This post is a narrative version of a presentation I gave at ScribbleSpace on December 4, the original title of which was “Boost Your Online Bio to Create Your Personal Brand.”
Presentation here: Bio Writing
Short biographies or bios are meant to condense our personal life stories into something brief, manageable, and meaningful to whoever reads them and wants to know about who we are. What I’ll be covering today is:
- What bios are and why we write them
- How to structure your bio
- Why it’s important to customize your bio
Biographies or bios (the usual term for the short version) reflect the personality and character of the individual being described. Consider some of the following:
“I am a spiritual and political leader who freed a nation from an imperial power. I used no weapons but focused on peaceful noncooperation. ”
Or this individual:
“I grew up in Germany dreaming about rockets and space travel; after World War Two, I became an American citizen and led the effort to build the rocket that sent men to the Moon.”
Or this person:
“I am a primatologist and anthropologist who has expanded the world’s understanding of chimpanzees by studying and living among them in Africa.”
Could you guess Mohandas K. (Mahatma) Gandhi, Wernher von Braun, and Jane Goodall? Obviously that’s because they are famous. However, in each case, their biography includes specifics about their life or mission that make their individual story distinctive. Yours should be no different. If you’re going to write about yourself–in a sentence, a paragraph, or a page–you need to include the sort of distinctiveness that makes your life story compelling and memorable.
Why do we write bios?
Generally, bios are written with one of three purposes in mind:
If you’re ever giving a talk at a conference as a panelist or featured speaker, the event will often ask for a 3-5 sentence bio in advance so that the moderator can introduce you to the audience. You might be new to a field or just not widely known. Regardless, the purpose of a bio at a conference is to show your credentials and explain to the participants whey should want to hear what you have to say or why they might want to do business with you. The same might be said of a bio written for a blog.
As part of introducing yourself, the most important thing a bio should include is an “elevator pitch.” That elevator pitch is usually a single, memorable sentence that helps explain who you are and what you do. The idea being, can you make a good impression while introducing yourself to a stranger in an elevator? The elevator pitch is the central message of your bio. It should be included in any of your bios, regardless of the amount of time you have to introduce yourself or include extra details.
Bart Leahy is a freelance technical writer whose specialty is absorbing a lot of data and articulating the most important points. He helps large technical organizations communicate their message clearly across multiple products.
Your elevator pitch/introduction should include some self-promotion because you just never know who your next customer might be or who the person you’re talking to might know. You’re doing marketing, not sales. The introduction says, “This is who I am.” The promotional part adds, “…and here’s why you should hire me,” though perhaps not that directly. The promotional part of your bio should be answering the following sorts of questions:
- Why do you stand out?
- What’s a unique thing that only you have done?
- What are you most interested in doing?
One of the distinctive attributes of my career, for example, is its diversity, so sentence two of my bio runs something like this:
My customers have included The Walt Disney Company, NASA, the Department of Defense, Nissan, small businesses, nonprofits, and the Science Cheerleaders.
The distinctive parts of my experience are the well-known and high-prestige companies I’ve supported as well as my diversity of experience: NASA, Disney, and Nissan as well as smaller businesses and nonprofits. Those examples bolster my elevator pitch. And note that last item: the Science Cheerleaders. That’s often an interesting enough hook to start a conversation.
One of the last things your bio can do is help you define yourself in the marketplace. Your bio can include a brief blurb about where you’ve worked (as I just noted above), where you attended school, or what sorts of projects you’ve done. Some of the questions you might answer with a definition sentence include:
- What would you like to do?
- What are your professional credentials?
- What has your experience equipped you to do?
The last sentence in bios I write for proposals often includes the participant’s educational or professional credentials. Content that answers the “What would I like to do?” or “What can I do?” questions is good to add when I’m writing a blog or presentation introduction.
I’ve got a Bachelor’s Degree in English Literature and a Master’s Degree in Technical Writing.
My diverse background enables me to write for multiple audiences about a wide range of subject matters.
Bios can appear in multiple lengths and should be customized for the audience or situation.
- Personal: one sentence: one-on-one elevator pitch.
