. This week we are talking about cover letters, one of the most popular topics here at find your dream job. Google the words cover letter and you will find lots of debate about tactical questions regarding formats, salutations and who you should write.

Our guest expert this week, Susan Rich says people are missing the most important point of all. An employer has a problem that needs to be solved. According to Susan, the applicant who shows that she or he can solve that problem has a huge advantage. Susan will share with us, her best advice about how you can do this in your next cover letter. This week’s resource is for Ben and he has a list of action verbs you can use in your own cover letters, resume and LinkedIn profile. Jenna has a question from a reader about the tone and format you should use when applying for a job.

Our show this week is brought to you by our sponsor, the weekend resume makeover online course. It’s developed by national resume expert Jenny Foss. To learn more about how you can develop a professional quality resume in just two days, visit macslist.org/jobJenny. Jenna and Ben, you both hired people in the past I think, what are some of the most effective cover letters you’ve seen?

Ben Forstag:

I think the best cover letters are those that present a compelling narrative around the applicant’s career, what they’ve done to this date but wrapping those experiences around a central problem, that central problem being the problems that we have at our organization as expressed in the job description. When I review these cover letters. The ones that really stand out are the ones that, clearly the applicant has done some research about the organization, they know what we do, they know who we represent. They have some sense of what our challenges might be, then they framed their experience in a way that speaks to each of those challenges, in a way that chronological resume may not do so.

Mac Prichard:

It sounds like you are firmly in Susan Richard’s camp, think about the employer’s problems and how you can address them?

Ben Forstag:

That’s why employers hire, right? They’ve got problems. If they didn’t have a problem, they won’t be bringing on new personnel. How about you Jenna, what’s been your experience when you’ve read cover letters?

Jenna Forstrom:

I’ve never hired anyone before. The times that I’ve been involved with the hiring process didn’t involve a cover letter. That would be when I was fifteen to twenty one when I was a life guard. A little different.

Mac Prichard:

Still there was a process. Let’s turn to Ben who is out there every week thinking about resources you our listeners can use. He is looking at blogs, podcasts and other tools you could use in your job search. Ben, what’s on your list this week, what have you discovered for us?

Ben Forstag:

This week I want to talk about a blog post, from themuse.com and it’s called 185 powerful verbs that will help make your resume awesome. I toyed around with the idea of trying to red through all 185 verbs but decided against it for time sake. I will leave it to our listeners to download the full list. Let me talk kind of briefly about what we are getting here. We all have to write resumes; we all have to write cover letters. We describe what we’ve done in our past experience in these documents. One of the worst things you could do is be repetitive in the words that you use to describe your past experience. How many times are you going to say, “I managed this? I managed that.” Using the phrase like, “I was responsible for?

It’s a pretty passive way of speaking and it’s pretty boring. This is a list of verbs that you could use instead to frame your experiences in a more powerful way. One thing you want to remember is, hiring managers are often reviewing dozens or even hundreds of resumes each day. You want to use language that stands out and highlights your abilities.

This list broken has broken out a bunch of verbs according to different categories. These are the best verbs to use if you led a project. If you envisioned or brought to life a project, if you saved the company time or money. If you increased efficiency, sales, revenue or customer satisfaction. If you changed or improvised something, if you managed a team. If you brought in partners, funding, or resources. If you supported customers. You were a resource Machine. Any kind of thing that you might have done that got a list of good verbs there to use to frame your experience.

I want to add as well about power words. This isn’t just some kind of gimmick that people are pushing out there. There is some science behind what a power word is. Smart writers carefully choose their words to create an emotional reaction from the audience. This helps capture and hold the reader’s attention. You resume and your cover letter are obviously aren’t melodramatic novels, hopefully not. This same trick can help your application material stand out from the crowd. It’s a nice set of resource, it’s the kind of thing that you might want to have pulled up when you are refreshing your resume next time. Again it’s from themuse.com and it’s 185 powerful verbs that will make your resume awesome. A link will be in the show notes.

Mac Prichard:

That’s great. One of the takeaways that I’m getting from this conversation is, “Don’t begin your cover letter or your resume with, “It was a dark and stormy night.” All three of us, part of what we do for a living is write for the Mac’s list blog and other platforms. I think we each know the value of having tools like this, list of powerful words or things that make us better writers, whether we are writing for a blog or writing our cover letters. That’s a great piece Ben, thank you. Now, let’s turn to Jenna who is out there listening to you, our listeners every week. She’s got a questions she is going to answer and who is this week’s question from Jenna?

