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Cover Letters: Rising to the Top

Many communication and marketing experts talk about having an elevator speech. It’s the mini-speech you give someone to promote yourself, your idea, or your business. The connection with elevators is the idea that you have only 30 seconds or less–the time it would take to get to the top floor–to catch the interest of the other person.

I was reminded how the elevator speech ties to writing cover letters in a business writing class this week. On Monday a young woman wrote a cover letter that listed a lot of good information from her resume. It was positive but not catchy. As her reading audience, we imagined that letter in a pile of dozens of others on our desk. We couldn’t see it rising to the top.

After getting feedback, she wrote another cover letter on Tuesday. This time she used the letter to describe a very individual, relevant project she had recently completed that was an exact match for the position she was applying for.

In just a few sentences–the time it would take to get to her destination on the elevator–she said enough to tell us we had to interview her for the position.

In cover letters, don’t rehash your resume. Engage the reader with something relevant and special that shows you are definitely worth spending more time with–in an interview. 

After you’ve landed the job, use the same technique. That is, focus the reader from the very beginning of each message. Your readers who have 30 seconds–or much less–will be grateful for your clarity and directness.

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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English. She grew up in suburban Chicago, Illinois.