Brand building through storytelling

My favourite gift to a friend is a standout letter of recommendation

I don’t drive friends to the airport, bring them treats from my kitchen or even remember their birthdays but I have my own way of honouring their presence in my life. I have learned a thing or two about what makes a standout letter of recommendation. Every time I sit down to compose one, I know the odds are that someone talented, deserving and inspiring will soon receive an honour that could change her life. She’ll also have a tribute that will make her smile whenever she reads it.

Yesterday I spent the best part of a morning on a letter for a friend who is up for an award. Meanwhile she was writing a letter for herself, to be signed by a corporate mentor with no time for the reflection and wordcraft that a powerful reference demands. “I hate building a case for myself!” cried my friend (who excels at singing other people’s praises). “I don’t know what to say or where to begin!”

“You can learn,” I said. “Let me give you some advice.”

As it happens, I too once wrote a testimonial for myself. The experience forced me to recognize my achievements and document each one until I came to understand why I deserved a Woman of Distinction Award from the YWCA of Metropolitan Toronto. By celebrating my own strengths, I learned to do the same thing for others.

There’s a kind of magic to these letters—and you don’t trifle with magic, as all fans of Harry Potter know. I never recommend someone to lift her spirits, return a favour or avoid saying no: if I can’t build an argument that shines with conviction, I respectfully decline. There’s only one reason to wave the wand: I see remarkable gifts in my friend, and I want the gatekeepers of privilege to see them, too. Unlike Harry, I didn’t learn this art from a coven of spell-casters. Here’s what I’ve figured out on my own.

Tell a story. A testimonial doesn’t look much like a fairy tale, but the two have some elements in common. There’s a gutsy heroine (my friend), a plot (the life journey that makes her such a perfect fit for the award, fellowship or whatever) and the achievement of her goal. I always write as if she cannot fail (more about that in a minute). I’m the wise old sorceress in the woods, wishing her godspeed and doing my part to bring the stars into alignment.

Follow a template. Magic notwithstanding, my letters all share the same structure. Forthright endorsement and pointed summary of my friend’s unique qualifications (one paragraph). Argument with specific examples (generally two to four paragraphs, not that there are hard-and-fast rules). Ringing conclusion that anticipates the future (one paragraph).

Be vigorous. I declare my unqualified support in the opening summary paragraph. For instance (from a real letter; only the name has been changed): “I am proud to recommend Elaine Dowd for the MFA Program in Creative Nonfiction. In 30 years of writing and editing for major Canadian magazines, I have encountered few people who combine exceptional story-telling skills with intellectual rigour and unflinching commitment to challenge. Elaine is in the front ranks.” (Speaking of vigour, nouns and verbs are the musculature of language. Adjectives are the bling; you’re wise to go light.)

Assert your bona fides. Why should the gatekeepers trust my judgment? Americans have never heard of me or Chatelaine, the magazine I edited for a decade. And on either side of the border, decision-makers need a sense of how Elaine Dowd compares to others I’ve encountered in a long and wide-ranging career. It’s not enough to demonstrate in-depth knowledge of Elaine; I also have to make it clear that I know journalism and journalists.The more authoritative I look, the stronger my candidate looks.

Be specific. I back up every point. No bland generalities like “Janice is a wonderful mentor.” Really? How so? Remember, adjectives are bling. So I create a brief word picture of Janice coaching a 20-something diva who later rose to well-deserved prominence.

Create momentum. Like any compelling story, a testimonial letter keeps advancing the plot. I look back on the candidate’s career, sketching her progress from a talented beginner to a future leader whose skills and life experience have positioned her for the next opportunity. I aim for a sense of inevitability. If she has overcome obstacles along the way (worked her way out of a shelter for the homeless, launched a major fundraising initiative while working full-time and teaching after hours), so much the better for my tale. Heroes aren’t supposed to have it easy.

Look to the future. Okay, now we’ve come to the end, the mountain toward which the whole letter has been climbingInstead of simply restating my case as I was taught to do back in high school English classes, I like to close with a vision of my candidate’s success and what she will make of this opportunity. For Janice I summed up this way: “You won’t find anyone more deserving of this award—or better equipped, by virtue of both talent and temperament, to promote integrity, stature and achievement in her community.” (As you’ve probably guessed, integrity, stature and achievement in the community are the stated criteria for the award.)

After finishing yesterday’s letter, I showed it to my friend so that she could see her best self through my eyes. “Today you’re the queen of my world!” she said.

“Just for today?” I asked. As I said, heroes shouldn’t have it easy.

“Well, how about queen for a week?” Deal. Now I’m wishing her luck.


Posted by Rona

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