I’ve been writing a lot of cover letters and personal statements, and CV versions) lately, so this video really spoke to me today.It’s worth watching it a few times, if you;re at all in the cover letter zone, to note how economically it covers its bases. It’s modest, yet confident and assertive. It has wit and humour, but isn’t crass or off-topic. It covers experience in detail, as well as what skills the writer could bring to the table. It is informal but not egotistical or unprofessional. In its making, it demonstrates the skills it describes.

This last one is a particular nightmare for a writer! A cover letter or CV that’s anything less than mindblowing just lets you down professionally. And I see a few of these, as we’ve  also been receiving quite a few speculative approaches at work; there’s been a big restructure (hence the job search), and it’s amazing how word gets out.

Reading these letters, which are effectively angling for my job, is a great way of seeing what to do and not do in a speculative approach. I can see, for example, that if you write in your cover letter that you want to move your career into the sustainability sector – having identified an opening in a feature on a sustainability company in the Sunday Times – and if your CV contains no reference at all to anything even remotely connected to the green sector – you should really say something about why you want to work in it. Why you’re interested in it. Or what you think you could bring to it. Or how your previous work relates to it. Or prepared you for it. Or what you think your transferrable skills are. What’s in it for them, the employer. Or, really, anything.

As the old saying goes, ‘Who feels it knows it’. I’m lucky to get to read these examples of how not to do it, just as I have to do it. But does it really make it any easier? As with anything you ever write, you have to get into the head of the recipient, imagining what they want to know about. And, let’s face it: if you are writing a speculative letter, they didn’t want to know about anything. Until three seconds ago they’d never heard of you and were wondering how long till they could make a cup of tea. Why do they want to keep reading?

The real trick, I think, is to keep the freshness of spirit of this video, while writing to each company in a manner appropriate to the recipient, in his or her own language. (A doddle, then! And as you can see, I have a magic wand.)

In fact, right now the entire Text Pixel family is looking for work. Talk about living the Zeitgeist! The Text Pixie herself, if that’s me, is in a temporary contract for two more months, and now (as stated above) looking for a new role in corporate communications & PR.

The Text Pixel daughter is looking for a Saturday job, now her exams are finished.

The eldest son, a budding web design genius, has just handed in his final project for his second year in digital media at London College of Communications and is looking for work in an agency until October.

His girlfriend, a lovely, happy, friendly, experienced girl who can pull a mean pint, is looking for work in a pub.

And the Text Pixel boyfriend, a photographer who has been freelance his whole life, is looking for a way to pay his bills – as a portfolio (however impressive) won’t do that. He’s a great writer too but has never done it corporately. What to do? He is far from being alone; the streets and jobcentres are flooded with people his age who have just found that their world no longer exists. Everyone is job-hunting and the competition is fierce. There is no disgrace in having to find yourself afresh in your forties, but it is a challenge.

His approach is to create a sort of living portfolio, in the form of a blog that utilises his editorial and curatorial skills, showing that he can identify a niche, build a project, do picture research and editing and copywriting and negotiations, gain contributors (both photographers and writers), grow an audience, and keep it all going. It’s unlikely to land him an actual job; but it keeps his hand in, gives him a calling card, and is helping to develop new networks.

Anyway, I have written three of the CVs in question – all wildly different – and was asked for comment on the young designer’s portfolio site. (I think it’s great, but at the time of writing this it needs a little biography page. Perhaps along the lines of the video above. And he’s got a great thing going with that font at the top.) He was worried about not having much professional experience, but I’ve assured him that there’s no shame in being young, as long as you are (like him) bright and talented and full of energy and promise. Everyone has to start somewhere. The main thing is that the employer can see what you’re like, and what you can bring to the table.

So now we’ve got two great portfolio sites and a blog that’s already gaining critical attention; and I’ve linked in and monstered and joined up and updated, and my own website is now pretty much up-to-date. And we’re all researching companies to write to.

So we’ve got the material. We just have to do something with it. We have to go out there and hunt, under cover.

Cover letters, that is. I’m starting with the one at the top – and my magic wand.


If you are engaged in producing publications of any kind, you may wonder how your pdf turns into a book. This short educational film will not help you. However, it will help you to appreciate the complete miracle that your pdf is! A couple of years ago I had the honour (well, it was very interesting) to tour a printers’ works, and see all the guys there doing their different jobs. (None of them were called ‘Ready Man’, which seems a shame. But by the same token, no one was about to get their hand made flat as a page by a machine. And there were no vats of hot copper. The scariest part, frankly, was the distribution manager’s room, with its complicated system all over the walls.)

