Cover letters, good writing and legacies

Writing cover letters used to fill me with dread.
Now I’m only mildly irritated.

That’s because I’ve developed a basic version that highlights2526215746_483e6ff397 my experience and accomplishments in a way I’m comfortable with. When I need to apply to a job, instead of groaning and starting from scratch, I adapt that letter to the job description and employer. As I told my students this week in a lecture about my top sticky messages about writing and career, every story has already been told. Differentiating your writing is all about choosing the proper structure and language.

Another reason I’m less annoyed is that I’ve also adapted my mental framework about cover letters. I used to see them as archaic relics of an age before digital work samples. But cover letters are still relevant.  Unlike a work sample, a cover letter shows how you think and write without the benefit of a formal editor or manager. (NB: one of my other sticky messages was “everyone needs an editor.” Never send a cover letter without having someone look over it.)

The other benefit of cover letters that I’ve come to appreciate is, just like your resume, it’s another chance to tell your story. Each line in a cover letter should trigger an interview question in the hiring manager’s mind. Determine what messages about yourself you’d like to convey in an interview and then sprinkle your cover letter with little teasers.

This week my PR students will write a cover letter to a company where they’d like to work, whether or not a job fitting them exists.  This exercise makes the cover letter aspirational and authentic, rather than reactive.  It reminds me of a Harvard Business Review blog post entitled “When You Criticize Someone, You Make it Harder for that Person to Change.” According to recent neuroscience, business and psychology research,  the best coaching/managing/teaching focuses on dreams instead of failings.

What if writing a cover letter wasn’t just a hoop to jump through, but a step on your path?

Which brings me to good writing and legacies. In my sticky messages lecture, I also shared a story about a 9th-grade English teacher who in 1990 or 1991 had us scan hip hop lyrics like poetry. Part of the story was the startled reaction of the lead teacher, Lois Wien, a fearsome grammarian who wrote The New York Times about their punctuation errors. The paper would then publish corrections.

The day after I gave this lecture I learned that Mrs. Wien had died the previous week. Just as in my sticky message stories, I don’t remember every rule Mrs. Wien taught. Additionally, once I became a journalist and started using AP Style, all my academic comma usage knowledge went out the window. But what I do remember is that grammar and punctuation are critically important not just for writers and communicators, but for society. Each time I write I care about this. That is Mrs. Wien’s legacy.

So students, here are this week’s insPiRation links for you to practice writing, grammar, goals and dreams …

Social media, Russian-style…
The Olympics’ Social Media Weapon

Technology… info consumption
Smartwatches and the Digital Future of News

Twitter… branding
5 Brands Making the Most of PR-Specific Twitter Accounts

Vine… celebrity image management
12 Celebs Who Can’t Get Enough of Vine

Fashion… corporate social responsibility… crisis communications
First Look: Team USA Olympic Opening Ceremony Uniforms

Financial & governmental public relations… image management… politics
Michelle Smith, Working Behind the Scene to Shape the Fed’s Public Image

Twitter… misuse of social mediapersonal branding
After Being Denied a Snow Day, University of Illinois Students Respond With Racism and Sexism

PR & careers
2014 Career Outlook: Career in PR Tops the List

Photo source: Flickr (Courtesy of Twylo)


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  1. Whither InsPiRation? | prminders - April 19, 2014

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