We all receive letters on a daily basis, be they bills, personal correspondence or direct mail advertising. The covering letter is perhaps a combination of all three. It must be as unambiguous as a gas bill, strike a chord with the reader just as a family letter might and, at the end of the day, sell you to a potential customer.
Unfortunately, covering letters cannot be mass-produced. Every time you write anything it has to be targeted at the individual who will read it. The covering letter is no exception, but unfortunately it may pass through a number of hands before reaching the person who has the power to invite you in for a meeting. So the covering letter has to meet the needs of a number of readers working at different levels within a company.
Always use high quality paper and envelopes (eg Conqueror) and type unless the advertisement asks specifically for a hand-written reply. If the advertisement gives a reference number, use it. Spell-checkers make incorrect spellings highly noticeable. Always proof read your letters and watch out for those glaring errors that may pass your spell-check but make no sense.
As a rule of thumb, a single A4 page is enough. Your target will be busy and needs an interesting and punchy message, keep it short and simple. Use language that is appropriate, someone in Personnel may not be up to speed with the latest technical buzz word or acronym, your letter could end up in the bin.
There is a classic sales formula practised successfully by many telesales and copy-writing experts. The formula uses the acronym ‘AIDA’ which stands for:
Attention – read my letter (or I know about you or your competitors).
Interest – I have skills/experience that you can use.
Desire – it would be a good idea to meet me to discuss my skills/experience.
Action – there is a route to gain access to me, either I will phone you or you can contact me at my phone/address.
However you construct your letter (which will always be a matter of personal style) you should ensure that it follows the AIDA formula. Many people prefer to present their letter in four paragraphs, each dealing with a specific element of the acronym.
The two types of letter
There are two general types of covering letter that can be best described as:
- The broadcast letter – a cold call letter to an organisation that may be interested in your skills or background (this would include recruitment consultants and speculative approaches).
- The response letter – a reply to an advertisement in the press / on the internet.
Both types of letter have the same purpose and should:
- Introduce you to the target reader.
- Encourage the target to look carefully at your CV.
- Make the target empathise with your skills and qualities.
The Broadcast Letter
Any cold-call presents a special difficulty. The target has not asked to hear from you, there are additional obstacles to overcome (such as secretaries who may vet the mail) and you have no way of knowing if any suitable vacancies actually exist. However, all is not lost! If you target your letter to a company which can use your skills, address it personally to someone who has the authority to recruit and sell yourself effectively, you will save your future employer a small fortune on their recruiting budget. An additional bonus is that you will only be competing against (at worst) a handful of people.
Preparing a broadcast letter requires research. Initially you need to identify companies and recruitment consultants who would be interested in your skills or experience. You then need to identify exactly what you intend to ‘offer’ to each of them (this will vary to some degree for each target). For example, if you know about a target’s European customers, communicate that you have that knowledge to generate interest and desire. It is equally important to find out who to address your letter to, a name will get you further than a job title (if you do not know, telephone the company and ask for the name of the recruiting Director or Manager), if in doubt – check.
Remember that the broadcast letter is a sales letter. Use your research and the AIDA formula to compose it. Concentrate on what you can do for the company (but do not put the company down) and use the letter to draw out the pertinent elements in your CV. Close the letter by emphasising what you can do for them and leave a clear action route – “I will call on …”.
The Response Letter
As one might expect, the response letter is a follow-up to an advertised position. Once again there are pros and cons. On the positive side you can glean particular details about the position from the advertisement which you can relate to your CV. This makes writing the letter a little easier as you have a format (the advertisement) to follow. Similarly, there is an opportunity for you to gain information on the company to demonstrate your knowledge in the field. Unfortunately advertised positions tend to generate a large response (perhaps over 500 applicants for a single advertisement in the Daily Telegraph) and recruitment consultants who will apply a strict ‘marking scheme’ on your CV to produce a short list often receive the replies.
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