Of course, it seems a world away. We’re digital now! The computer does everything for us. We simply type out what we want to say (and then edit, verify, footnote, libel-check, lay it out, sub-edit, proofread it, and proof it again); add our own photographs (or ‘pics’), which we may well have scanned ourselves (at 300dpi, I hope, and with signed permission if they are of children or models, and copyright permission), arrange the text around them in such a way that it is still legible, and ensure that the pics are not in any way stretched or manipulated out of their proportions; check printable margins, calibrate colours as best we can (there is no exact science for the mysteries of digital colour, your RGB to CMYK conversion, your Pantone). Then we simply turn the thing into a pdf file. How does this work? I don’t know. You click on a button: ‘make pdf’. Presto. Anybody can do it.

The printers do the rest. (Technically of course they deal with the colour issues too. But I have spent anxious moments with designers, trying to work out how something would look in print, and we have seen initial proofs coming back looking completely different from all predictions.)

There is a second way, involving Microsoft Publisher, stretched clip art of funny pics form the team party or major funder, misspelled words, single words left hanging at the top of a page or in the margin of a picture, ungrammatical libellous remarks, unsupported assertions that amount to untruths, etc. Anybody really CAN do this. And you still press ‘make pdf’ and send it to the printer. But there are superstitions about that kind of stuff.

the successful candidate

March 15, 2010

Say NO to blue sky thinking!

The successful applicant will be a self-starter, a creative thinker with a proven track record of innovative solutions that create impact. He/she will have excellent presentation skills, a talent for finding the story and the ability to get attention and persuade. The successful applicant will be results-driven, with a demonstrable ability to identify a point of departure and plan a strategy through to its desired outcome.

John Lennon had it right that time. Mind games. It was a phrase people used to use, but lately you never hear it. I wonder if it’s due for a revival?

Last week an agency submitted my CV for a contract role with a well-known charity, whose work I support. It was for 3-4 weeks of general communications support. I was told it would all happen fast – there was no job spec, nothing on paper. The money wasn’t great – on a pro rata basis, £10K a year less than what I’m used to earning – but I like the charity, and I certainly hadn’t been anticipating the small amount of work I’ve had this year…

I got an interview! I duly read the charity’s website, got my portfolio together, took a deep breath and went in.

At the interview they gave me a half-hour copywriting test, based on making a flyer. They gave me a 20-minute test on prioritising tasks, largely to do with phone calls, passing information on, keeping balls in the air. The tests were easy and fun, like logic problems in one of those logic problem books, and I enjoyed them. Because I do enjoy what I do. When I get to do it. I’ve always quite liked tests. And, unusually, I know, I enjoy interviews.

It was a formal interview, with set questions and much note-taking. I made my disclaimer at the start: I hadn’t seen any paperwork for the job, so I only knew what the agent had told me, and it was very general.

The interview felt good, even though the questions were so specific that I had no chance to show (off) my portfolio of work. They asked about times when I had had to work without supervision, times when I’d had to use my initiative, what my successes were, teamworking, communications planning, diversity. They delved into some of my answers with further questions, which I took to be a sign of interest. It all felt very good.

Then they asked if I had any questions.  I asked, ‘What exactly is the work you envisage me doing if I get the job? Do you have specific projects lined up?’

Yes, they said, absolutely! It was going to be all about comms planning, working on a big forthcoming campaign, liaising with the press team, and doing key messaging, and progressing another project that had a skeleton comms plan in place.

This was strange. This was not what their tests had given me to understand: the examples were about straight hands-on comms support work, and this was what the agent had told me the job would be. I’d have answered their questions slightly differently if I’d known this; used different examples. I’d have prepped differently beforehand. They grabbed their pens and started scribbling eagerly as I tried hastily to clarify a point or two about strategic thinking and key messaging. A good sign! Or was it?

I asked: ‘When were they going to want someone to start?’

Tuesday! We know it’s all a bit mad but we really just want to get started on all this, and we were going to say Monday, but… and as we’re interviewing on a Friday – ahem!

I laughed: ‘I guess you’ve just answered my next question…’

Yes, they said, we’ll be letting people know either today or else first thing on Monday. Depends when we get a minute to have a discussion!


All these hyper-cheerful exclamations!

And yet I came out feeling energised and confident. I thought it had gone really well.

But over the weekend I got to thinking. They wanted comms planning, key messaging. They wanted initiative and unsupervised problem-solving, negotiation skills and lots of self-awareness. (‘How would people in the team have described you?’) This is experience I have gained as a manager, getting paid much more than what they were offering.

