It’s a tough and scary job market, whether you are just starting out or a more seasoned candidate.  But many job applicants make their task even more difficult because they present themselves poorly, an especially vexing problem when the job being sought is in the communications arena.  Here are some thoughts on personal presentation skills.

For the past month, I have been helping a client who was seeking new communications associates and have been nothing but shocked by the applications and behavior of many candidates. So in the interests of service to the profession, here are a few tips for breaking through the clutter, landing the interview and, ultimately, getting the job.

  • Make sure your resume, cover letter, and any writing samples have no typos.  Check the grammar, too.  You’ve also got to know how to spell. Get a friend or pay a professional editor to make sure it’s right.  If you are sloppy in presenting yourself, then the feeling is you will probably be sloppy on the job.  (You’re in communications, for heaven’s sake!)
  • Write a great cover letter.  Reference the name of the company or organization if it isn’t a blind ad.  Generic letters don’t win the day.  Applying for a job is in some ways like pitching reporters so, to stand out from the crowd, carefully target where you apply, craft a tailored pitch about why you suit the company/organization, and convey a passion for the mission.  And keep it short.  Recruiters and hiring managers have to read through hundreds of resumes.
  • Respond to the recruiter/hiring manager using the mode of communication they use.  If, for example, someone emails you, respond by email. Don’t call them. If the recruiter or hiring manager wants to talk to you, they will call you. If you respond by email and then don’t hear back, again, much as with reporters, it’s acceptable to pick up the phone and check in.  In one instance a candidate called me after I asked for more information by email, which I found annoying and intrusive – especially since the first thing the applicant asked was, “Now which job is this?”  Grounds for elimination right then and there, despite any qualifications.
  • If you get the interview, dress neatly. Make sure your clothes are clean and pressed, that you don’t have threads hanging or holes in your shoes or shirt.  Women, avoid heavy jewelry and men, lose the over-the-top ties which distract.  You want the interviewer to focus on you, not what you are wearing.  It is also far better to err on the side of being overdressed.
  • Interviews are high pressure situations but then so is the communications and PR field where we routinely deal in the context of deadlines and stress-inducing crisis response.  Keep your cool, smile, and project an air of confidence. And try to strike the appropriate balance between over-confidence and desperation.
  • Show up on time – which means, arrive a few minutes early.  Leave plenty of time for traffic, unexpected transit delays, or other issues that could delay your arrival.
  • In an interview, you want to sell yourself and your skills within the frame of what the prospective employer needs and wants. To paraphrase JFK, don’t ask what your potential employer can do for you, ask what you can do for the employer.
  • Do your homework about the hiring organization or company.  Be prepared to answer the question: “What is your understanding about what our company/organization does and who we are?  We asked this question of every candidate and it was surprising that some folks hadn’t bothered to do their homework. Anticipate difficult questions such as, “Where do you see yourself in five years?” or “How do you see this position within your own career path?”
  • When a hiring manager asks if you have any questions, don’t try to be like an investigative reporter and put the recruiter on the defensive. Grilling a potential employer about their background and their goals is off-putting. Do ask about the culture, expectations, and what they see as the qualities of a successful candidate.
  • If you send writing samples, make sure they are in the public domain or that your previous employer is comfortable with you sharing them. If the latter is true, note on the sample that you are providing them with permission. One applicant sent a confidential report to show his planning experience. He lost a chance for even an interview over concerns that if he shared his client’s plan, he might share our client’s confidential documents with his next potential employer.

Looking for a job can be hard and often unpleasant.  To take out some of the sting, frame it properly.  As a mentor of mine once said, don’t think of it as looking for work; think of it as meeting new people and institutions. And whenever you meet new people, you always want to put your best foot forward.