BlogBusiness WritingHow to Use Your Cover Letter to Tell Your Professional Story

How to Use Your Cover Letter to Tell Your Professional Story

A.J. Ogilvie
Professor of Business Communication at the University of Southern California
Published Jul 14, 2020

coverletter

For many of us, writing a cover letter is one of the most challenging parts of looking for a job.

When writing a cover letter, we often don’t know what to say. Or if we do know what we want to say, we don’t know how to say it. But perhaps on an even more basic level, it’s just plain difficult for most of us to talk about ourselves.

Despite how difficult it is to write a cover letter, there is a lot of value in investing serious time and energy into writing a great one.

A great cover letter can get you a job, but beyond that the actual process of writing one can help you learn to tell a coherent and powerful story about yourself. If you can do this, you can take that story and leverage it across multiple areas – your LinkedIn profile, a networking email, responses to interviews, and more.

In this two-post series, I'll break down the cover letter writing process, demystify it a bit, and help you see your cover letter as a story that you can start writing right away.

Contents:
  1. 3 Biggest Cover Letter Mistakes
  2. How to Create a Compelling Cover Letter: Tell a Story
  3. Cover Letter Goals
  4. How to Write a Cover Letter That Companies Will Love
  5. Start Telling Your Story
  6. Ready to hear more from A.J.?
  7. Sign up to our upcoming Webinar!
  8. Ask a Writing Prof: How to Boost your Business, Studies, or Career in a Practical Way with Exceptional Writing with A.J. Ogilvie

3 Biggest Cover Letter Mistakes

Let's begin by considering three unhelpful beliefs around cover letter writing.

Mistaken Belief 1: "The cover letter should be about me."

You should talk about yourself in the cover letter. But you want to talk about yourself in relation to the company.

As we’ll discuss in more depth later, you want to show the company that you “get” them, that you are one of them, and that you will make them better. So you will talk about yourself but, mostly, you will talk about you and the company and how you two are aligned in meaningful ways.

Mistaken Belief 2: "I can use the same cover letter for any company I apply to."

Looking for a job can be exhausting, frustrating and anxiety-ridden. Many people get overwhelmed and do a sort of “spray and pray” – they send out the same resume and cover letter to 10, 15, or 20 organizations.

My assumption is that people who do this don’t hear back from many of those organizations because companies want to read your cover letter and feel special. You should pick two to three companies, do serious research, and speak to their specific needs and unique qualities in your cover letter.

Mistaken Belief 3: "The cover letter should have a professional tone."

Your cover letter should be professional, but I believe many people take it too far. You need to remember a real human will be reading your cover letter – and that human (like any of us) would prefer that your writing is personal, engaging, conversational and professional.

You want to activate the reader, make them want to read more, and write so clearly that they will be able to retell the story of your cover letter to a boss or a colleague.

That said - don't be too casual about it. Maintain a professional tone by keeping cheesy clichés at bay and avoiding grammatical errors. Using a professional editing software like ProWritingAid will help you keep mistakes out of your cover letter.

coverletterPWA

You want the reader to feel like they are listening to you speak, so write as if you’re speaking.

How to Create a Compelling Cover Letter: Tell a Story

A cover letter is a compelling story that connects the dots of who we are, what we care about, and what we’ve done.

Most of us spend a significant amount of time and energy obtaining degrees, knowledge and experience, but we don’t spend much time figuring how all of this knowledge and expertise fits together in a coherent story. The cover letter is an opportunity to take the time to figure out this story.

But why a story? Because humans crave stories.

For thousands of years, stories have enabled humans to transmit culture and knowledge across generations. Brain science proves that storytelling creates oxytocin, which is a neurochemical that helps create trust between people. And other research has shown that people are 22 times more likely to remember a fact when it is part of a story.

A story is far more interesting and engaging to read than a haphazardly considered set of unrelated ideas, which is what many cover letters are.

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Cover Letter Goals

Your goal for your cover letter is to have the company read it and respond in three ways:

The first thing you want the company to say is "they get us."

Employers want to know that you understand who they are at the most fundamental level – you understand what they value, what they get excited about, who they want to be, and what their big problems are.

The second thing you want the company to say is “they are one of us.”

You need to show them you get who they are and that you are in some way already acting, thinking and working in the ways that they do.

Lastly, you want the company to say "they will make us better."

You need to demonstrate how you will help solve the company’s problems, which is a lot harder than trying to prove that you are qualified for the position.

Achieving all three of these cover letter goals is an incredibly difficult task, but if you use them as targets and attempt to create these responses you will produce a great cover letter.

How to Write a Cover Letter That Companies Will Love

In order to tell a story that gets the company to say “they gets us,” ”they are one of us,” and “they will help us,” you will need to do significant research on the company.

A lot of advice around cover letters often suggests that you must “know your audience” but there is rarely any specific advice on what it means to know your audience or how to develop knowledge about your audience.

To me, to know your audience you must you try and understand the company from the perspective of an insider at the company.

To do this, you will need to collect a large set of data about the company and analyze that data in order to identify three big themes about the company. These three themes will form the core foundation of your cover letter story.

In terms of research, you will want to look in multiple places: the job description, company mission statement, company website, news articles, LinkedIn, interviews, blog posts, and podcasts, among others. You are effectively creating a file on the company.

howtowriteacoverletter

To make sense of the data you’ve collected, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What does this company care about?
  • What do they talk about a lot?
  • What words do they seem to repeat?
  • What does their history say about them, and how do they talk about the future?
  • What words or phrases seem most important in the job description, and what words or phrases are repeated?

After you’ve asked and answered these questions, you’ll then want to organize your answers into three large themes. These three large themes represent ideas, values, practices, or beliefs that are central to the company. In a sense, this analysis of the data is where you begin to write your story.

Once you’ve identified these three themes, you’ll link yourself to these themes by telling a set of stories that show the company that you have experience or insight that involves this theme. The final challenge is integrating these smaller stories into a larger overall narrative that conveys a powerful but simple idea about who you are.

Start Telling Your Story

Admittedly, all of this sounds a bit idealistic. So in part 2 of this blog post, I’ll go into detail on what this research process actually looks like in practice. Using a real job posting, I’ll show how you conduct the research, analyze the data, identify three themes, and then write the story around those themes.

Onwards to Part 2!

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A.J. Ogilvie
Professor of Business Communication at the University of Southern California

A.J. Ogilvie, PhD, is a professor of business communication at the University of Southern California. He has taught business communication, consulting, and writing courses for over ten years, and has published research on the theories of teaching, learning and communication.

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