Perhaps the most effective cover letter ever written was the one sent by Robert Pirosh, a young advertising copywriter from New York, to various Hollywood film executives in 1934*.
Attempting to break into screenwriting, Pirosh condensed his love of language – and his dazzling writing skills – into three glorious paragraphs containing some of the unlikeliest words ever read by a would-be employer. Have you ever included the words “cowlick, gurgle, bubble, and burp” in a cover letter? Not many have.
In any case, his singular gambit worked. The letter earned Pirosh three interviews, one of which led to him securing a job as a junior writer at the fabled MGM studio. (He went on to win an Academy Award as well as a Golden Globe for his work on the war epic ‘Battleground’.)
Of course, an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay shows that Pirosh enjoyed one massive advantage when it comes to putting together a compelling cover letter: he was a brilliant professional writer. That certainly helps.
While we can’t all claim professional copywriting skills, there are other valuable lessons we can all learn from Pirosh’s approach to constructing a cover letter.
Horses for courses
This is probably the most important principle of the cover letter; of any letter in fact. It must be specifically adapted for your intended audience. That means starting with some basic questions: who is this for? What are they looking for? What do I want to achieve? Then you tailor your tone of voice – as well as your subject matter – for the person who’ll be reading it.
If you are applying for a job in a legal or accountancy firm, for example, your tone will necessarily be quite conservative. If you are trying to secure an internship with an advertising or digital media agency, your tone can be more casual and creative.
Stand out from the crowd
It’s a highly competitive job market out there, and you are going to be up against many other candidates. Depending on the job vacancy, it wouldn’t be uncommon for recruitment agencies or HR personnel to have to sift through literally hundreds of resumes – and hundreds of cover letters.
If you’re going to stand out from the competition, your letter needs to stand out too. Try and inject some subtle X factor that gives a flavor of your unique personality. Again though, this must resonate with your audience – if you are applying for a job in customer service you might want to hint at your superior people skills. If the job is in finance, you could emphasize your love of working with numbers.
Make eye contact
When writing a formal letter of application, there’s often a temptation to ‘hide’ behind formal language or corporate jargon. Don’t. Be confident. Be bold. Be clear. Be direct. Remember that you are writing to another person, not ‘the company’.
In the example at the top, Robert Pirosh rounds off his letter with the following two sentences: “I have just returned [from Europe] and I still like words. May I have a few with you?” This approach wouldn’t work for every potential employer, but it’s a fabulous example of using words to make eye contact.
Make sure it’s flawless
Some of the advice here may be more or less applicable, depending on the job you’re applying for. This one, however, is for everybody – no exceptions.
Even if writing is not your strongest point, it is imperative that your cover letter is mistake-free from start to finish. Correct spelling, grammar, punctuation – these are the pillars of written communication and they still matter, even in today’s mobile world. Mistakes are a sign of sloppiness and they undermine everything your letter is trying to achieve.
Say it out loud
Finally, and this can be considered good advice for any piece of writing, when you’ve drafted your cover letter, read it out loud. Does it sound natural? Does it sound like the sort of thing you’d say in conversation? If so, chances are it’s on the right track. Now, start checking for mistakes!
Many thanks and credit for this article go to one of Ken Lee’s favorite newsletters – Letters Of Note