Saturday, November 24, 2012

Forget the Cover Letter: Write a Pain Letter, Instead

Posted September 26, 2012, 4:23 pm MT


founder, Human Workplace
Denver Post
As much as we feel sorry for job-seekers (and I do, in spades) I feel sorry for hiring managers and resume screeners, too. Can you imagine reading letters all day that begin with “Dear Hiring Manager, I saw your job ad and I was intrigued…?” We read about Motivated Self-Starters and Results-Oriented Professionals and Leaders of Cross-Functional Teams until we want to stick pins in our eyes. It’s atrocious. A stack of resumes attached to cover letters a foot high might yield two micrograms of actual human spark, if we’re lucky.
Let me be quick to acknowledge that it’s not a job-seeker’s fault the stack of cover letters and resumes (See Resume, attached!) yields so little life or individuality. Job seekers have been trained to write a cover letter and a resume in Zombie Language, or what I call Boilerplate Corporatespeak. It’s the language Darth Vader writes in, and every bureaucrat on the planet. It’s the language job ads are written in, and the language policies are written in (you know the ones: “Effective April 15th, it will no longer be permissible to use the back entrance between the hours of eight and six…”).
That’s a horrifying way to communicate, and as bad as it is to read that stuff in corporate life (or to get a Zombie memo from your kid’s school) it’s even worse to read about a person described that way. Zombie Language is not the way to bring across a brilliant and vibrant job-seeker’s heft and spark.
We don’t have to use that kind of language to describe ourselves. We can put a human voice in our resumes, for one thing. And when it comes time to write a cover letter, we can ditch the tired cover letter format and write a Pain Letter, instead.
What’s a Pain Letter? It’s a letter that doesn’t go into the Black Hole of Death, for one thing — it goes directly to your hiring manager. You’ll find your hiring manager in two seconds on LinkedIn, by using the People Search page to find the person at your target employer who’d most likely be your boss in your new position.
Let’s say you’re a purchasing agent. In that case, your boss is likely to be the Procurement Manager, Purchasing Manager or Materials Manager for the company — or Director of one of those things. If it’s a small company, your boss could be the Director or VP of Operations. You’re going to find your prospective boss’s name without much trouble on LinkedIn. That’s fantastic, because then you can write directly to that guy (or woman) instead of pitching your resume into the abyss. You can get the company’s street address from its website. A Pain Letter goes right through the mail (yes! We still have mail delivery in the U.S.!) from you to your hiring manager. How awesome is that?
In your Pain Letter, you’re going to congratulate your possible-new-manager on something cool the organization is doing, and you’re going to mention the business pain your hiring manager is likely to be up against. Then you’re going to tie that business pain to your own background. No muss, no fuss, no painful-to-read self-praise, and no Mad-Men-era cliches like “ability to work well with all levels of staff.” A sample Pain Letter is below.
Note that the Pain Letter doesn’t mention the job ad (who cares? You’re writing to talk about business pain, strictly. If you mention the job ad, your letter & resume go straight into the Black Hole to die.) It doesn’t say that you’re smart and savvy and had a 3.8 GPA in school. Who cares about those things? You have a more important message to convey:
I’m out here, noticing what’s happening in the business ecosystem and who’s doing what. My eyes are open. I’m a businessperson like you are, and I notice that you guys are rockin’ it over there at your company. I know something about the movie you’re living, because I lived that movie, too. If the things I’m writing about are on your radar screen, maybe we should talk.
It’s a new day. We can communicate like human beings (and with other human beings, leaving the machines to communicate amongst themselves) in the human workplace. We can write to our quite-possibly-new-bosses as though they were people with real problems, ones that we just might be able to understand. Some of them won’t like the fact that we colored outside the lines in daring to reach out to them. That’s awesome, because you don’t have time to waste (or mojo to squander) working for a person who’s horrified by color-outside-the-lines types, anyway. The ones who get you will call you or email you to continue the conversation. What kind of conversation will it be? No telling, but it will be human, and that’s at least half the battle.
SAMPLE PAIN LETTER
Declan McManus
Vice President, Marketing
Exclusive Chocolates, Inc.
4840 Whispering Pine Road
Boulder, Colorado
Dear Declan,
I was lucky enough to catch your speech at the Boulder Natural Foods Expo last month, and delighted to learn about Exclusive’s plans for expansion into dessert toppings. You’ve hit a chord with the chocolate-loving public, and the Wolfgang Puck deal announced last week is a wonderful green light from the market for Exclusive’s take on organic chocolates.
I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that those opportunities are taxing your talented Marketing team as well.
When I led the new-products efforts for Angry Chocolate during its high-growth phrase (just before the company’s acquisition by Nestle) we had at least one major launch per month. Among other things, we were on the hook to create a sugar-free version of Angry Choco-Mints in time for Chocoholic Expo ’07 and serve our loyal domestic partners during two years of 25% growth.
We prevailed – our Sugar-free Angries took Best New Product at the show – and if Exclusive is in need of hands-on go-to-market, channel-marketing and new-product-launch-related Marketing help, I’d love to look at ways to help your team.
If you have time for a telephone call or email correspondence to see where we might have an intersection of interests, I’d be delighted to learn more and share a bit of my background with you.
Yours,
Mike Myers
Want to know more about Pain Letter writing? Download Human Workplace Anatomy of a Pain Letter Ebook.

