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Agent of Change
Scott Orr is entering his third decade in TV news. Starting from his first job as a studio cameraman back in the very early 1980's, Scott worked his way up through the ranks, and managed to do every job in the newsroom (for at least a short time), and eventually made it all the way to small-market News Director. Now, he's President of a talent management company, The Scott Orr Agency, Inc., based in Denver, Colorado. His goal is to help clients learn, grow, and advance their careers. Scott is originally from Phoenix and attended the University of Arizona--which is where he got his start in TV, at the University-operated PBS station. Visit his web site by clicking here.

May 23, 2005

How to Create a Winning Cover Letter and Resume

Once you have your ultimate resume tape cut, you must pay equal attention to your cover letter and resume. These really do count. A News Director once told me that I was flown in for an interview based on the cover letter alone. Got the job, too.

Let's start, though, with the written resume. It's critical. The number one rule for creating your resume is:

Don't lie or exaggerate.

This is a very small business and you will almost surely be caught. If you're caught, you will not get the job. Any News Director has been around long enough to have lots of friends and acquaintances around the country, and they'll call to ask about you. If you get the job and you’ve started work when the lie is discovered, you can be fired. Just tell the truth.

The format we use is when we write resumes is, Work Experience, followed by Education, then References. We sometimes add Awards, if there's room and if they're serious honors, like Murrow or Emmy awards. Don’t bother to put your Job Objective on the resume (if you were honest, you'd write "My objective is to get this job"), or your hobbies or interests.

Use good-quality paper, certainly no less than 24-pound stock, not copy paper, and white bond is the best. Ivory is all right. Bright colors do nothing to help your chances and can hurt them. That's a rule, in fact: cutesy or novelty means of attracting attention really don't help your chances at all and may backfire.

Make your resume no more than one page. No matter how much experience you have, you don't need a second page. Condense everything; when we write resumes, we typically use one-line bullet points for the job descriptions. ("Anchored weekday 6 and 10pm live newscasts") instead of complete sentences.

Put your references on the resume. There is no reason to leave them off, and asking a potential employer to "request" them just makes more work for the ND. Include three names, preferably supervisors, not co-workers. If you don't have enough supervisors' names, then go with the lead anchor who liked your work or something like that.

Understand that the News Director will probably call others who are not on your list if he knows someone at your station or in the market. The written references are on your resume for convenience in case the ND doesn't happen to know anyone in the market. Obviously, you want to make sure they know they're on the list and will say something complimentary, and everyone knows that.

By law, when someone checks references, the person answering is supposed to give only the answer to whether you worked there and for how long. They're not allowed to pass judgment on your work.

Now welcome to reality. When a News Director calls a reference, if they're one of yours and liked you, they'll say so (Why? Because they know you won't sue for a positive reference!). If the ND calls a friend who knows you, same thing. If it's your supervisor, even then, they'll usually say something positive.

So when an ND hears, "All I can say is, Bob worked here from April of 2000 to September of 2003," that's a warning sign. It's not a deal-breaker, but it will definitely lead to more research.

The cover letter is harder, because you need to tailor it for each application. Although you must send the whole envelope to Human Resources if so instructed, you should address the letter to the News Director. That means you need to know the name of the current ND. How do you get that? Call the station's receptionist. You cannot count on websites to be current, so don't take that chance. And never, never, never write "To Whom it May Concern." In my experience, using either the wrong name or that phrase will get your letter tossed, because using them shows you were too lazy to check.

True story: I once accidentally made a spelling error on a News Director's name on a cover letter (not a typo, I didn't pay attention to the correct spelling and just assumed). Of course, as soon as I mailed it, I saw what I'd done and my heart sank. The next morning, I decided to call the ND and admit what I'd done, that I realized my mistake, and was very sorry. The ND laughed and said it happens a lot, and at least I'd caught it. We talked for a while. Not long afterwards, I was offered that job, too.

Say something specific about the market or stories of recent interest there. Show that you have done a little research on what's important. That goes a long way. Do not say you'll "learn" at the shop, because your job is to explain what you can offer, not what you'd like to take. And don't mention salary. That can come later. Aim for a middle ground in your style--"I am writing today in application for your open position" yada, yada is too stiff, but "I'm the guy you want" is too informal.

A surprising number of ND have received, and dislike, letters saying they can stop looking because the writer is their next ______.

Check your spelling and grammar. A misspelled word is a warning flag--if you can't get such an important document correct, there's no reason to believe you will be careful with daily news stories. Use spell-check. If you can find someone else to read you letter, that's very helpful. Don't argue when they say they don't understand something, because it doesn't matter what you meant...if they didn't understand something without your translation, fix it.

Finally, it should be fairly short. Make the point and get out.

Oh, and don't enclose your headshot. It'll just end up on the photographers' dartboard. Trust me on this.