- Speeches/Proposals: one paragraph: business purposes, overview to show your credentials/sell your services.
- Blog: one page to tell your story to entertain, intrigue, or impress.
- Book: 100+ pages tell your story in a way that makes a difference. I’m not covering full-scale autobiographies here, but the reason you’d write one of those is that your personal story and the lessons you’ve learned are so compelling that others will want to know about them.
Each version incorporates the previous versions.
Writing your own
Since the 3-5 sentence version of a bio is the one you’ll use most often, that’s the one I’d start developing. A bio can be written inductively or deductively. By that I mean you can start writing your elevator pitch first, then write the details using that filter (inductive) or you can start with get the whole story down first and THEN write a single sentence that compresses the essence of that paragraph (deductive). Either way, the structure of the paragraph does not change–your elevator pitch should come first.
Once you hit upon your personal elevator pitch–that one-sentence essence–you might need to go back and restructure the details of your bio so that they match that common theme. Rewriting so you get a complete, coherent story is an iterative process. The introductory paragraph for this blog has undergone multiple rewrites. It’s good to refresh your bio anyway as you learn and experience new things and as you encounter new audiences.
And, as I noted before, the one-page version of your bio should encompass the elevator pitch and one-paragraph versions.
[Note: as part of my presentation, I also walked my audience through the following set of questions:] Create Your Own Bio Worksheet
[A] What were/are your favorite types of work tasks? Once you know what tasks you enjoy, pick your favorite.
[B] Who is your preferred type of customer(s)? This will help you focus your marketing efforts.
[C] Why would your preferred type of customer want to work with you? What problem can you help your preferred type of customer solve?
These three questions form the basis of your elevator pitch, as follows:
“My name is ___________________. I’m a [title]__________________. My specialty is [A] _________________________. I help [B] ______________________ accomplish [C] _________________________.
The following questions can help you fill out the remainder of your five-sentence bio:
List your five most recent jobs/roles.
What are your qualifications/credentials for doing the sort of work you want to do?
What are unique accomplishments that only you have done in the jobs you’ve held (sales made, money saved, customers brought in, processes created, processes improved, etc.)?]
First person vs. third person
The “voice” of your bio will vary by situation. If you’re talking with someone face to face, you’d obviously speak in the first-person voice (unless you’re a presidential candidate). If you’re providing a bio for someone else to introduce you, third-person voice makes the most sense. If you’re writing a bio for your blog or business, writing from the first- or third-person perspective will depend greatly on the tone you wish to set and your comfort with talking about yourself and what your chosen customer base is most comfortable reading.
Website or contact information
Again, including this information will depend your situation. If you’re writing a bio for your personal web page, you probably don’t need to include that address. However, if you want someone to be able to contact you from your blog bio, you might include your email address. If you’re writing a bio for a conference, you might want to include your website (if it’s relevant to the conference content) but not necessarily your business email address.
This would be content such as family info (“X is fortunate to be married to a very understanding spouse and two ridiculously clever children”), religious affiliation, political affiliation, vacation spots, pets, or “favorites.” These are also matters of tone–if your site is meant to be part of a formal curriculum vitae, odds are that a prospective employer isn’t going to give a flip how many fish you have. However, if you’re writing as an expert on a particular philosophical stance, your audience will most likely want to know your connection to it.
Publications, media mentions, or other brag notices
This would be an opportunity to share recognition by others. You let your readers know where you’ve published your thoughts or when specific high-profile media outlets have recognized your achievements or cited you as a source. You could also note times when you’ve received awards by your peers, employer, or neighbors.
To go back and tell you what I told you, professional bios are designed to introduce, promote, and define yourself in the marketplace of work and ideas. They should include specifics about your life or mission that make your individual story distinctive. They are written different lengths and with varying contents depending on your audience and their interests. They can be written inductively or deductively, depending on your personal writing process. The most common form for business use (proposals, blogs, speech introductions) is 3-5 sentences. The average 3-5-sentence bio includes an elevator pitch, experience, outcomes, background, a surprising fact, or other relevant tidbits. And just as a reminder, bios are about marketing, not selling—that comes later, if you’ve gotten a customer’s attention.