“Character is action.”
- Syd Field, Screenplay
You are looking for your dream job. Maybe you’ve come across an opening that just screams your name; maybe you’ve been looking for quite a while. Either way, you’re all too aware of how many other people out there have their eyes on your opportunity.
Whether you’re a student fresh out of school or a seasoned pro ready for a new beginning, you just know that nobody would bring the same passion, skills and value to the position as you would. The employer wants to hire you – they just don’t know it yet.
Unfortunately, that employer probably has a stack of CVs and cover letters in front of them, with more coming in by fax, email and maybe even Twitter every day. You can mix up your format in any number of different ways, but if your could-be boss has flipped through resumes and cover letters for hours on end, they inevitably start to look the same.
What can you do to make your cover letter stand out, grab attention, help the employer see that they simply have to meet you?
You can start by crafting an active cover letter, something that doesn’t tell a potential boss what you’re capable of; it shows them.
Here’s how you do it:
Know Your Opponent
Instead of thinking up attention-grabbing tricks like different textures of paper or different sizes of font, put yourself in the employer’s head for a second. What is it that they want? To hire the best person for the position, obviously – but how do they decide that? CVs can list skills; if the applicant is smart, they can even give examples. But it’s still just words on a page.
Cover letters are the same thing. There are many ways you can frame your personal narrative but again, even the most tightly-written explanations of your skills are just reflections of what you have to offer. Odds are the employer has read those same words in different orders a hundred times. Then, they have to call references to see if what you’ve written is actually true – another step in an already tedious process. What can you do to make your brand stand out? What can you do to make the employer’s job easier?
Deeds, Not Words
To steal a line from Hollywood – don’t tell ‘em, show ‘em. Think about this for a second; whereas a book can take pages to introduce a character, movies have to do it in seconds. Good screen-writers reveal character through behaviour; don’t tell an audience that a character is ruthless, calculating and efficient – just show them in action. Nothing demonstrates what a person is capable of quite like a demonstration, like this introduction of Tywin Lannister from Game of Thrones.
Did you watch the clip? You’ve got a pretty good idea of what Tywin’s capable of, don’t you? He didn’t tell us – he showed us.
How can you do the same? Start by thinking outside the box. It might be tradition to include a written cover letter with your CV, but that tradition began before there were other tools available. If the point is to introduce yourself and what you’re capable of to a given employer, there are better tools available now. If you can show ‘em what you have to offer instead of just relating skills or listing accomplishments, why not?
Now, picture you’re the employer or HR person, scrolling through endless emails with links to pages of CV text. You open an email that, instead of just two Word or PDF documents includes a link to Youtube titled “here’s me”. Even an attached PowerPoint presentation would be different enough to draw your attention. Feeling a bit of anticipation, you open this active cover letter, hoping against hope for something amazing.
Content is Character
The purpose of a cover letter is to tell a story about you and what you have to offer. A powerful active cover letter does the same thing; the difference is that an active format (like a video or slide deck presentation) lets you show off your skills more effectively. In a traditional cover letter, you tell an employer you’ve got a solid background in communications and drop some examples; a living cover letter proves it. The presentation itself – tight, well-paced, providing just the key facts but backing them up with action – is your story.
What is the job you’re applying for? What does it entail? Most job descriptions will lay this out clearly. In this way, cover letters of any format are a bit like answering test questions; you want to include the description in your presentation.
So, if the description includes something like “responsible for administrative operations” you would want to include a direct reference to your organizational ability. This could be a quick demonstration of you literally organizing files or even more subtly, a picture of you in front of your nicely organized desk. A picture, remember, is worth a thousand words.
If the job requires effective interpersonal skills – talking to the public, stakeholders or press – you can show that, too. Find someone you know who’s comfortable with recording a brief call or an in-person chat and record it for inclusion in your active cover letter. Not only are you demonstrating the skill – you’re also cutting the employer’s work down by including a referral right in your presentation.
What boss doesn’t want an employee who instinctively knows how to make their job easier?
