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Joe Moxley, Founder, WritingCommons.org

Joe Moxley

Founder
WritingCommons.org

Dear Colleagues and Students,

At Writing Commons, we are happy with the overall success of our project. Since 2011, when we launched at WritingCommons.org, we have hosted 6,315,882 users who have reviewed over 11 million pages. We are thrilled that students and faculty find our site to be helpful. Our ongoing mission is to be the best writing textbook possible. We also happen to be free. While we cannot perhaps claim yet that we are the best possible textbook for technical writing or creative writing courses, we are working on that.

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On Wooing Your Audience (Or Not)

Imagine for a moment that you’re in the market for a new significant other. Well, good news: your friend, Imma MutualFriend, claims that she knows your perfect match and tells you all about this person. From what you’re told about this match, you’re interested too. Imma promises to connect you two soon.

Flash forward, and the time comes for you to meet this supposed match. At a party, Imma points you in their direction. With the goal of wooing this person with all of your wonderful qualifications, you approach your match. 

“Hi,” you say. “I’m Ithink Iwannadateyou.”

“Hi, it’s nice to meet you,” your respondent shyly replies. “I’m Notsure IfIwantoyet.” Although coy, Notsure is leaning in your direction and smiling, appearing receptive to your initiation of a conversation.

“So, Imma MutualFriend has told me a lot about you,” you say.

Notsure smiles and nods.

Then, you press forward—but not with anything Imma shared with you about Notsure; instead, you lead with information about yourself.

“Let me tell you a little about myself,” you say. You tell Notsure where you’re from, where you went to school, and all your interests. Notsure continues to nod. Then, after your thorough yet exhaustive “about me” statements, you delve into the past experiences and qualifications you think would be relevant to your position as Notsure’s future significant other. This includes details about your past two serious relationships, your full dating history, and then a long list of qualifications you gained from all these experiences that show you have the skills and knowledge to be the perfect date and long-term partner.

Twenty minutes later, you’re still talking about yourself to Notsure, and Notsure really hasn’t gotten out so much as a peep, nor have you specifically discussed what interests you about Notsure from what you already knew. When you finally pause and focus back in to your would-be potential partner, you notice that Notsure is completely zoned out—and looks sleepy and bored! Then, you notice Notsure’s eyes start to gaze beyond your shoulder—to meet another candidate’s stare from across the party!

It appears you’ve lost your “perfect match’s” interest! But how could this be? In this competitive market of date-seekers, don’t people want you to explain all your experiences and qualifications up front? Why didn’t you keep Notsure’s attention with all the amazing information you provided about yourself?

You see, the same principle applies to the composition of your cover letter for employment purposes: while it seems that immediately sharing your experiences and explaining your own qualifications would be the most effective approach, there is much more of a weaving of information about both parties needed in the conversation to truly stimulate interest from your audience. To truly catch the attention of your audience, you should lead with them first. While it may seem counterintuitive, as you are trying to prove yourself quickly, you will likely be much more successful if you learn to truly “woo” your audience by proving the knowledge (and interest) you have about them—rather than focusing solely on all the great things you have to say about yourself.

How is this done in practice? In your cover letter, instead of just talking “at” your reader, as was the case with the failed “pick up” with Notsure above, you want to weave your points into somewhat of a “conversation” in which both parties—yourself and your audience—are acknowledged and discussed. In particular, you want to write in a way that leads with your audience first and then follows with connecting statements about yourself.

By beginning your cover letter in this manner, you will prove you’ve done your research, engage the interest of your audience, show that this particular conversation/person (or cover letter) is not like any other to you, and, most importantly, hold these feelings within your audience’s mind for the duration of the “conversation.” This method requires a whole lot more work than slapping different names on the same generic cover letter, but it’s worth it when you actually get a phone call for an interview and score a shiny new job rather than being passed up for another candidate who had similar qualifications but instead knew how to engage an audience.

In the next section, we will delve more specifically into how you can accomplish this “art of the pick-up” in your cover letter using other Writing Commons texts, including Megan McIntyre and Cassandra Branham’s Writing a Cover Letter, and Joe Schall’s Writing Cover Letters as complementary resources (you may want to read them first).

The Cover Letter as a Conversation

Especially in the Beginning, It’s Not Really About You

In McIntyre and Branham’s Writing a Cover Letter, the authors explain that you must not begin a cover letter with your own qualifications. Instead, they note, “it’s important to establish what job you’re applying for and that you know something about the company before describing yourself.” Further, the authors explain that you should avoid a “generic letter that includes no specific information about the company or position.”

The natural tendency in a cover letter is to begin by writing about oneself directly. After all, the cover letter is supposed to be about you, right? Partially, but, in a truly strong cover letter (and pick-up attempt)—not really! Here’s the truth: while you need to talk about yourself, it’s not really all about you. It’s about engaging the audience with information about themselves (interests, goals, the future) and explaining how you connect with this information and where you fit in.

