Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Asked to Write a Referral?

As a businessperson, you will write much to promote yourself. As a successful businessperson, you will probably be asked someday to write something that promotes someone else: a letter of recommendation for college, a job reference, a letter of introduction to a professional association.

Assuming this is someone you honestly can recommend and that there are no company policies keeping you from going into detail, by all means tell the college/business/association how fortunate they would be to have this person. Here’s how to make a good impression on your “recommendee’s” behalf:

Be specific. Sure, every administrative department wants students and staff to be honest and hardworking, but the adjectives by themselves don’t mean much. Give specific examples: “In October 2008, Ms. Spencer designed and implemented a new software program that cut our order-processing time by 20 percent.”

Be concise, but not too concise. Think minimum one full page, maximum two pages.

Be positive. People are wary of those who write recommendations simply to get persistent applicants off their backs; evident reservation tempts readers to suspect something is seriously wrong. If you think someone’s shortcomings would affect his ability to function in the position applied for, you shouldn’t be writing him a recommendation in the first place. Otherwise, let him worry about answering the “tell me your greatest weaknesses” question once he gets the interview.

Don’t gush, however. Being too positive arouses as much suspicion as being tentative. If you can show specific ways an applicant has improved in certain areas, that’s ideal.

Focus on qualities that can be transferred to the position applied for. If you supervised a college applicant during her three-month summer job archiving church records, mention her dependability, attention to detail, and other academic-relevant qualities. Unless the college she’s applying to is extremely conservative, they aren’t likely to care much that she is also a third-generation member of the church and hasn’t missed a service since she had the flu in fifth grade.

Be sure that you do, in fact, understand what is relevant. If you have any doubts, the person who requested the recommendation—assuming he’s serious enough to deserve it—is likely to be your best source of information.

Do proofread your reference before sending it. Preferably, let it “cool” a week before the final edit. This is, after all, something with potential to significantly affect someone’s future.

Make up your mind not to take it personally if your reference doesn’t “work.” However good your letter of recommendation is, the person you recommend may not get into the school or be hired for the job. Or he may decide he prefers some alternative, which he didn’t ask your recommendation for. There could be any number of reasons; don’t waste your time trying to find out what they are. If nothing else, you got some valuable writing practice from this.

References are a part of professional life; you may even need one yourself someday. Treat them with the respect they deserve.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Appearances Do Count

When you receive an e-mail ad full of all-caps words and with line breaks apparently inserted at random, how likely are you to buy the product?

When someone hands you an advertising brochure printed on cheap paper and using a different font for every line, how seriously do you take the sponsoring company?

The delusion that one’s genius shines through the sloppiest communication is amazingly widespread among beginning entrepreneurs. Those who don’t outgrow the attitude quickly become “new businesses fail within two years” statistics.

Several past posts (see March archives) have already discussed proofreading of actual text, so I’ll focus here on other visual aspects of written communications. If you want blogs, sales letters, and advertisements to make you look conscientious and competent, remember the following points:

For hard copy:

  • Use reasonably heavy paper (it looks sloppy to have text showing through, especially on two-sided brochures). And make sure the paper is fresh and clean.
  • Make sure there is sufficient toner to produce crisp print; smudged or faded text and illogical coloring make communications look amateurish, if not cheap.
  • For letters, use only white or beige paper and black text. Eye-catching colors are more acceptable in ads, but stick to pastel backgrounds and dark text; light-on-dark and bright-on-bright is hard on the eyes.
  • For trifold brochures, make sure each visual item is clearly contained within a single panel or spread—and that both sides have the same top edge!

For e-mails:

  • Avoid special formatting unless you know the recipient’s box can handle it. Few things are more visually annoying than the result of a computer’s attempt to translate colors and graphics to a plain-text-only window.
  • Don’t use all-caps for emphasis; it’s the electronic equivalent of screaming.
  • Try to stick to one screen’s worth of text.
  • Always use BCC with multiple recipients, unless they form a small, tightly-knit group. Aside from the issue of advertising everyone’s e-mail to who-knows-who, scrolling through three screens of addresses to reach the main text is a major nuisance.

For Web pages and blogs:

  • Use short pages, short paragraphs, and wide margins.
  • Remember that while Web users like graphics, they hate it when something downloads slowly or not at all.
  • For visuals, use photos (not clip art) that show your business in action or display its products.
  • Use eye-friendly color combinations of background and text, even more important here than in hard copy. Ten paragraphs of white-on-navy, or gold-on-white, are agony to the eyes on a computer monitor.

For everything:

  • Make sure margins line up logically and space between paragraphs is equal. (Check visually; printers and word processors can do strange things).
  • Remember that fancy fonts have no place in letters. Even in ads, atypical fonts make a poor impression if they are so squiggly or tiny as to be unreadable. And remember that boldface/italic, or different-from-the-rest-of-the-text fonts, are best reserved for section headings.
  • Remember that you never get a second chance to make a good first impression!