I thought, hmm, could it be that they are proposing explicitly to exploit, at a low level of pay, experience I gained in managerial roles?

That’s not very pukka.

And they had given me two tests, and an hour of prepared questions, for three weeks of work!

But hey, it’s the recession.

On Monday morning at 10.30 the agent told me the bad news. Talk about using your prioritising and time-planning skills – up to then I’d been clearing my decks to be ready to start work the next day.

The charity’s feedback was that I was very personable, and my copywriting and time management tests were both very good – my experience was very good – but that my answers could have been more concise, as they had ‘several times had to prompt’ me for for the information they were looking for.

That’s interesting, I said to the agent, as they never told me what they were looking for till the end, when I asked.

There had been two candidates. Both of us, the agent told me, had expressed surprise at the sudden information that the job was all about comms planning. She said the phrase had not once been mentioned to her. In the event the charity appointed neither of us.

What does this mean? Other than that I’m not working this week, and my rent is due in two weeks? Why, if the work was so urgent they felt compelled to give less than a day’s notice to start, would they suddenly not even appoint?

Why would you not appoint, if you had an experienced, personable candidate who had the right skills? Or even two of them? Why would you deliberately interview people without telling them what you were interviewing them for?

Remember I had even pointed out at the start of the interview that I felt under-informed about the role. There is a big difference between ‘general comms support’ and ‘we want you to make a communications plan for a big forthcoming campaign’.

Did they even realise that they had been withholding information? Did they realise that the tests had had the potential to give us the wrong idea about what they were looking for? Did they realise that the tests didn’t reflect the job?

Had they got the budget agreed before they interviewed? Were their forthcoming campaigns suddenly axed, like in the last job I had? Where, in a meeting to discuss my work plan on a big project, I was instead given half a day’s notice?

I’d still like to work in this organisation. Oddly, in the circumstances, their interview made me think it would be a very good place to work. It’s all a bit confusing.

My previous interview had a similar mind-game element: the very friendly pair had begun by saying, ‘Well, as this is just an interim role we’ll keep it pretty informal – we’ll just tell you a bit about what we’re looking for, and then you can tell us a bit about yourself, if that’s okay?’ They had then proceeded to grill me mercilessly for an hour, with a series of very hard, prepared questions that I would have had to have prepped. I’d been given a sparse half-page of bullet points by way of job specification, but it seemed they had something very high-pressure and specific in mind.

Why do people do this? I’m asking you, my readers. Because I don’t know.

When I started this blog it was going to be like the wonderful blogs a few of my friends write, all about amusing and interesting aspects of Life in the World of Communications. Instructional. Inspiring. Energising. Funny.

I wanted to write about technical aspects of the work I do, in which I am – in my own small way – intensely interested. About social and cultural aspects of my work, because it involves people and a company’s relationships with them. Human aspects, because I am intensely interested in how we relate to one another, and in how organisations function as social organisms. Theoretical aspects, because I am always thinking and learning. About day-to-day aspects, because they are always interesting.

As it happens, poor Text Pixels has been hobbling along. It’s been hard to keep up the momentum. I even lost the vision of what it was supposed to be for, couldn’t remember who I was writing it to or what I was saying. I mean, I knew it was about work, but my relationship with work has been so disrupted that I lost track of my position was within it.

In fact, my contact with the actual content of my professional world has recently become increasingly theoretical, meta, post-modern. In the year since I had the idea for Text Pixels I have spent far more time trying to get paid work than actually doing any.

I have been applying my PR expertise to myself. My marketing campaigns have been about getting clients, or students, or agents. The main thing I have written for work purposes this year has been about five versions of my CV. I’ve rewritten my website pretty comprehensively, too. And my Linked-In profile. I spent most of weekend-before-last filling in an eight-page application form for a job that was only expected to last a few months, and for which I didn’t get an interview, despite being hand-picked by an agency.

My attitude is, as always, solution-focused and pro-active. Any employer or high-profile client would have appreciated it. I’ve been positive, even bouncy. Energetic, driven and tenacious. I’ve even kept my sense of humour. (Sometimes black humour, okay, but a laugh is a laugh, innit?) But however pluckily I have kept going, the truth is that in the past year the story has changed.

We are in the worst recession since the Great Depression. When I got made redundant it was only a Credit Crunch, and mainly far away in the cornlands of America where people had been taking out ill-advised mortgages. I don’t even have a credit card, let alone a mortgage! Well: guess what.

So this is where my little workaday blog gets serious. I am now blogging about how one stays afloat or survives professionally. I will try to post more often. And more fearlessly. Not sure if confessional work blogging is really the sensible way to go, but it strikes me that I’ve been doing something I would tell any blogger, or writer, not to do. I’ve been writing what I think people want to see.