Let’s go back to your pick-up quest with Notsure. In your initial moments of the conversation, instead of engaging your audience with information about what you knew about them, you talked solely about yourself and your qualifications for a relationship. This approach didn’t work: by the end of this, Notsure IfIwantoyet had transformed into Surely NotInterested! Your generic and self-centered sort of address with Notsure shows no specific interest in your audience and can leave the them feeling like you say this same thing to all of your potential matches—a tactic which, both in love and cover letters, doesn’t leave your audience feeling known or special in any way.

In order to really interest your audience, you need to say something particular early on in your “conversation” to make it clear that you’re interested in this specific audience. Within the first few lines of your cover letter, then, after writing that you are interested in a specific position with the company, state what excites you about this company. However, don’t just say, “I’m excited about this company and its future”—this is generic and tells your audience nothing about your specific interest and knowledge about them as an individual entity. You must delve deeply into the employer’s public materials to get a full sense of its mission, goals, and future plans and then articulate your connection to this information up front and consistently throughout the cover letter. A good starting idea is to locate information about the company’s “big picture” information, such as a mission statement or vision (more on how to find this later), state it, and describe how you connect with this statement early on in the cover letter.

In Notsure’s case, if you had done your research, as in asked Notsure’s friends about their interests or at least expressed what you did know, you could have led with something specific and more substantial that would have immediately shown your specific interest and engaged your audience. For example, if you knew that Notsure’s favorite hobby was athletic competitions, you might have said, “Imma MutualFriend mentioned you’re training for an Ironman competition. I’ve trained for 5Ks before and so I’m really interested in hearing more about this!” This indicates your interest in Notsure’s future and goals, and it also shows your own connection to the act.

While the company can’t talk back to you the way Notsure could, you can bet that if you show all the things you know about the company and how you fit in, you’ll likely get conversation back in the form of a call for an interview!

Note: Do be careful not to tell the company very basic information about itself if it does nothing to connect with your case for employment. For example, telling a company you know it has 3,000 employees does nothing to make your case for employment unless it has a specific connection to something you do and can offer (for example, it might if you’re a human resources specialist and they have made hiring 2,000 more people a public goal). Your goal is to supply research about the company that you can personally make a connection to yourself with in the beginning of and throughout the cover letter.

After the Beginning, Keep Weaving

To truly “woo” your audience and keep them engaged, the act of leading with your audience must also continue beyond the first paragraph or the initial lines of your cover letter “conversation.”  You must find a way to balance, or weave together, a thread about the company and one about your own qualifications and experiences. Just as with the opening lines, you want the body of your cover letter to read much more like a conversation between two parties than you just talking at your audience about yourself.  In his Writing Commons text, Writing Cover Letters, Joe Schall states: “[t]he best tip that I have heard on cover letter writing is that the letter is for the audience, not for you. Certainly you are selling yourself, but you do that best by molding your skills to what an employer needs and by knowing all that you can about your audience. In sum, know what your audience is interested in and how you might fit into a company’s plans, not the other way around.”

The way you can achieve this task is not by talking about the company once and then giving a laundry list of information about yourself, but rather by spending a generous amount of your time explicitly stating how and where you would fit in this company and its culture/goals/future. You want to intertwine specific, engaging information about the company with your own past experiences and qualifications by stating something specific you learned about the company’s goals and attaching it to a qualification you have that could help meet that goal. For example, you might find from the company’s recent earnings call that this company has the goal to double sales of a specific application within seven years. If you knew this and had applicable skills and background experiences that you feel could help make this goal, you could state: “I learned from your 2015 Quarter 3 earnings call that you plan to double the sales of CoolNewApp by 2022. In my job as a customer service representative at OldJob, I led a small team that helped to quadruple the sales of AddOnProduct over two years . . . (add more about how you could help with CoolNewApp).”

This sort of weaving together of commonalities helps to immediately create connection and stimulate interest in your audience’s mind. It also shows you’ve done your research and have a specific—not a generic—interest in this particular company for very concrete reasons. In the final section of this text, we will discuss how to conduct this research appropriately.

Getting Down to Business: How to Do Your Research So You Can Get to Wooing

Now that you understand the need to continually talk about the company in which you’re interested in your cover letter, how do you find credible information that (a) shows you’ve done thorough research on the company and (b) demonstrates that you truly understand how you fit in and can contribute to the company’s goals and future plans?

