Thursday, January 1, 2009

Could You Be Shooting Yourself in the Foot? 5 Super Easy Things For You to Fix Right Now

Finding a new job is terribly daunting. I get that. So much is on the line, that’s for sure. Your financial security. Your self-esteem. The health and happiness of your family. The roof over your head. Your dignity. Your faith in the basic law of life that if you behave yourself, you won’t be punished. Yet, here you are: Looking for a new job. Maybe because you were laid off. And how hard is it to project a “can do” attitude when the last thing you heard from your employer was “we don’t want you anymore?” Still. You gotta get out there, slap on that confident smile, thrust your hand forward to shake, and say to the umpteenth interviewer, “pleased to meetcha.” Puh-leeze. It gets pretty old after a while, doesn’t it?

It could be that you might be making it harder on yourself than is necessary. (Not laying any blame here, I’m just saying.) As I’ve been researching Rebound, and dealing with emails that my blog readers send me, I’m noticing some super easy fixes you can make right this very minute that will open up roads and doors for you that might otherwise be closed. Want to know what they are? Here goes:

Watch your grammar and spelling. I can hear you now: “What, that again?” In a word: Yes. Some of the emails I get are so bad that they make my eyes cross. I can only assume that they come from people whose first language is not English (again, no judgment here, I’m just saying). If that’s the case, good for you! If you think that the United States is still the land of opportunity, welcome aboard. But have a native English speaker (one who is, by the way, uh, smart) double-check your writing, typing and spelling for you. I’m not one of those people who believe that students deserve to have professional editors help them with term papers. But I do believe that now you’re an adult and out there in the big wide world, if you can get help getting your authentic, sincere message across, get it.

Don’t get too familiar. I know there are some who believe that it’s acceptable to be sloppy in emails. And maybe it is with emails between friends. There was one email I sent just a couple of days ago via my PDA that was all lower-case because I was just too darn lazy, and frankly too peevish, to care about my capital letters. And I was writing to a friend (at least I hope he’s still my friend). Similarly, I’ve made my share of mistakes with text messages. We won’t go into that.

My point here is that when you’re writing to strangers, especially strangers who are in the position to hire you or help you, pay attention to the simple fundamentals of good English. I received an email a couple of weeks ago that broke almost every rule I can think of. Starting with addressing me by name. What’s wrong with that? He used a lower-case “m.” Uh. Hello? Isn’t that just a little bit insulting? If you don’t care enough about demonstrating your respect for me to go the slightest effort of pressing the shift key while typing “m,” why should I take my valuable time to give you supremely valuable advice?

Here’s the kicker: He didn’t even call me “martha.” He called me “mary.” About seven times. Which brings me to another point, beside the obvious one. Don’t use the recipient’s name so often. It feels creepy and manipulative. You only want to use a name that frequently when you’re trying to convince a puppy what his new name is. (And maybe not even then, unless you don’t mind cleaning up puppy yak.) The other time: You’re trying to seduce a woman into ignoring her survival instincts. Really. The last time I saw a person’s name used so much within such a short conversation was when Scott Peterson was calling Amber Frey from Paris, I mean his murdered wife’s vigil in Modesto. Really, it’s a very creepy thing to do. It doesn’t feel good to see my name repeated so often, even when it’s “martha” and not “mary.” It makes the hairs on my neck stand up.

When I wrote back to the guy simply pointing out that my name is Martha (with, by the way, a capital M), his response was this: “You’re such a scholar.” If you demonstrate through your words and actions that you consider that taking the time to get a name right is a feat reserved only for the ivory-tower intelligentsia, knock yourself out. You’ll be saving recruiters a ton of time. But wasting yours. And I’m here for you, not them.

Don’t sound as though you’re taking dictation for Charles Dickens: It’s one thing to write a dignified email to a stranger asking for assistance (or even better, “help”). It’s another thing to sound so formal that you completely date yourself – which translates into “outdate” yourself. The era of formal business correspondence is pretty much over, except for legal correspondence – which, here let me save some time for you, uses all its flowery language to sweeten the threat of “if you don’t comply, we’re going to sue your ass.” Other than that, business has gone beyond formal, flowery language (except for maybe Spain, and I’m not even sure about that anymore).

Not sure where to draw the line between falling-down sloppy and stuffed-shirt stuffy? You want to sound friendly but not presumptuous. The best examples I can think of are the anchors on the local news or the network morning shows. They’re smart (relatively speaking), congenial (absolutely), conversational (essential). And they use eeny bitty teeny tiny words. Copy them. Pretend you’re one of them talking to one of their smart friends – their social equals. If you get too strangely formal in your language, you’re going to sound as pitiful as David Copperfield holding up his bowl. That packages you as workhouse material, not bright, shining career, oh-my-god-you’re-just-what-this-company-needs material.

Focus your message on your dreams, not your saga of frustration and woe: I know it really helps to vent. But people – especially strangers -- are inspired by dreamers, not by woe-is-me’ers. As I’ve said before, if anyone wants to hire you because they take pity on you, run. They want you for all the wrong reasons.

When you talk to people, especially strangers like me, talk about what you want to do, not the long road of hell you’ve just walked down. In the listener’s ear, there’s a very short cognitive distance between, “so what do you want to do,” and “how can you do what you want to do for me or people I know?”

I had a very interesting email today from someone in Tucson. And I’d love to help him out (even though I really, really, really, really don’t do individual counseling; I pass those requests on to others). But even after reading his message, I really don’t know what he wants to do for an actual job.

Make it easy for people to get back to you. So here’s what happened, which pretty much prompted this whole posting. I wrote back to the guy, posing a question for him to consider and then get back to me on. My email to him bounced back to me with a request from some sort of automated spam blocker to type into a little window an absurdly scrambled set of letters. You know, that’s just really annoying.

I get spam, and I know how irritating it is. So I understand. But when you’re in the job market, appealing to the kindness of strangers, as well as the earnest interest of potential employers, don’t treat them like deadbeats. If your email service provider can’t skim the crap off the top before delivering your email to you, switch email service providers. My service provider has something called “spam assassin,” which works about 92% of the time. A few nasty emails slip through, and a few precious emails get caught up in the net (which I can always recover in my spam folder). But at least I don’t have to worry about a respected (or cherished) correspondent being made to empty his pockets and take off his shoes before being allowed through my security checkpoint.

These are really very easy changes to make in your project of finding new work! They don’t ask you to change who you are, they’re designed to help you take the best of who you are and put that front and center.

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