Jenna Forstrom:

This week’s question comes from Becky. Her question was, with email being the primary form for applying for applications these days, how formal do cover letters need to be, do I still need to include an employer’s address for example? If you are applying for a job via email or inserting your cover letter into a text box, I would scrap the employer’s formal address. If you are uploading a cover letter, it’s a pdf or a word document. I would still include that information, kind of keeping it to more formal doctrine.

If you are applying and you come from a creative industry, like a graphic designer or a writer with a portfolio or some sort of visual creative field. I would encourage you to think outside the box, if and like only if you are applying personally to someone. If you are sending an email to Mac specifically very well versus careers@companyxyz. Those kind of catch all email addresses could be going to a hiring manager who doesn’t really appreciate the creative and they are just trying to fill a role or it’s not going directly to that exact person that you are looking for. What do you guys think about this?

Ben Forstag:

One of the questions I’ve gotten which is similar to this is, when you are applying online, should your cover letter be in the email? Should the copy of your email essentially be your cover letter? My take is usually, attach your cover letter as a document to the email and the email body itself can just be a short, “My name is Ben, I’m interested in this position. Attached are my application materials for your review. Please contact me at.” Your phone number and address and so forth. I think kind of putting your cover letter in the email diminishes the impact of your email. It also makes it harder to print that document out which is how I think most hiring managers are looking at things nowadays.

Mac Prichard:

I think you first begin with whatever instructions the employers has laid out. Some human resource departments can be very specific and they’ll say, “Send those certain attachments in this form, Pdf or MS Word or Google Doc.” They can get down to that level of detail. Whatever it might be, follow those instructions because if you don’t, you may find yourself taken out of competition. Then I think it depends on the culture of the organization for me.

If you are writing to an outfit that you know from, having done your homework as just three or four people, it may be just fine to send your cover letter in the form of an email. You might even follow convention and just say, “Hi Jenna.” You might want to say, “Dear Miss Forstrom.” You know, based on what your homework tells you about that organization, its culture, but first of all, follow the instructions, whatever they may give.

Ben Forstag:

I might have mentioned this before but I know one of my former bosses used to put very specific instructions in the application materials. Things like, the subject line of your email should be, then she would list a very specific subject line. With the idea that if you weren’t reading that instruction, following that rule, she didn’t even want to look at your application.

Mac Prichard:

It is important to get the format right but the real hard of this discussion and I think we are going to get to with Susan later in the show which is how you should use your cover letter to make the best case for your candidates. If you have a question for Jenna, please email her. Her email address is Jenna@Macslist.org. These segments are sponsored by the weekend resume makeover course from renowned resume coach Jenny Foss. When you find that perfect job, you may need to craft a killer application very quickly. One that gets noticed and gets you an interview. If you need to do it quickly, before somebody else snags your dream job, Jenny can help.

You could pay for a custom resume or you can save time and money by learning the tips and tricks for resume writing yourself. Jon Jenny’s weekend resume makeover course teaches you how to think like a hiring manager. It takes you step by step to a proven process to make your resume stand out and get the attention your application deserves. The weekend resume makeover captures everything Jenny Foss does best, making things simple, getting results and having a bit of fun along the way. To see the weekend resume makeover course for yourself, you can visit Maclist.org/jobJenny. Now let’s turn to this week’s guest expert, Susan Rich.

Susan Rich is an expert speaker and trainer and a professional journalist with more than one million words in print. She owns and operates Rich Writing, a marketing and copywriting agency. She is the author of how to write a kick butt resume cover letter. Susan, welcome to the show.

Susan Rich:

Thank you for having me here today.

Mac Prichard:

Thank you for coming into the Mac’s List studio. It’s always a pleasure to have to do these interviews in person. Susan, in your book, you say that before people begin to write a cover letter, the first step everybody needs to understand is that a job search is a business transaction. Tell us more about this and why that’s important.

Susan Rich:

I think it’s important for people to understand with all the information that’s available on the internet today, I think the idea that gets lost is that the reasons why a job exists is that a company has a problem and it needs to have it solved. If there is no problem, there is no job. I encourage job seekers to think of themselves as problem solvers because then you are positioning yourself or you are coming at your job search from a position of strength and expertise, knowledge and power.

