I almost sent flowers recently to a slate.com editor whose job is to sift through applications for entry-level media positions. She became so frustrated with the quality of the cover letters she was receiving from job seekers that after reading 500 or so, she wrote an article outlining "12 tips your career counsellor hasn't told you." It should be tattooed on the eyeballs of anyone hoping to make a strong first impression on gatekeepers in any field.
I'm a writer, so nobody's angling for me to hire them or trying to bribe me with swag. Nevertheless, I do periodically receive e-mails from students wanting my time or advice, which gives me a window, of sorts, on what passes for a "May I please have a few moments of your time?" request these days. Let me tell you, the view isn't pretty.
I don't think the favour-seekers who send those e-mails have any idea how they're coming across. They seem utterly clueless as to how their missives are being received. I think they'd be shocked to learn that when they land in my in-box, I just shake my head and say, "Really? I mean, really?"
You can blame technology, declining standards, self-esteem parenting, millennials, or the Keystone pipeline for all I care. I'm not that interested in the whys and wherefores. I'm writing this for selfish reasons – mainly so I don't get another e-mail like the one I received recently from a journalism student who wanted to interview me, but who was depressingly lacking in any awareness about how to craft a proper request. Her approach was so wrong on so many levels that it's hard for me to recount all of its shortcomings, but one that did leap out was her failure to say why she wanted the interview; another was her valley girl patter: She sounded less like an aspiring young journalist requesting an interview with a journalist her senior than a teenybopper inviting me to go with her for a mani-pedi.
I could have ignored or politely declined her request, but maybe she just got me on a day when I was tired of looking the other way, so I decided to seize the opportunity for a teachable moment. I did so without expectations, and as much for my benefit as hers: Lets just say I considered it therapy.
Here's my reply:
Dear … ,
Thank you for your interest in interviewing me. You seem like an enthusiastic person, and since I remember what it was like to be in your shoes, I make it a point to help out students whenever I can. However, maybe your instructors aren't doing a very good job of teaching you how to request interviews these days.
I could simply have ignored your e-mail, but then you wouldn't have known whether I'd received it, and anyway, that would have been rude. So, while you didn't ask for my advice, I'm going to give it to you anyway – along with much more of my time than you actually deserve.
1. Unless you have a really good reason for making a last-minute request – don't do it.
You e-mailed me after business hours the night before you wanted the interview, thereby creating the impression that you'd left your assignment to the last minute and were desperately trying to make your deadline. You may be worried about your deadline, but I assure you I'm not. I have my own deadlines to worry about.
2. If you do have a really good reason for the last-minute approach, apologize, explain why, and ask if I can possibly accommodate you on such short notice.
Don't simply assume, as you did, that it's perfectly reasonable to contact me the day before you need my time and expect me to be available.
3. Proofread your e-mail before you send it.
You sent yours at 5:16 p.m. on a Tuesday and asked for an interview "either tomorrow or on Wednesday." Anyone can make a mistake, of course, but since you're asking to interview me, your sloppiness doesn't exactly inspire confidence that you're going to be big on accuracy.
4. Introduce yourself, briefly state your business and make it clear that you're requesting my time (as opposed to taking it for granted that I'll give it to you), and convey your implicit understanding that any arrangements will be at my convenience, not yours.
You didn't automatically assume I'd give you my time, so kudos for that; as for the rest – it needs work.
5. Tone is important. Really, really important.
Be polite, and speak with a certain amount of formality and deference. Don't suck up to me, and, whatever you do, don't talk to me as if I'm your BFF. You'll just annoy me, which you did.
6. Don't ever, ever address me as "Hey Wendy."
You may think you're just being friendly, but we don't know each other, so your ingratiatingly familiar tone is not only wildly inappropriate, it's guaranteed to make me hit the delete button. Check out the video that went viral recently in which a young entertainment reporter interviews Jesse Eisenberg about his latest movie. During their sit-down, she calls Morgan Freeman "Freeman," whereupon Eisenberg scornfully dresses her down for referring to the esteemed actor as if she'd played on his Little League team. She also had her interview questions written on her hand. Eisenberg had a few choice words for her there as well. The reporter, who later blogged about the encounter, thought Eisenberg was being a jerk, and she called him mean and a bully, but I think she deserved everything she got. If you want to become a professional, you'd better start acting like one. And if you can't take the heat when someone chastises you for your ignorance, you'd better find another line of work – preferably one where maturity and respect for others (especially those who've done a lot more in the world than you have) aren't required.
7. I do give you points, though, for thanking me for getting back to you so quickly.
You're young and inexperienced. You screwed up. It happens. I get it. That's why I'm prepared to give you a second chance. You can interview me, but only on one condition: You have to send me a proper request first.
Whether and how you respond to this e-mail will tell me everything I need to know about whether you deserve any more of my time.
Best, Wendy Dennis
P.S. Never heard back.
Wendy Dennis is a Toronto-based journalist and author.