First of all, you must press beyond the “Google Trap” and look at the primary sources first: this would be the company’s website and public materials—not Wikipedia or other people’s summations of the company. Do not rely on Wikipedia and secondary sources to tell the company’s story. Go directly to the source first and use what you can from the company’s own telling of its story. Beyond this research, you have many other options to get credible information about a company that take your ability to talk about the company to the next level. Here are some tips to get you started:

Visit the EDGAR Database

If the company is publicly traded, you can find extremely detailed information about a company’s activities, registrations, financial statements, reports, public presentations, and even correspondence via a platform provided by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission called EDGAR (Electronic Data Gathering, Analysis and Retrieval database). Here’s a great guide to the many ways you can use EDGAR to find out how to interpret EDGAR database information. As an example, let’s say you are interested in a marketing position with Annie’s Homegrown, a natural and organic foods company. Using EDGAR, you can find hundreds of documents and presentations made by this company to strategically tailor your cover letter to information about Annie’s own plans. Within the EDGAR database, you can quickly uncover very detailed information about the company you wish to work for, including mission statements, growth strategies, innovation strategies, and even some of the company’s self-proclaimed “big ideas” for the upcoming year. Now, using this research, you can potentially make direct statements about how you see yourself aiding in these growth strategies and big ideas by connecting your own strengths, abilities, and experiences to these goals. When Annie’s reads your cover letter, it will feel as if you are speaking directly to the mind of the reader—probably because you have done your research and have now proven you are well-versed in the direction in which this company hopes to go! This sort of in-depth research is worlds better than stating generically that you are “excited about the company’s future.”

Surf Social Media

Another great way to get information about a company is to surf its social media pages. Look to the company’s public profiles on sites such as LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, and, for some companies, sites like Pinterest, Instagram, and Tumblr. Read blog posts and announcements. See if the company responds to consumer comments on the page to help assess the “voice” that the company hopes to project. Of particular interest should be new customer engagement initiatives, such as large contests and social media engagement campaigns, or new innovations the company announces it is working on—especially if your skills can help add to these efforts. Find those areas that are of particular interest to the job you’re applying for and that you also (a) can contribute to directly or (b) want to learn more about helping with, and you automatically have yet another way to connect with the company in your cover letter.  

Check the News

Go to a wide-sweeping news search that will find results across many channels. Try Google Newsas a starting point. Search first for the company’s name and see what’s happening with the company now. Look for changes or announcements: Are they changing leadership? Are they introducing a new product soon? Read the company’s recent public statements. Look for information about any new hires, new management, statements about future innovation and growth, potential mergers, and the like. Know everything you can about this company of interest, and state specifically in the cover letter, within the first few lines, what you know and why this excites you. Once again, if you see things that directly connect with your area of expertise, mention them and then discuss how you could aid with this task.

Follow the Leader

Once you have the name of the company leaders (think titles such as CEO, CFO, COO, CMO, etc.), check for their names on LinkedIn and in the news. You may find that they have made recent public statements about or news appearances for their company. If the company is publicly traded, look up recent earnings calls involving these leaders. Read press releases put out via company leadership. If you find that the CEO of the company you’re applying for recently (think within the last 1 to 3 months for a range) made an appearance on a show, podcast, radio show, etc., discussing its newest initiatives, find the clip or transcript, watch it or read it, and potentially use the big takeaways as potential talking points in your cover letter. This will show you are following the major players in the company and that you have a very specific interest in the movements of the leadership.

Make the Pick-Up: Tying It All Together

Ultimately, just like your romantic “pick-up” attempt with Notsure, your goal with the cover letter is to convince your audience that you are a worthy candidate—one that should be pursued just as you are pursuing them. But, instead of spending your time selling yourself by unloading paragraphs of generic information or details that are only really about you, take the time to do your research, lead with the audience, show a genuine interest in this specific audience, and structure your writing in way that plays out much like a conversation involving information about both your audience and how you connect to the goals, mission, and future of your audience. The point is, just like with the “pick-up,” the audience of your cover letter likes to feel special and acknowledged—within in the first few lines of your “conversation” and throughout the duration of it. Instead of hitting your audience over the head with a written list of everything you have done, make connections. Explain how you fit into the puzzle and your audience will begin to see you in its future. If you take the time to woo your audience in this manner, you will demonstrate that you want this opportunity more than any other and you will very much increase the likelihood of scoring that first date—or that big interview and great new job at the company of your dreams.

Works Cited

McIntyre, Megan and Branham, Cassandra. “Writing a Cover Letter.” Writing Commons. Moxley, Joseph M., 15 May 2015. Web. 15 May 2015.

Schall, Joe. “Writing Cover Letters.” Writing Commons. Moxley, Joseph M., 15 May 2015. Web. 15 May 2015.

U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. EDGAR Database. 15 May 2015. Web. 15 May 2015.

Cassandra Branham, Editor-in-Chief WritingCommons.org

Cassandra Branham

Editor-in-Chief
WritingCommons.org

Dear Colleagues and Students,

Welcome to Writing Commons, an open-education resource for instructors and students of writing across the disciplines. Our mission is to provide a high-quality, cost free resource to support students in the development of writing, research, and critical thinking practices.

This summer, we have been working on a site redesign in an effort to increase the usability of our site for both instructors and students. Our most significant change has been the inclusion of additional categories and subcategories to create a more intuitive hierarchy within the site.

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