When we look at ourselves as job seekers, that’s a temporary condition and it can be frustrating and anxiety producing. Instead, if you understand that you are a problem solver and have been since you were five years old when you are trying to negotiate for that extra cookie for dessert. We know how to solve problems it’s a lifelong skill. Again, understanding that companies are looking for people to fill jobs, to solve problems that they have. I want you to consider yourself as a problem solver.

Mac Prichard:

Begin by recognizing that we all have, one of our strengths that we all have is that we have skills and experiences as problem solvers and that will make us an even more attractive candidate to an employer when we understand those problem and understand what we have to offer?

Susan Rich:

Exactly, and understanding that what you want to do is present the benefits of hiring you for the job. Again, as a problem solver, you have a skill set and you present benefits to hiring yourself. It’s not just saying, “I’m great, I’m wonderful.” It’s talking about the features and the attributes that you possess and then convincing an employer that you are going to solve a problem in a way that no one else can.

Mac Prichard:

Let’s break that down and translate it into a cover letter Susan. You talked about your background in marketing and how good marketers think about the Benefits and the features and above all the problem of the company or client they are serving. How can people who are applying for jobs apply those ideas to a cover letter?

Susan Rich:

A couple of points that I like to encourage people to think about is, there is a lot of information online about what should go into a cover letter, what’s generally missing is how to organize your thoughts and pick a key message. That’s because writing a cover letter is not a skill that’s taught in school. It’s not taught in college; it’s not taught in the unemployment line. What I encourage people to do is think about it in terms of what I call the inverted pyramid. That is, I want you to look at the job description, your resume and the things that excite you, and understand that you are going to start your letter with a headline. I can talk more about that in a moment.

Then, the most important ideas first. The number reason why you should be considered for the job, and organize that in descending lines of importance. Your most important facts first followed by others in descending order of importance. Then when you are done you are simply going to ask for the interview or you can ask for the job.

Mac Prichard:

Have a headline and like a good reporter, think about that inverted pyramid. I think all of us have probably come across that idea in a writing class in high school or college. We haven’t, we don’t apply that to cover letters, do we?

Susan Rich:

I work with a lot of job seekers who are a little bit older. The more years of experience that we have, the harder it is to see ourselves in a number one skill set. Because we’ve had so many jobs and so much life experience. The inverted pyramid helps you organize your thoughts and pick a key message. When you sit down and go through what I call the 321 rule, which is basically, if I was a interviewing you for live for the job Mac and I said, “Give me three reasons why I should hire you for the job right this very minute,” you could, because you’d be so armed by the job experience.

If I said, “I’ve got your three reasons. Now give me your top two reasons you would.” If I said, “Give me the number one reason why I should give you the job right this very minute,” you would. That number one reason is what I want you to use when you write your cover letter. That should be your headline and then the headline ties into that first opening statement, why you excel at what you do, why that job is a good fit for you, how are you going to Benefit the company, how are you going to solve a problem in a way that no one else can.

Mac Prichard:

When I read your book. It was clear that you are a big fan of headlines. Tell us more about that and why headlines can make a big difference. Not only in a cover letter but in a job search?

Susan Rich:

Eight out of ten people read the headline and not one word more. Statistically if you put a headline on your cover letter, most of us are going to read it. I don’t want you to think about the scanning process, I want you to think about the idea that if you are putting forward any information, whether you are emailing your cover letter or you are putting together something. I want you to think about the headline as your subject line because it’s the number one reason why someone should hire you for the job or talk to you for the job. It encapsulates your top skill set in as few words as possible. I want you to include your name because your cover letter is a sales letter, it’s a marketing tool. The more often you can get your name into the cover letter, the more likely the reader is to remember who you were even if it’s just through initials.

Mac Prichard:

I know as a trained reporter and journalist Susan, you’ve learnt, there is an art to writing a good headline. What are the elements of a good headline that people who are creating one for their cover letter should keep in mind?

Susan Rich:

That’s an excellent question. Strong, vibrant language. Most of us are afraid to put themselves out there. This is a job search and you want to convey the enthusiasm you have for working for this company. I want to encourage people who are listening to the show to say to themselves, “I’m a creator. I myself I’m a creator. I’m going to write a headline that is really aggressive and strongly worded.” I want you as a problem solver-job seeker to write the most potent headline that is comfortable for you to write.

