Pencil_sharpening_2How do you capture the essence of a real person on paper?  That was a client’s question, this week. He’d been asked to write a testimonial letter for someone he likes and respects and wanted to know if there’s a format for such things.

I’d never seen a formula, though I’ve written scads of these things for employees and colleagues applying for jobs, school admission or nonprofit board positions. Since some sort of structure helps almost anyone write almost anything, I documented a process for my young client – and for you – in the following eight steps.

1. Be sincere
Few people will ask you for a reference unless they’re pretty sure you can enthusiastically endorse them for the position or program. In the
unlikely event that you must decline, you can say, “I’m not sure anything I have to say will actually help you.” It’s vague, but they’ll get the idea. If you agree, “just to be polite,” you’ll write something bland that won’t help them. Or you’ll write something insincere that makes you feel like a rotten deceiver. Then nobody wins.

2. Have fun with it
Writing a testimonial letter is a fun project where you get to say nice things about someone you admire. How often do you get a chance to let
someone know you appreciate what they do?  Don’t imagine that someone’s future depends on what you say – no reference letter is so important
that someone’s fate turns on what we write. Still, it gives is a wonderful chance to let them know they’ve made an impact.

3. Write about what you know
A testimonial provides an eyewitness account for people who haven’t experienced someone’s services or products. You’ve seen evidence of this person in action; your readers haven’t. They don’t need you to be an expert in hiring or admissions or nonprofit governance; they just want you to share your experience of this person. The “Be Yourself Rule,” which works in most communication situations, applies here, too.

4. Write a bad first draft
Start by writing a draft, knowing you are going to fix it.  Almost all writing experts advise writing a “shitty first draft” because you get your thoughts down –  thoughts that come from your heart, your spirit and your unconscious mind. Even in our perfectionistic world, on the first draft, you must dare to stink.

5. Use the format
Like all good stories, a reference letter has a beginning, middle and end, as outlined in the steps below. While my examples are about a university instructor, Dr. Doc Doctor, the steps apply whether you’re writing about a colleague,  a player you’ve coached or your college room-mate.

Introduction: This is where you state who you are, how you know the person being referred and anything else that confirms you as a credible witness. This is about you only as it relates to the individual you’re writing about.

  • Describe the context in which you know this person. Dr. Doc Doctor was my economics instructor and faculty advisor during my Masters program in the Flapdoodle University Business Department between 2005 and 2007.
  • Provide an overview of your general impression of working with this person. Dr. Doctor was one of the most inspired and inspiring instructors I’ve had the privilege to learn from. With her guidance, I discovered both academic and personal resources that kept me excited about learning and motivated me to do my best work.
  • Remember, it’s a draft!

Body: These two or three paragraphs describe attributes or skills of this person, supported by evidence.  Make one key point per paragraph. People will be looking for observable evidence about the person’s performance, filtered through your senses. This is all about the individual you’re writing about.

  • What makes the person special #1. By connecting economic theory to practical, everyday examples, Dr. Doctor brings the discipline to life. For example, she used the price charged by sports ticket “scalpers” to illustrate the principle of supply and demand. It was one of the most lively and interesting classes I’ve ever witnessed – people still talk about it, two years later.
  • What makes the person special #2. Dr. Doctor uses clear, plain language in her lectures., which helps remove the mystery of a
    subject that, to be honest, I had very little interest in. and took only because it was mandatory for my program. She removed the mystery along with the jargon, which helped me understand advanced economic concepts I would never have discovered on my own.
  • Remember, it’s a draft.

Conclusion: Say anything else that’s relevant. Recommend that the person be selected and encourage readers to contact you if they want more information.

  • Summarize and reinforce your main point. Dr. Doctor is a remarkable instructor with an unusual combination of communication ability, disciplined intellectual rigour and interpersonal skills. I recommend her, without hesitation, for the position of full professor. Please contact me at the number below if I can be of further assistance.

6. Clean up the writing
Now that you’ve put your thoughts down, there’s something to look at and fix. Our example needs minor tweaks in each paragraph and a major rewrite of the bit about plain language. A better version might be: Dr. Doctor’s communication style – clear and expressive – makes a complex subject accessible. She turned a “required” course into one that gained and held students’ interest beyond our expectations. She helped us find the confidence to tackle – and to understand – advanced economic concepts we would never have discovered on our own.

7. Check the details
Inspect and fix the spelling and grammar. Don’t forget to check the names and addresses, including your contact information.

8. Send it off
Toss on a “Yours truly” or “Sincerely,” sign your name, make a copies for you, the requestor and the person you’re writing about, and send it as directed, knowing you’ve helped bring someone to life on paper.