How Not to Write a Value Prop

Whether you’re working to get your startup off of the ground, or hunting for a new job, you have to be able to sell yourself–which means you need a value proposition. But here’s the catch–your value prop should not start with “I” or “we.”

Nobody wants to hear someone talk about themselves—and nobody wants to be sold to. People buy from people—and people hire people. Ultimately, they want to know what’s in it for them—and you have to figure out a way to make them a part of your story, and make it engaging.

So what makes a great value prop or pitch? Aside from being stuffed with adjectives, here are four things it absolutely shouldn’t be.

  1. Vague. Let’s pretend you own a dry-cleaning service. If your tagline is “getting your clothes clean every time” (as opposed to getting your clothes clean only half of the time), you need to be more specific. What does Jane think when she drops off her clothes? It’s more than just trusting you’ll handle her garments with the utmost care. It’s making her picture dropping off her clothes with you while she’s juggling full-time work, picking up the kids at daycare, and hitting the gym for an hour before the big interview tomorrow. Thanks to you, she’s not going to have to worry about what to wear. She’s going to walk into that interview feeling like a million bucks because of your fast turnaround and quality work.


  1. A mad lib. Your value prop should not be interchangeable with your rival’s. Here’s an example: “Get your bachelor’s degree at John Doe University and get the tools you need to advance your career.” The first problem with this value prop is that it isn’t not in any way specific to John Doe University, and the second problem is that it’s stating the obvious. Of course you are going to advance your career with a degree—otherwise, you wouldn’t be shopping around for schools (and nobody would expect to graduate from college without the tools to get the job). Instead, tell your prospects what’s unique or different about your school—something that nobody else has to offer. If you can’t think of one, conduct some focus groups with current customers. What do they love? What don’t they love? Chances are, there’s a value prop living in their answers.


  1. Perfect for everyone. The “one size fits all” mantra might work great when you’re buying socks, but it doesn’t help if you don’t know who you are really targeting. If you don’t have a targeted audience, you don’t have a product—much less a pitch. Consider this: If you don’t know who your audience is, how will you know what they want? And if you don’t know what they want, you can’t even begin to define your value—and how it’s better or different than the competition. To define your audience, look at demographics. Who do you want to buy from you? And, more importantly, who is already buying from you? What’s their typical age range, occupation, income level, education level, etc.? If you don’t know, maybe it’s time to do some more research.


  1. Poorly communicated. I’m a firm believer that good copywriting causes readers to take action (and in a perfect world, tugs at their heartstrings and makes them feel vulnerable), but for all practical senses, good copywriting should be short, succinct, and clear. It should focus on what you offer and why it’s better, and leave the product features (such as available discounts, size, or “here’s what’s included”) for the bottom. If you can’t engage your customers right away, it won’t matter how small your pores will be when you use this makeup, or the fact you will get half off when you buy two widgets, because most customers will have already stopped reading. And if you’re giving your elevator pitch in person, there’s no exception. Chances are, you’ll be nervous when you pitch—but remember, it’s not about you. It’s about them. So ask them questions if you get stumped—people love talking about themselves. Then, you can use their words to tell your story.




How to tell if your cover letter sucks


I’ve been reading a lot of articles lately about how the cover letter doesn’t matter, and it’s been bothering me a lot.

Maybe in some fields–where you have recruiters working for you or your jobs are simply based on word of mouth–the cover letter doesn’t matter. But for all things communications, and marketing, it does.

Here’s the thing: if you can’t tell your OWN story through a simple 1-page cover letter, how in the WORLD are you going to tell someone else’s?

I’ve been involved in several hiring processes at my current and former jobs. And while some people might toss that cover letter aside in favor of something else, I always look at it pretty critically. Now, I’m admittedly not the greatest cover letter writer myself, but here’s some things I’ve noticed over the years that you absolutely should not do when applying for that dream (or even not so much a dream) job.

  1. Use bad or outdated grammar. This goes beyond basic grammar you learned in middle school. I’m talking about the use of passive voice, verb tense agreement problems, and basically anything that makes you sound like someone who should not be promoting the brand of the company you’re applying for. (And while this is not necessarily grammar related, the “Dear Sir or Madam” greeting just makes you sound totally dated). Bottom line: Be professional, but conversational, and someone I’d like to talk to.
  2. Spell out everything on your resume. You should not be copying and pasting all of your job descriptions in the cover letter between “Greetings” and “Sincerely.”
  3. Fail to tell me how you can actually fulfill the requirements listed in the job description. Just because you have a journalism degree doesn’t mean you can write. Show me how (through past accomplishments or any other relevant anecdotes) how your newswriting skills can give you what it takes to come up with an amazing e-mail subject line in a short amount of time.
  4. Refuse to give me a sense of your personality by telling me an interesting story about an extracurricular activity or volunteer experience. Did you run a homeless shelter for a couple of years or run 10 ultramarathons? Mention it. Most people have lives outside of their work, and I want to hear about it. Cultural fit is everything.
  5. Forget to link to an online portfolio of clips, or forget to update your personal blog or website. For writers and designers–your writing and design skills are obvious from the resume and degrees, right? Wrong. Give me a link to your online presence and make sure the links you’re giving me actually work and are relevant to the job you’re seeking.

Now, there are exceptions to every rule. But for the most part, employers want people who have taken the time to ensure their materials are written well, edited well, and properly reflect what they can bring to the table.

And if you’re sloppy in your cover letter, I’m going to assume you’re sloppy in that e-mail copy you’ll have to write.