The reason why again is that your screener, your HR person, the person who is going through all these resumes and cover letters is a little tired, it’s a little overwhelming, it’s frustrating. The arbitrary style of going through a mountain of information is to say no as quickly as possible. The headline is supposed to stop them in their tracks. You want to come up with something that’s very engaging, very colorful and use very vibrant language.

Mac Prichard:

We’ve talked in previous shows about the importance of using key words, especially if a company or organization is using an automated tracking system. Tell us about, the pluses and minuses of key words. Not only in headlines but in cover letters, what’s your best advice about them?

Susan Rich:

It’s understanding that keywords matter. But past a certain point, a key word is just like an … It’s just an average, ordinary sounding word. You have to use key words because that’s what you are being searched on but I want you to make sure that what you bracket them with, I am a really big fan, get at the source, really work hard on very punchy strong descriptive language. You don’t have to be a professional writer but you have to think hard about the keywords in of themselves become blunt. They are in there just to serve the tool of getting you found. After that, you want to push your personality out into the cover letter, out into your resume, so that you catch the eye of your reader.

Mac Prichard:

Let’s paint a picture for our listeners Susan. You talked about having a headline. I’m guessing if it’s an email communication or it’s on paper. It’s either in the subject line or at the top of the letter, is that right?

Susan Rich:

That’s correct. It could be the subject line; it could be the top of the letter but it is generally the first thing. Even if you are emailing it, it should be part of your subject line … Let me back up because sometimes when they ask for your information to be emailed, they are going to give you very specific instructions. That’s like a little test. Whatever they tell you to put in the subject line, put in the subject line.

If they don’t give you information, if they leave it kind of open, then you want to put a snippet of your number one reason why you should be considered for the job, followed by your name, because your name is your brand and then followed by a job number or something that lets the person scheming their email list understand that it’s what you were applying for and make their lives easier, because we get dozens of emails in a day. The question is, what can they do to figure out that you are the person, you are the email they want to open first.

Mac Prichard:

The first law of a successful cover letter is follow the instructions?

Susan Rich:

Yes.

Mac Prichard:

When there is room for creativity, and you are not given a specific directive, then there is an opportunity to make your case with a great headline. Then you encourage people to follow the inverted pyramid structure and have those three reasons. How are people organizing their material? Again, paint the picture for our listeners Susan. What is that email or cover letter going to look like, is it a list of three bullets, is it that three numbers?

Susan Rich:

I see what you are asking? It can be, so depending on how much information you want to include in the cover letter. You have, you’ll see, your headline can follow a variety of formats. You can have a list. List headlines are very popular because most of us are compulsive about writing lists and reading other people’s lists. The second style of a headline is a question. If you write a question headline, you don’t want it to be yes, no or I don’t care. You actually want it to stop somebody and make them think about the question that you are asking.

The third style headline would be something that’s just exciting. If you are not going to have a list and you are not going to ask a question, you are going to have something very exciting, something very compelling about yourself. That’s the headline. The first sentence in your cover letter is the opening hook, and you are going to fill out. You are going to address that exciting statement that you’ve made. Then from there you are going to just break down, again that 321 rule, all I’m asking you to do is come up with three compelling reasons why someone should talk to you about the job.

Then you are going to include facts and figures or prove points and you are going to just fill out each three reason. Then you are going to summarize it, and you are going to come up with a conclusion and a sales message basically, why someone should call you in for an interview. Then you are going to close. The cover letter has five main ingredients, the headline, the opening hook. It’s got your facts and figures, your prove points. You are going to ask for the interview because it’s why you wrote the letter in the first place and then you are going to close. That’s the structure of the cover letter.

Mac Prichard:

That’s well said Susan. I know we’ll include links to your website and your book. Our listeners who want to see specific examples of that structure actually can see that. Tell me, you’ve worked with hundreds of people, what are some of the great headlines that you’ve seen?

Susan Rich:

My favorite one, off the top off my head. My favorite one is, not afraid of cold call, Bob Green, get sponsors for nonprofits. The reason why that’s my favorite headline and I worked with the job seeker to come up with it is every time I teach the workshop, and I get around to this part of it. You say to people, “How many of you would like to make cold calls?” Nobody likes to make cold calls. Except for one person and they raised their hand and they smiled kind sheepishly and they say, “If you have a skill that you know nobody else has or likes to do, promote it in your cover letter. Because companies need that job filled.

They don’t want someone who says to themselves, “I think I can learn how to do it, I might learn to like it one day.” They actually want the Bob Greens who come forward and say, “I like making cold calls. Not only do I do that, I generate sponsorships.” Sponsorships are the big dollars, not the $10 little donations. They are actually getting Nike to sign on to do something.

