In the introduction to his devastating book of social criticism, House of Intellect, Jacques Barzun said he would attack only the best society had to offer—not the worst. “In a critical description of this sort, only examples of the best have any probative value,” he wrote. “The worst and even the mediocre must be taken for granted as a cultural constant.”
Generally, we agree with that philosophy and over the years we’ve tried with moderate success to follow it in our critiques of organizational communication. But every once in awhile a piece of communication comes along that’s so bad that it’s a potential revealer of what good is. That is, it is so perfectly bad as to be the precise flipside of good.
This is the sort of communication we once received in an e-mailed job query from a student at a large Midwestern university. We agonized over whether to publish it. All right, we’ve always known we’d publish it—concealing the sender’s identity, of course—but we agonized over how long to wait.
We printed it out and pinned it up on our office wall, where it sat—waiting, waiting, waiting. It can wait no more.
To the student, we say: If you read this and recognize yourself—and we hope you do—please take our comments to heart. Have your communication comeuppance all at once, comprehensively and in private, rather than gradually throughout your twenties and thirties, in front of dozens of colleagues and at the hands of a number of employers.
To our readers: Enjoy—but with a measure, maybe a large measure, of pity for the poor author, and even empathy. Remember, it was no fun leaving college for the big bad world, and almost all of us made fools of ourselves along the way.
A letter from a prominent undergrad
SUBJECT LINE: Question..
Is that a period and its twin, or is it ellipses that can’t find its third dot anywhere? Ah, an easy mistake for a journalism and communications major to make.
Hello, my name is ___________ and I am a senior undergraduate student at Well Recognized University in the Midwest, graduating with high honors in May with bachelor’s degrees in both Journalism/Mass Communication and Communication Studies. Although currently I reside and go to school in __________, I am originally from the Chicagoland area and am looking to start my career there in May.
In this letter, you use the word “I” 35 times, “me” six times and “my” 11 times in 573 words. Granted, it’s a cover letter and the subject is yourself, but since you’re applying to work here, the subject is also us, and the communication business we cover. But we get your logic: We already know all about ourselves, right? What we need to know more about is you!
P.S. In Chicago, nobody but weather-men and traffic reporters use the term “Chicagoland.” Actually, weathermen, traffic reporters and distant suburbanite kids trying to sound hard-bitten.
I cannot express to you how excited I became as I came across the website for Regan. It is the kind of company that I have been looking for, and I am willing to do whatever it takes to obtain a full-time position at Regan.
You were too excited, apparently, to check the spelling of the company’s five-letter name.
Last year, an essay that I wrote was nationally recognized and I was, in turn, rewarded for my “excellence in undergraduate research.” My work was submitted by one of my professors, who complimented my persuasive writing/speaking style and suggested that I look into graduate school. However, I am far too eager, at this point, to get started in a career—and even moreso now that Regan is an option.
Hey, we love our work, and we have a good time doing it. But are you actually saying the prospect of a job at a niche trade publisher has you geeked out of your young and hopeful mind? We cannot express how skeptical this makes us feel.
I am a prominent undergraduate student in the communication studies department here, and from time to time even assist graduate students with brainstorming and analysis.
A “prominent undergraduate,” eh? Your university has 30,000 undergraduate students, the only “prominent” ones of which play on the football team. Look, we cover PR here; don’t try to kid a bunch of kidders, okay kiddo?
More than this, I am primarily a journalism student and my work has been published mostly in the university newspaper …. However, I also worked as a news reporter/intern at a local radio station for almost the entire 2006-07 school year. There, I reported on, and wrote stories—daily—for air. I also did on-air news and weather. Aside from filing affidavits (for none other than Clear Channel) and filling out program logs—I had the opportunity to meet lots of new people and work in a high-pressure position with deadlines and time-consuming interviews. I loved it.
Wait: Did you say you filed affidavits for a radio company? Which radio company? Was it a company other than Clear Channel? No? It was none other than Clear Channel? Gadzooks, how soon can you start?
I want to bring my passion, skill, and knowledge to Regan. I realize that you may not be the person that I should be speaking with, but I needed to contact someone.
In the last 5 years of my life, I have been told by many different people that I have a much different way of thinking. I think outside of the box (without even realizing it) and have a perfectionist complex that does not permit me room for error in my work.
Ooh, this might be a problem. Here at “Regan,” we have a requirement that when our employees want to think outside the box, they have to ask permission to do it, which obviously means they have to realize when they’re about to think outside the box. Do you think you might be able to train yourself to be more aware of your mental position, relative to the box?
When I do something, I give it everything that I have. When I am given a task, I get it done better than expected. The men at the radio station referred to me as “Chicago” and “sassy”—and never failed to give me stories that required contacting the hard-to-get sources. I always got them to talk, and I always got them to “spill it.” Sassy, they said, is for the ability that I have when it comes to asking the “tough questions.” They always said to me jokingly…”you have the look to get the interview with men and women alike, the charm to keep the interview, the intelligence to ask the right questions, the passion to ask the hard ones, and the innocent smile that gets an honest answer out of anyone.”
These “men” at the radio station were about two ticks away from sexual harassment, girlfriend. A worthy subject for discussion no doubt, but not in a cover letter, please.
My resume is attached. Thanks for hearing me out. I am honestly thrilled to have found this company and look forward to hearing from you soon. All of the careers listed on your website are of interest to me. However, I think that my writing style would be most applicable to speechwriting or public relations.
Excellent. Except we don’t do speechwriting or public relations.
But we’ll be sure to keep your letter on file—and refer to it every time we want to remember: How full of themselves most young people are … that all the college courses in the world can’t teach a person how to communicate effectively … and how desperate and ill-equipped even “prominent undergrads” such as yourself feel as they prepare to leave their cozy college environs and test their sass in the big bad world.
You’ll be all right, Chicago. You’ll be all right.
Longtime Ragan staffer David Murray is now editor of Vital Speeches of the Day, a monthly collection of the best speeches in the world. He also blogs regularly on communication issues at Writing Boots.