In doing that, I’ve forgotten the truth about what PR really is. That any real audience is those who want to read what you have to say. You can’t fake a brand. If I were an employer I wouldn’t want to hire someone who writes falsely and, in pandering to the audience, forgets them.

I am making this up as I go along. But we all are, whether we admit it or not. The most professional people right now are going to be the ones who can keep re-applying their knowledge, re-interpreting what they see around them, and working out new ways of doing things. I have no idea what those new ways are or if they even exist, but I can tell you the old ways aren’t working.

Text Pixels is now the drawing board I’m going back to.

Watch this space, and see me try to figure it out in real time.

Interviews are uppermost in the Text Pixels mind at the moment. I’ve been going on a few of them lately, being my shiny best talking to complete strangers in the hope that they’ll think I’m just right for their organisation. But of course I’m also trying to see if their organisation is right for me – even in the short term.

Here’s a cautionary tale. A friend of mine had a job interview just before Christmas, and the next day he told me about it with a very long face. He told me he had gone from the interview straight to Selfridges to do some Christmas shopping afterwards. When he walked into the department store, a shop assistant said, ‘You look like you’ve had a hard day, can I help you?’ and my friend nearly burst into tears!

If you are involved in any way with interviewing candidates you probably don’t want to make them feel like crying. It’s easy enough to avoid – but not if your interview is like this:

1. The test they set at the beginning was nowhere near advanced enough for the job spec my friend had been sent, and too much time was given to it. By the time he reached the interview room he was frustrated and bored and already a bit worn out, and had budding doubts as to how well they understood the role they were recruiting for.

2. They spent 55 of the allotted 60 minutes firing questions at him. He felt as if he were doing a very hard exam. My friend
is a very precise guy, meticulous and evidence-based in his thinking,
so he managed to answer everything, but he had also prepared some questions of his own. He had five minutes to ask them.

3. From the questions they had asked him, it slowly became clear that they weren’t going to need him to use the skills they had listed as ‘essential’. He knew more about the field than they did. They didn’t sound rigorous to him, and he’s a researcher, so that’s important.

4. But it then became clear that they were depending on other skills which they had merely listed as ‘desirable’. When he confessed that he had little experience of a certain facet of the work, they immediately said, ‘Well, at the salary discussed, if we were to hire you we wouldn’t expect to offer any training or support’. Note that they were happy enough to recruit someone and let them fail,  but not to support them once in post!

5. After going over the the role itself, they spent ten minutes outlining to my friend the details of the company’s flexi-time scheme – and then said: ‘But, of course, as a contractor you wouldn’t be entitled to flexi-time’. (!)

6. It is a small company with two tiny offices: one in Central London, one in the outskirts. Each office has about 7 people. When he finally got a chance to ask some questions, my friend asked how communication worked between the two, referring to the London office, which he was sitting in, as ‘head office’. One of the interviewers corrected him, outraged: ‘London is not head office! We started in X——–. The two offices are completely equal, there is no “head” about it’, etc etc. The other interviewer said something else, and my friend realised grimly that the two offices are utterly at war. The one that’s in the commuter belt can never win this war. He would be dealing with these people every day.

8. Off a list of questions he had prepared with the help of a job interviewing website, he asked each of them what their least favourite element of working there was. They laughed, and one of them said: ‘the stroppy clients’!

Please, people. Don’t tell a candidate that you despise your clients. It’s just depressing.

After all that, in the New Year they offered him a second interview. He went to it, against his better judgement, because of course it is the recession and he is looking for a job. A couple of hours later his agency rang to say they had offered him the job! It seems they were impressed by him, and so they should be. He’s good.

We had a long chat about the whole thing. He ansgted over every aspect of it, thinking maybe it would be a good chance to get the experience he was lacking, it would be good money, it would make him more employable etc etc… weighing up the pros and cons… There was just this nagging feeling that he wouldn’t be supported. There was the office war. There was the suspicion that they didn’t know what they were doing. That they might be personality-driven, with the director deciding things on a whim. In the end he turned it down. He was afraid of being set up to fail. He was afraid of having to leave, and – with a recent similar experience last year – he doesn’t want to make his CV look like a graveyard of failed jobs.

I’d love to use this post to caution employers against doing these things in interviews, but on balance I prefer my grandma’s advice: just be yourself. My friend was lucky these guys showed their true colours through the cracks. Imagine if he’d taken the job and then found that the only sane person there had been the HR manager. Oh, except they were too small to have an HR manager. There wouldn’t even have been anybody to complain to.