In one headline, Bob Green is telling you, “I’m not afraid of cold calls, I’m not afraid to pick up the phone. Not only that, I kick butt at that skill.” Then the opening hook would be something like, when I believe in a cause I get results. I’m not afraid to pick up the phone and get volunteers, donors and sponsorships. Then you put in your name. my name is Bob Green I’m good at making cold calls. Here is why you should consider me for a job with your company.

Mac Prichard:

That’s a great example. We need to start wrapping it up. Susan, tell us, what’s next for you, what’s coming up for Rich Writing?

Susan Rich:

That’s a great question, thank you. One of my most favorite things in the world is to actually give a talk on how to write cover letters. It’s a free talk. We can do it live, we can do it as a phone call, webinar, it just would really invite people to come and invite me to join their networking group. Of course you can learn more about me and the book on my website in the jobsearch.com.

Mac Prichard:

Great, we’ll include links to your website and the book in our show notes. Thanks so much for joining us Susan.

Susan Rich:

Thank you so much, I enjoyed being here today.

Mac Prichard:

Ben, Jenna, what did you two think of the conversation with Susan?

Ben Forstag:

I thought it was great. I just love framing everything around being a problem solver. Again, because that’s why organizations are hiring, they are looking for people to solve their problems. Her advice about putting headlines into your cover letter as structured bullet points or talking points of how you are arranging your thoughts. I think that’s fantastic because it really allows you to frame your past experience in a way that positions you as a problem solver.

Mac Prichard:

How about your Jenna?

Jenna Forstrom:

I also liked her push for headlines because it makes you think like, what would your headline be and how would you market yourself given a role or a new opportunity?

Mac Prichard:

I liked the idea of a headline too. Because there is nothing like having to condense your central idea into six or seven words to wants you to be clear about what you offer. I think that’s always a good exercise.

Jenna Forstrom:

I liked how she started talking about headlines like with like, give me the three reasons I should hire you. She was right, when you are thinking about a role and you are dreaming about being in that role. It’s really easy to be like, “Here are my top three qualities.” Then, okay, what are your top two? Then what’s your number one? Then, expand on that more to build your headline.

Ben Forstag:

I think is so much value nowadays when people are so overwhelmed with content and words. If you a hiring manager you might be looking at a hundred resumes to have clear focused reasons in that cover letter. If they are literally headlines, bolded lines or in bullets that express why you are the best candidate for this. It just makes the job for the hiring manager all the easier to find you, pull you out of that stack and say, “This is someone I want to talk to.”

Mac Prichard:

Her big idea which is to think of ourselves as problem solvers and thinking about the problems that employers have, I think is very important because ultimately, the candidates who do that are the ones who stand out. Especially in a crowded pool. It’s very good advice. Thank you both and thank you our listeners for joining us. If you like what you are hearing in the show, you can help us by leaving your review and rating at iTunes. This helps others discover our show and it helps us serve you all better.

One of the reviews we received recently is from Margo Omely who writes, “Find your dream job is about so much more than finding your next job. It also looks at the big picture and gives you real actionable steps you can take now to help you in the long run. I’ve been inspired to ask myself new questions,” writes Margo, “In the process have learnt things about myself that I hadn’t really put into words before. I certainly recommend the show to anyone even if you are not thinking about looking for a new job right now.”

Thank you Margo and thanks to the more than one hundred listeners who’ve left a rating for the show. Please take a moment to leave your own comment and rating. Just go www.maclist.org/itunes. Thanks again for listening, we’ll be back next Wednesday with more tools and tips you can use to find your dream job.

Google the words “cover letter” and you will find lots of opinions on the best tactics: which format to use, the right salutations, and to whom you should address your letter.

This week’s guest, Susan Rich, says people are missing the most important point of all: an employer has a problem that needs to be solved.  The applicant who shows she or he can solve problem has a huge advantage.

Susan shares her advice how to focus your thoughts into to key talking points that address the employer’s needs. A dynamite headline and a powerfully structured cover letter showcases your skills in a way that is uniquely appealing to employers looking for help.

This Week’s Guest

Susan Rich is an expert speaker and trainer and a professional journalist with more than one million words in print. She owns and operates Rich Writing, a marketing and copywriting agency, and the author of How to Write a Kick-Butt Resume Cover Letter.

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