Even the Best Cover Letter Isn’t As Good As a Two Minute Conversation

It's harder to ignore the phone than written correspondence.

It’s a familiar online job search story. You find a dream position, agonize endlessly over a perfect cover letter, attach it to your resume, then hear nothing back. Sheer volume and a preference for referrals are part of the story. But people also overestimate their writing, and underestimate how effective actually speaking to someone is when looking for a job.

People think of job seekers as much more intelligent when they hear them pitch themselves as a candidate compared to when they read their writing, and they’re more likely to want to hire them, according to a new paper from researchers at the University of Chicago (pdf).

Voices vary and change in cadence, tone, and pitch, and seem to do a better job of conveying intelligence than writing in this particular setting.

The researchers had a group of MBA students make a two minute elevator pitch about why their dream employer should hire them, and create a written version of the same. Then they had others evaluate them in both mediums on their perceived intelligence, likeability, and whether they’d be likely to hire them. They tried the same with regular people too.

No one expected their spoken pitches to perform better. Many said they thought their writing would result in a better response. They were wrong. Written pitches did substantially worse.

The authors tried an array of experiments to see if their hypothesis about intelligence and the voice held up. They tested video recordings against audio alone. They tested audio against edited transcripts of the pitches, and those transcripts against the more deliberately written pitches. They had professional actors and random people in a museum read the pitches, and had them evaluated (voice and text) by both average people and professionals who read job applications for a living.

In every case, the people who heard spoken pitches rated the applicant as more intelligent and said they were significantly more likely to hire them. The result didn’t change between video or audio alone, indicating that it’s voice that has the impact.

That the finding holds for professionals is particularly significant. And because job seekers expect a different result, they’re likely spending more time writing than talking.

Of course, connecting with an employer in person before the interview stage is more difficult than writing to them or applying through formal online channels. But it emphasizes again the importance of knowing people and networking when pursuing a job.

Email has obvious appeal for networking, pitching, and job searching. It’s easy to do rapidly and at high volume. Rejection doesn’t seem so bad when it takes the form of silence or a form letter. But sticking to writing alone likely means more employers will pass.

(Image via Gajus/