Monday, July 09, 2012

The Art of Writing Powerful Recommendations

Over the last few weeks, I've been both writing and receiving recommendations. Maybe due to the intensity of several of these documents transacting at once, this is the first time in my life when I've really paid close attention to what separates a good or even great recommendation from an average one. So, here are a few guidelines you need to keep in mind both for yourself if you are asking for a written reference, or if you are writing one on behalf of someone else. And just to clarify, I'm referring to any kind of professional reference, whether it's for Linked In or an employer, or a website or other online site.
1. Clarify the Circumstances and Your Relationship to the Individual
It's important to be specific about how you know the person you are recommending. Are they your colleague, or have you supervised them, and for how long? Include the name of the employer, or the business if it was consultancy situation. It's a good idea to do this early on in the reference, ideally in the first paragraph, so as to set the stage for the rest of the letter.
2. Be Specific About How the Individual Stood Out
There's a big difference between saying someone was organized, and illustrating how organized they were with supportive details and examples. Did they innovate a new filing system, for example? Did they create project folders for each new task, in alphabetical order? If so, embellish your praise with these details in order to objectify the individual for others. The same is true for metrics and numbers. Did they consistently meet budget requirements, or double the fundraising dollars earned? Include those details as well.
3. Avoid Overly Casual Language and Spelling or Grammar Mistakes
Your letter is just as much a reflection of you as it is of the candidate. It should be typed, and formatted in business letter style on company letterhead. Double check your grammar and spelling. You want the focus to be on the candidate, with you as the writer the authority and credible third party.
4. Fill In Any Missing Information
Ideally, you should know the candidate well enough to paint a complete picture of him or her. But if you feel you need more information, don't hesitate to ask, so that you can present a well rounded reference. Ask for their resume if you need to see it.

5. Be Sure the Details Match the Position

If the candidate has a specific niche or job description they will be applying for, include details relevant for that position.
6. Don't Worry About Making the Candidate Perfect
An inflated or exaggerated reference can be easily detected. If the candidate was ever less then perfect or exhibited a shortcoming, put it in context. Show how they learned from a mistake and turned a project around.
7. Keep the Right Length in Mind
A good letter should be long enough to have substance and meaning. Generally, 3-4 paragraphs is adequate. Anything shorter will probably not have enough content and won't serve its purpose.
Here's An Example:
I recently wrote this reference for my colleague, who was very pleased with it. Debi is a Raiser's Edge and database consultant, so I wanted to be sure and include these elements in my letter, as follows:
Deborah worked as a Raiser's Edge Specialist and Blackbaud/Netcommunity consultant as part of our Development Team from October 2011-June 2012. Deborah was not only extremely knowledgable and professional, but was a pleasure to work with in all aspects. She played a key role in the launch of our Netcommunity Donate Portal, and provided invaluable assistance in organizing and streamlining our database. She provided in-depth training in the publishing of Messages and Newsletters on Netcommunity, with excellent attention to detail, such as how to select recipient lists, "refresh" the database, customize menus, formatt content, and update profile information. Deborah was our "go to" Raiser's Edge expert. I highly recommend her for Raiser's Edge and data management consulting."
So, have you ever written a recommendation for someone else, and what did you learn from it? Share your tips in the comments here.
-Carrie Jaffe-Pickett
writer, editor

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