Better than a Pain Letter

I recently wrote a  post about how the cover letter is being replaced by the Pain Letter. A pain letter takes what you know through research about an industry or company and makes some assumptions about what is keeping a manager up at night. A pain letter assumes some challenges, and then allows you to talk about your past accomplishments. You close by suggesting a meeting with the manager. Career Coach Liz Ryan of the Human Workplace says that Pain Letters are very effective in generating meetings with potential employers; success rates are reported as high as one in four.

They may be, says writer Donna Svei, but they may also come off as pretentious. She writes: “Remember, solving a company’s pain only saves it from failure. Capitalizing on its opportunities makes it succeed. Call me crazy, but I’d rather be the person who grabbed the gold ring for my company than the one who put her finger in the dike.” (see her whole post here.)

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The Pain Letter isn’t for everyone; even Liz Ryan herself admits that. And she writes in this post that she got some pushback form HR professionals. “Unshockingly, folks whose self-image is wrapped up in the status quo (“I screen resumes, and I don’t appreciate people end-running me”) lead the anti-Pain Letter™ charge. Lots of other folks wrote to me to say “I’m on the fence. If I step outside the traditional job-search lines, could anything bad happen?” Ryan points out that the usual HR Black Hole may be a very disappointing place to send your resume, but at least it’s the Black Hole you know.

Yes, there are risks. Assuming you know what’s keeping a manager up at night is a risk; if you nail it, you may get an offer. If you’re off base, you won’t. You may even look foolish. Svei suggests you write a letter that outlines a success you had in your career. Demonstrating that you know how to manage change, deliver results or start up new programs will help the manager imagine how you would fit into his or her team or current projects.

You can use the classic S*T*A*R formula for crafting your Opportunity letter. The S*T*A*R formula is used in an interview when a recruiter asks you to “tell me about a time when you handled [a specific kind of] situation.” The formula gives you the structure to tell the story: Describe the Situation, describe how you Took Action, and describe your Results. It’s a formula that allows you to prepare in advance stories that demonstrate your skills and past achievements.

The S*T*A*R formula works well in an Opportunity letter. Donna Svei says that a well-crafted letter would show:

  • Why you’re the perfect fit for the role.
  • What you bring to the table.
  • Why the company, project or job is the right place for you.

In the end, Svei says, the Opportunity letter is more positive than the Pain Letter, which focuses on what’s wrong, rather than how you can help the company grow. She writes: “It’s factual, not hypothetical. Who would you rather interview — the person who proves they can see and deliver on opportunities in real life or the one who talks about pain?”

Have you written a Pain Letter or an Opportunity Letter? What happened?  Leave a comment and let me know.

1 thought on “Better than a Pain Letter

  1. chad hoffman

    Excellent article. One of the fundamental postulates of professional selling is to always be “needs based” in developing your selling strategy. Only by understanding the customers world from his perspective is one able to develop a powerful “value proposition” that will inspire the customer to invest in your services or product. In many ways, taking a counter approach of focusing solely upon your product and yourself puts you in a position of “an aspirin looking for headache”!


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