Another advantage of the active cover letter format is that you get to show off your personality, too; the pace of your video/slide deck, the inclusion of action-shots of yourself or a voiceover helps the employer warm up to you as a person. It also helps create a clear image in their mind of what kind of person you are, making the eventual interview that much easier a process for everyone.
Remember – you don’t need to get crazy-clever with the content; the active cover letter format is already putting you ahead of the curve on that front. You want to keep your video or presentation short, punchy and focused on just the key pieces the employer has made it clear they’re looking for.
- The top three or four requirements of the position
- The top three attributes “the ideal candidate” will bring to the table
- The top three qualities you bring to the job that make you unique
That still allows lots of space to build in character and establish your voice. For an example of this, check out Hill & Knowlton’s Billy Wants a Dog video; in two minutes and with simple graphics, H&K lays out what they do, shows us why they’re good at it and gives a taste of their corporate personality at the same time – all in under two minutes. This video on McGuinty Family Values gives some ideas on how to use third-party quotes effectively; unless you’re running for political office, though, you’ll want to keep your running time at no more than two minutes.
You can (and should) use music, include quotes from references (flashed over pictures of the person or better, yet, presented in their own voice) but remember that your goal is to sell to an audience as much as it is to present yourself. Stick to the essentials – they have to pay if they want more.
The Tools of the Trade
If you find the idea of creating a live cover letter a bit daunting – don’t. There are two main reasons why you shouldn’t let yourself be intimated by adding greater value to your cover letter:
1) Using programs like Adobe or PowerPoint to craft an active cover letter is a skill, no different than typing or writing an effective CV in the first place. There are plenty of online tools that can help you – click on the links provided, take some time to browse Google or go in to your local computer store and ask some questions. You’d be surprised what you can find out for free, if you try
2) Crafting active presentations is the new typing – business pitches, corporate meetings and even school assignments are done in PowerPoint these days. Put it in a different way – these are increasingly the skills employers are seeing as essential and the next generation of competition will be pros
Youtube videos are fantastic, if you have the time and resources to do them. If you’re going this route, be sure you know what you’re doing and take the time to do it right. There’s nothing worse than getting an employer’s hopes up, then not delivering on the promise of a novel idea.
If you aren’t comfortable with making videos, you’re best off to look into PowerPoint; it’s an easier format to work in, requires less preparation and tends get cheaper.
Whichever format you decide to go with, you can make your life a lot easier by starting with a direction and a plan.
Direction – what kinds of jobs are you applying for? More to the point, what are the key skills and attributes the sorts of positions that interest you tend to favour? Think of your living cover letter as a recipe; there will be a handful of key ingredients that are required for different dishes. If you can find the core pieces you will need to use again and again, you can build up a store of quotes, video clips, or action shots that can be applied to different positions. This requires a bit more work up-front but makes the process of editing your active cover letters a lot easier.
Plan – what is the story you are trying to tell? This will come from the job application itself, but you will know which attributes are your strength and what kind of impression you want to leave with your future employer. Back to the recipe – know which order you want to put your skills in, know how long you want your active cover letter to be (again, no more than two minutes) and how much emphasis you want to give each skill. With this in mind, it becomes a lot easier to make sure you have the right ingredients in the right quantities to leave a lasting, powerful impression.
Remember – content is character; whether it’s a test, a living cover letter or a job interview, you will be judged on your presentation. It’s worth investing some time to do some homework before you get started.
Just because the concept of living cover letters is innovative, it doesn’t mean there aren’t best practices out there to learn from. There are the two examples given above; you can also research things like TED Talks, video submissions for acting jobs and movie behind-the-scenes featurettes for ideas on how to present your information.
The purpose of a cover letter is to summarize who you are and what you’re capable of for an employer. Traditional cover letters can hint at your skills and maybe give some examples, but they don’t actually show your skills. You can make the employer’s job easier (and increase your chances of getting an interview and winning the job) by showing, not telling, what you can do.