Try a Human Voice in Your Resume

LINK
A young guy stopped me at a university job-search-readiness event where I was speaking. “Can you take a peek at my resume?” he asked. “Let’s see it,” I said. I scanned the page. The spunky young man in front of me bore zero resemblance to the near-graduation zombie job-seeker described on his resume.
Results-oriented self-starter with a bottom-line orientation seeks challenging position in a growing company, the kid’s resume began. “What’s your major?” I asked him.
“Anthropology,” he said. “Why did you pick that major?” I asked him. “When I was twelve, my dad got an assignment in Togo,” he said. “Ever since then, I’ve wanted to do anthropology to understand how people and cultures work.” “And now that you’ve nearly got your degree, how do you see yourself using it?” I asked. “For now,” he said, “I want to work in some company – I don’t really care which industry or what size – something to do with helping people understand their jobs.”
I looked at the young man. So much spark and goodwill, I thought, boiled down into results-oriented gobbledygook. “Whatever job you get,” I said, “your nature will bring you in contact with the team and its energy and the culture of the place where you’re working. You could work in almost any department – in marketing or finance or production, for instance. It doesn’t really matter which department you work in. The people who hire you will teach you how to do the stuff they need you to do. The anthropology part is what you’ll bring in with you, Trojan-horse style. Still, you want to work in a place where the people get you, right?”
“Oh my gosh,” he said. “Are you saying I can just be myself and still get a job? I didn’t think that was an option.”
“It’s not an option,” I said. “It’s mandatory. What is your name?”
“Christopher,” said the young man. “Okay, Christopher,” I said, “let’s try this resume summary again. On the margin of his robotic-voiced resume I scribbled:
Since a family trip to Togo at age twelve, I’ve been fascinated by anthropology and the way communities form and flourish. I’m avid to join a company whose culture is the key to its success, and help spread the mojo.
“For real?” asked Christopher. “Why not?” I asked him back. “Do you want to work among people who prefer the R2D2 version of you?” “I guess I always thought you’re not supposed to use the word ‘I’ in a resume,” said Christopher. “That’s the Kool-Aid talking,” I told him. “Can you imagine writing a branding piece for your employer without mentioning the organization’s name? Could you write a product brochure without talking about the product? It’s your resume, Chris. You can use ‘I.’”
He did it. Christopher changed his resume to put a human voice in it, not just in the summary at the top but all the way through. He started using his new resume the next day.
“Six callbacks out of eight resumes sent out,” he told me via email a few weeks later.
Can we blame employers for their weariness with the standard resume yada-yada? After all, how many results-oriented-professional-type resumes could we expect a stressed-out HR person to review in one day? Don’t we owe those people a breath of fresh (human) air in the resume stack, once in a while?
The human voice in Chris’s resume wasn’t just an attention-getter for employers. “When I read it, it feels like me, instead of some guy in a suit who’s pretending to be me,” said Christopher. And isn’t that the point, after all – to bring ourselves to work?
Liz Ryan is a former Fortune 500 HR exec, an operatic soprano and a workplace commentator. Reach her at www.asklizryan.com


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