I once worked with a career coach. J.T. O'Donnell, who used to own her own recruitment agency and now coaches job seekers and executives, teaches something she calls “the disruptive cover letter.”
Sure, it’s meant for job seekers. But as a professional, there’s a great lesson in there. This technique can be easily applied to any letter designed to capture attention, create interest, and drive action.
While most cover letters are yawn-inducing rather than awe-inspiring, it makes sense that, to stand out, you have to… well, stand out.
This is true when every other cover letter out there has all the same overused lingo and boring, me-too approaches. You know the ones:
“I'm writing to you in response to your ad and wish to submit my application for the position of Desperate Job-Seeking Representative within your firm. With my unique set of skills and experiences, I’m positive that I will be a perfect candidate for the position… Blah, blah, blah.”
The issue is, every cover letter looks and reads exactly the same.
I agree there might be a few rare gems that might have some extras or something that drives their attention more. As a person who was in charge of hiring myself, I’ve seen letters with photos, graphics, personal logos, glitzy layouts, and even strong content.
But nothing beats the disruptive cover letter.
Without trying to repeat too much of what's already mentioned in this article, here are some of the big points and how they may apply to you:
- Tell a story. Storytelling is at the heart of effective communication, and the skillset that all effective communicators, professionals, and entrepreneurs possess. It’s also the one element that gets your letter to stand out.
- Give a reason. Tell the reader what drove you to write the letter. Don’t just say it, like “I was excited to read your opening for the position.” Tell a story that explains why. What caused you or compelled you to write?
- Create a connection. By starting with a story and a reason for writing, you then connect them with the reader. You explain how they may be meaningful to them. In the case of a cover letter for a job, you highlight past experiences and achievements, and how they relate to the position. You’re implying (which is more powerful than outright specifying) what you can do for them.
- Connect the dots. This is the final paragraph, a chance for you to bring it all together. Your introduction, your story, and your contribution allow you to then go for the close. Or in this case, ask for the interview.
As J.T. O’Donnell said in a YouTube video, a disruptive cover letter will stop recruiters in their tracks and, more importantly, it will hold their attention.
Says O’Donnell, “Today, recruiters take no more than six seconds skimming a cover letter to determine if they’re worth taking a deeper look.”
I surmise it’s the same in other situations, and even more so.
Why? Because recruiters are looking to fill the position. They are expecting cover letters. And they fully intend to sift through them. But to a person, an executive or a business owner receiving your letter without asking for it, you're intruding.
It's more of an intrusive letter, not a disruptive one.
Most typical cover letters summarize what’s already in the CV, and at best highlight some key points that are also pulled from the CV. Which is repetitive, redundant, and useless.
Similarly, most business letters start with some form of introduction, an explanation of who the sender is with some self-aggrandizing list of credentials, and the reason they are writing to the recipient (which, again, is focused on what the sender can do for the recipient rather than being interested in the recipient and their plight).
The disruptive letter, on the other hand, is meant to stand out, grab the reader by the eyeballs, and give them compelling reasons why they should read further — and read the enclosed CV, too.
All great copy boils down to the recipient and the connection with her. It reminds me of something I call the QUEST formula. It’s an acronym that stands for Qualify, Understand, Educate, Stimulate, and Transition.
- You qualify the reader so they know the letter is meant for them.
- You understand their problem and create a connection with them.
- You educate them on the solution and how it will solve their problem.
- You stimulate them on the reasons they should buy that solution.
- You transition them into a relationship by asking for a response.
In the case of the disruptive cover letter, the “qualify” part is already included. After all, you’re writing to a recruiter who asked for your letter. Although, in some cases, a cover letter written directly to a department head, for example, may need to qualify them a bit more.
But all the other QUEST elements still apply.
You talk about yourself, not in an ego-centric way but in a way that shows you’re passionate about the work and why you're an ideal fit.
Your story and the connection you make shows that you understand their plight, which is not only to fill the position but to hire someone who will become an asset — rather than just someone who says they will be one.
Your highlights educate them on why they should read the CV and consider an interview, but also stimulate them on why it would be worth their time. And finally, you ask for the interview, which will transition them into the next step.
Remember, the purpose of the cover letter is not to land the job but to land an interview — or, at the very least, to read the CV.
Every letter should be written in the same way.
Another way to look at it is something called “bucket-brigade” copy, where the first paragraph’s job is to get the reader to read the second paragraph, and the second paragraph's job is to read the third, and so on.
Nevertheless, I took a stab at it. I wrote a cover letter for myself, to give you an example. If you want to see how I would write a disruptive cover letter, here it is.
Hopefully this was helpful to you.