On crafting winning references

“…Nothing influences people more than a recommendation from a trusted friend. A trusted referral influences people more than the best broadcast message…”

Mark Zuckerberg

If you have ever been part of a hiring committee or worked with recruitment professionals, you will understand that there is only one overarching question that weighs heavy on their minds – who is the right candidate for the job/award? The word “right candidate” rarely means the most technically competent candidate, but one who fits all the outlined selection criteria (which might include people skills, organizational fit, other attributes).  Letters of referral are invaluable in helping the hiring team with their decision-making. Depending on the hiring process, references may be used early on to screen out less qualified candidates or serve as a tie breaker latter in the process. Often, the latter is the case. So,  letter of recommendation, if strong and persuasive, may prove crucial in tilting the decision in favor of your candidate. Delivering that effective and “destiny changing” recommendation requires a good mastery of the art of persuasion and excellent writing and storytelling skills. Here are some ideas on how to craft strong reference letters. 

Ensure you have all the right information. The quality of your reference depends, to a greater extent, on the quality of the information you have at your disposal. Before agreeing to provide a recommendation, ask for the key Information about the strengths, weakness, and the fit of the candidate for the position. In addition to leveraging your previous or current interaction with the candidate, ask for more details about the candidate’s career journey, the job responsibilities, qualification requirements, and other details about the organization. With this insight you can craft a compelling letter that highlights the candidate’s strengths, career trajectories, attributes, fit with the hiring organization, and so on. If the information at your disposal does not convince you that the candidate is the right fit for the position advertised, it may be the right time to have a conversation with the candidate about the request. 

Use short stories that demonstrate the applicant’s strengths. In recommending an applicant, stories are very informative for the potential employers. Consider citing examples of your interaction with the applicant to illustrate how his/her personal attributes, technical competence, and people skills fit the job/award requirements. Potential employers are always looking for practical examples that attests to the applicant’s track record of demonstrating these attributes. For example,  you may cite examples of where the applicant demonstrates strong work ethics, independent of thought, collaboration, proactiveness, and other relevant accomplishments. 

Be intentional with your choice of words. Employers are always looking for key words that communicate your enthusiasm, desirable qualities, or red flags about the candidate!. Positive words, such as enthusiastic, competence, professional, excellence, teamwork, exceeding expectations, and so on, will portray your candidate in the positive light. Alternative, consider providing relative metrics that compares the candidate with others you have ever trained or worked. Such comparisons may offer more insight into how outstanding the candidate is. However, if you are the type that rarely shower praise on a highly qualified candidates, holding back on mentioning these key words may make your reference appear lukewarm, consequently sending false red flags to the committee. 

Connect the dots for the employers. In preparing a reference for candidate, imagine if you were the employer. What additional information would you hope the referees will provide to help you arrive at the right decision? Provide the reader or your audience with a big picture profile of the applicant by connecting dots between the applicant’s education training, career trajectory, and the interest in joining the firm. Discuss how those skills will be an asset to the organization. If possible, rank the candidate in relation to other individuals you have worked with at the same level. 

Cultural Awareness There remains geographical and cultural differences in professional practices across several industries. It’s important that you demonstrate cultural or industry-relevant understanding with drafting your recommendation.  For example, the expectations about the competences required for an industry-related positions may be different from those required for a government job or an academic position. Consider tailoring your recommendation to align with industry standards and/or expectations. Generally, the job advert will give you some insight about those expectations and organization culture. If you are in doubt, consider setting up a call with the hiring team to clarify their expectations for the role and what is expected from you. If you are writing for a candidate who has applied for a job in another country, you may want to do some background research about the organization and what’s obtainable in that culture. For example, some cultures value strong work ethics and ability to follow instructions, over proactiveness or independence of thought. Make sure your recommendation speaks to these cultural differences

In a nutshell, it takes more than good intentions to provide effective and stellar recommendations. It requires mastery of the art of persuasion and storytelling, which are skills that can be learned. The strategies discussed here don’t constitute an exhaustive list of tips for crafting such recommendations, but these will get you started. While these tips have been discussed in the context of references for professional job applications, they are also applicable when crafting other types of references (e.g., references for awards, academic admissions, scholarships, etc). Periodic investment in reference writing workshops may help hone your writing skills, ultimately enhancing your professional credibility as a leader or expert in your field.