Cover Letter Lessons From Hollywood

Unspooled film

Partway through the workshop on “Cover Letters That Make You Stand Out,” a comment in the chat window stopped me in my tracks: “There’s so much more to it than writing a cover letter.”

“It” in this case referred to the challenge of finding a job. And the chat comment grabbed my attention because it captured in a nutshell the reason so many cover letters flop: most job seekers expect the cover letter to do too much.

There certainly is much, much more to landing a job than merely writing a cover letter. A cover letter is simply the first step in a chain of interactions. It’s not supposed to get you a job or even an interview.

A successful cover letter achieves one thing: it persuades the reader to view the candidate’s résumé. That’s it. Your sole task when crafting the cover for your résumé is to entice the employer to turn the page.

Think of your cover letter as a trailer for the movie of your career journey, not a plot summary. An intriguing trailer reveals just enough of the movie to stir up curiosity, not so much detail that viewers feel they’ve already seen the whole film.

I challenge you to check out a few movie trailers and notice how they work. You’ll see that they don’t present a compressed version of the movie. A series of scene-by-scene snapshots would be a movie summary, not a teaser to lure the viewer into buying movie tickets (or, these days, a movie download).

An effective movie trailer culls the film’s most stand-out scenes, those highlights that make the viewing experience unique. Some movie trailers do this so well that they create a mantra that viewers associate with the movie before it’s even released. The trailer for Jerry Maguire, for instance, popularized the movie’s key phrase “Show me the money!” before moviegoers understood its full context.

Makers of movie trailers, like writers of cover letters, have to ask some hard questions to decide what to leave in and what to leave out. A trailer allows just two or three minutes for conveying the essence of a 90-minute film. A cover letter gives you just a few paragraphs to sum up years, perhaps decades, of your career history.

According to movie trailer director Jessica Fox [1], a key question she asks is how the film makes viewers feel. The trailer’s main task is to provide, in miniature, the experience of watching the movie.

The best way to replicate that experience varies from movie to movie. In some cases, the trailer needs to tell a story. In other situations, it makes more sense for it to focus on moments of creative cinematography or on parts of the soundtrack. The goal is never to provide an outline of the film but rather a sample to whet the viewer’s appetite for the full movie experience.

The same logic should apply to cover letters. Don’t worry about trying to summarize your entire work history; that’s what your résumé is for. Instead, focus on giving employers a sneak peek into what it’s like to have the experience of working with you. Concentrate on conveying your personal strengths rather than on spelling out a long list of career achievements.

When you approach a cover letter as if you’re creating a movie trailer, you instantly streamline the process of selecting and arranging content. Instead of trying to squeeze in as much information as you possibly can, you simply select those personal stories and professional vignettes that best express who you are and the value you offer. Rather than bombarding the employer with detail, you woo them with select, juicy titbits from your work history. And rather than using stiff, formal language, you communicate in a writing style that transmits your personality and your passions.

Stop overstuffing your cover letters and stressing over describing all your skills and strengths in a single page. As you search for your next position, give yourself the temporary job of Career Trailer Director. Bring a cinematic eye to cover letter writing, and you might even enjoy the opportunity it provides to reflect on your experience and appreciate it from new angles.

Could you use a second set of eyes on your cover letter? I’m considering holding a Cover Letter Clinic early in the new year. If this opportunity would interest you, please message me to get on the wait list.

[1] Fox, J. (2020, January 9). How Movie Trailers Are Created. Vanity Fair. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gyQ9GP0CZrg

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