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Do speculative cover letters work?

Speculative letters (by post or email) might work better than you think. They're a recognised way of communicating with employers who are not currently advertising for staff. If your message finds a decision-maker who has a problem or an opportunity, you could be in a meeting pretty fast. But consider if a letter out of the blue is the best method of connecting with an organisation – it's often more effective to get a warm introduction through existing contacts.

Be concise and to the point

Many speculative letters are pure time wasters. They make little attempt to understand the needs of the organisation, and are instantly considered as junk mail. Too many letters use dull, predictable wording, over-long introductions and explanations, and communicate too much using long paragraphs which will never be read. Get to the point quickly. Show, rather than tell, how you have the skills and know-how necessary to do the job – provide evidence in bullet point form. Get across key evidence from your CV, but avoid repeating exact phrases.

The first mistake is to believe that it sells you into a meeting. It won't. If you're lucky, it will simply persuade the reader to consider your CV. The only function of a cover letter is to get your CV read, and to get you a meeting. If your CV is a short book, your cover letter is like the blurb on the cover – it gives a reason to start reading. It should therefore flag up three or four strong items in your CV worth considering.

The second mistake is to rehearse every reason why you might get hired. Some candidates send in cover letters more than two pages long, crammed with information. Don't make the mistake of thinking that the longer you argue your case, the better your chances of an interview - the opposite is almost certainly the case. If you can't write a coherent one-page letter, what does that say about your communication skills in the job?

The employer is the focus not you

Try not to begin every sentence and paragraph with "I". Focus on the reader of the letter and his or her perspective. Your letter should say more about the employer than it says about you. State why you are attracted to the organisation and what you like about it. Research. Refer to the problems, opportunities and headaches your target company is facing. Remember Swot as a prompt: what can you say about a company's strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats? Try to work out the top

half dozen or so priorities in the employer's mind and offer five or six matching pieces of evidence in your cover letter.

Why are you a good match?

Refer the reader to your enclosed CV, stating briefly why you are a good match as a candidate. Don't apologise in your letter for the lack of industry experience or your lack of a specific qualification. Select a range of achievements relevant to the needs of the organisation, and set out your top three or four as bullet points in the letter. This short burst of information is the element most likely to get you into a meeting.

Avoid the hard-sell

In the UK job market, selling yourself too hard can be counter-productive. Avoid the pushy assumptive close you see in some recommended formats: "I'll be calling you on Monday to discuss my application further", or "I will expect your call". Simply end your message stating that you'd like the opportunity to take the conversation further – they'll respond fast enough if they're interested.

Accuracy and research

Ensure complete accuracy in names and job titles, as well as the name of the organisation itself (plus the names of products or services). Cut and paste from previous letters with great care. Print a letter off and proof read it carefully before emailing.

Don't put anything in your cover letter which gives the reader an excuse to put it aside. For example, apologising for your lack of a particular requirement, mentioning your age, or referring to negative aspects such as why you left your last job.

Research the staff list of the organisation carefully to ensure your letter is read by the right decision maker. It pays to make some calls to anyone who knows anything about the organisation so you can find out who to approach and what you might say which makes your approach stand out. Remember that the organisation will be researching you in return – make sure your LinkedIn page is up to date and tells the story you want to get across. Telephone to check that your letter has been received by the intended recipient. If you get connected, ask one relevant question, and mention one reason why you might be able to help the employer, then suggest a meeting.

John Lees is a career coach, founder of John Lees Associates and author of Knockout CV.

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Category: Speculation

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