How to write a short bio that’s not awful (Ask Dr. Wobs)

Everybody needs a short bio, whether its at the top of your LinkedIn page or on the bookflap of your first book. But it’s hard to write about yourself succinctly and objectively. That’s why people writing their own bios so often end up sounding like an idiot.

Dear Dr. Wobs

Why are bios so bad?

I’ve been asked recently to write a professional bio and the example sent to me by my company was just plain awful. It had typos, was full of jargon, and didn’t tell me at all why you’d want to hire the firm or that person. 

Isn’t the purpose of bios to make an outsider feel comfortable with an organization? If so, they are failing.

Bad bio types are typically 1) jargon laden and confusing to anyone not in the field, 2) cutesy/TMI, 3) way too long (resumes/CV’s in the wrong place), 4) the evidence doesn’t support the claims (ex. I use my theatre degree to…).

Would love Dr WOBS perspective on how to make bios great again.

Ben

Dear Ben: I looked at some of the bios you suggested. They are terrible. But then I got to thinking about why, and realized that nearly all bios are terrible, including my own.

There is the breezy approach:

Charismatically curious, Apple store GeniusBar fly, and passionate crusader for clients’ causes. Innovator with a flare for fashion – who doesn’t sweat the small stuff. Xxxxx is a Project Manager specializing in fundraising and development, public relations and communications and event management. . . . 

This is fun, but it makes it hard to take the person seriously. I don’t want the first thing somebody knows about me to be that I’m charismatic (is that the same as deceptive?), have a flare for fashion (shouldn’t that be flair? I thought flares meant something was on fire), or don’t sweat the small stuff (detail oriented people should sweat the small stuff).

Then there is the ultra-serious jargon overload:

Xxxx is a cross-sector collaboration catalyst, connecting ideas, passions, and people for positive social change. She most recently served as Chief of Staff with Xxxxx, an organization creating more successful, sustainable company cultures. With prior experience in education, hospitality, and sports, she is currently focusing on communities and the future of work. She is inspired and invigorated by bringing people together to do epic, generative things. . . .

I don’t hire catalysts, I hire people who do real work. Managing, writing, graphic design, coding, idea development — something that adds value.

And of course there is the laundry list approach:

Xxxx has managed a project to create an app that a large industrial company used to identify fraud. Xxxx also managed a project to build a Java complier that would run in a JVM in six different environments. He works quickly in many different programming languages. . . .

Snore.

Why bios are hard

It’s a fundamentally hard problem to write about yourself. We don’t want to sound vain, but we don’t want to sound boring, either. Bios go off the rails because people have such a poor ability to objectively judge themselves and how they appear to others.

The other problem is the need to balance soft skills and descriptions (for example “friendly” or “smart”) with actual accomplishments.

To clear away the bullshit, let’s do a ROAM analysis of the problem of the bio.

  • Readers. Who reads bios? People who are considering hiring you as a staffer or freelancer. Alternatively, it could be people who will be working with you — for example, salespeople, people at other companies, or your own colleagues.
  • Objective. What change are you trying to create in the reader? You want them to get a sense of who you are.
  • Action. After they figure out who you are, you want them to be comfortable working with you. You want them to be willing to interview you, do a kick-the-tires call with you as a freelancer, appear on their podcast, or go ahead with whatever they were considering when they were checking out your bio.
  • iMpression. Unless you are seeking a job as a standup comedian, you’d like to leave them with the impression that you are a serious and competent person.

This tells you that your bio needs to be short and clear, and should define you and your relevant experience in a few sentences. Here’s one way to do it.

  • Draft it in the first person. This should keep you from getting too grandiose. Don’t worry, I’ll let you take all the I’s out later.
  • Keep it short. 100 words is a good length. The key is what you keep and what you leave out.
  • Start with a sentence that describes you. If you can’t describe yourself in one sentence, work on that. Ask your trusted colleague how they see you. Examples:

I am a quality assurance engineer with over 18 years experience working on PC and mobile software projects.

I am an editor specializing in complex medical research papers.

I am a recent Summa Cum Laude graduate of Tufts University majoring in film and video studies and the director or writer of 6 student films.

I am the author or coauthor of four books including the bestseller Groundswell: Winning in a World Transformed by Social Technologies.

  • Now add relevant experiences in a couple of sentences. What have you done that would impress people? Not everything — just the things that matter.

I have worked on six app development teams, including both iOS and Android apps. The most recent app I worked on was downloaded over 20,000 times by people seeking tips for weight loss and wellness. I’ve also created apps that help people diagnose common car problems.

I have managed marketing teams of more than 100 people including groups for direct marketing, online marketing, advertising, and sales support. I recently helped launch a new B2B software product that grew from zero to 18% market share within its first two years.

I have helped 10 authors to write book proposals and edited four books including Robert Scoble and Shel Israel’s book on virtual reality, The Fourth Transformation, and Harley Manning and Kerry Bodine’s book on customer experience, Outside In.

  • Close with your philosophy or attitude. Tell people something that will set you apart.

I’m a devotee of the Agile Software Development method and have helped put it into place at multiple companies.

My management style is results-based, but I also pride myself on helping the people I manage to grow and improve. In my career, I’ve promoted over 40 people from junior to more senior positions, in some cases priming them to become senior executives in their own right.

My editorial philosophy is simple: I want to help you to succeed in expressing yourself as clearly and powerfully as possible. Writers I work with don’t just create better documents; they become better writers.

  • If you must, get rid of the first person. If you’re contributing a bio to someplace where it can’t be in the first person, just replace the first “I” with your name and the rest with your preferred pronoun, “he,” “she,” or “they.”

Notice what this doesn’t create — a resume. It creates an impression.

It also omits words like “passion.” Anyone can write about being passionate. Tell me what you know and what you did, not how overwhelmed you are by your own greatness. That crap sounds even worse in the third person (“Sally is a passionate and creative spirit, who . . . “) Spare us.

You should probably go back to it and rewrite your bio every year or two based on your most recent accomplishments and how you define yourself.

It’s possible to create a longer bio by extending this writeup — and in some cases, you’ll have to — but this is a place to start.

This is one approach. Do you have another that works as well or better?

Have you seen a bio that’s really awful? Paste it in the comments, but let’s be nice — delete the name first.

4 responses to “How to write a short bio that’s not awful (Ask Dr. Wobs)

  1. _______________ is the very definition of the American success story, continually setting the standards of excellence while expanding his interests in real estate, sports, and entertainment. He is a graduate of the Wharton School of Finance. An accomplished author, ________________ has authored over fifteen bestsellers and his first book, _________________, is considered a business classic and one of the most successful business books of all time. _____________ has over eight million followers on social media and is a frequent guest across a variety of media platforms.

    1. In addition to being to self-congratulatory, this fails on the grounds of being false. The subject graduated from Penn with an undergraduate degree. The Wharton School applies only to those who get MBA graduate degrees, which this subject does not.

  2. I’ve come here to help you.
    I have what you need.
    And my prices are low. And I work with great speed.
    And my work is one hundred per cent guaranteed!”

  3. Bio or resume? They do have somewhat different purposes.
    In today’s market resumes are read and analyzed by a bot and might never be seen by a human until the first interview. This key words that should and should not be included are important.

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