I’m often hired to write biographies of top execs for company websites, proposals, and other uses. Then I’m asked to rewrite them because one of those executives insists they be drier than a mouthful of rice cakes in mid-August somewhere just west of Tucson.
You know, bios can be pretty important. You might dismiss them as little more than paragraph-style resumes, but bios can do some pretty amazing things.
Paving the way for sales calls and presentations, making your audience more receptive before you speak your first word. Creating meaningful connections with important prospects. And capturing and displaying your organization’s culture and personality, encouraging the interest of others who are similarly minded. For a few.
But bios can’t do any of those things effectively if you make them boring.
Sometime this week, I’ll have reason to check out someone’s bio, and I’ll cringe. Because once again, it’s straightforward, serious, and just plain dull. Responsibilities and experience stacked like a grocery list. Produce first, certifications last. An acceptable one-dimensional portrayal of this person.
But who are they really? And while we’re at it, what’s their company like? Maybe my boss just asked me for three recommendations in your industry. By noon. Or maybe you don’t know me yet, but good things will happen if you choose to hire me after tomorrow’s interview. That’s if I’m still eager to show up after reading what’s here.
No, no, I get it. I fully grasp that many jobs and positions are intensely serious. Whether you’re a general counsel, a CPA, a process engineer, or a nurse practitioner, the work you do is serious and important. But I suspect there’s a lot more to you than your job title. And I’d be willing to wager that’s the stuff that informs how you do business and why you’re so good at it.
You may draft ironclad contracts by day, but when you gather with friends during March Madness, you’d never say, “Whereas the party of the first part (hereafter referenced as “point guard”) shall transmit the spherical object (“ball”) to their similarly attired counterpart (“shooting guard”) in such a manner as to effect a measured increase in the collective, cumulative record of offensive activity (“score”).” If you do, I’m deeply sorry about your lack of friends.
Okay, so what makes a bio not boring? Think about what we call “small talk.” You know, those hesitant, often awkward conversations when we meet someone and want to learn about who they are. Have they always lived here? Where did they attend law school? Why did they choose contract law over something juicier? Do they golf, or fish, or play with trains in their basement?
We do that for a reason. The more insight we gain, the more accurately we can shape our interaction with them. That’s why we read the CEO’s bio before meeting her for the first time. What it says will either put us at ease or ramp up our terror. Gee, thanks for the copy of her resume.
Now, you know the CEO. Her warm personality and delightful sense of humor always put everyone at ease. You call her one of your favorite people. Wouldn’t it be nice if reading her bio was like meeting her at a networking function? I’d get a realistic first impression and cues for directing our first conversation. “Did I see that you’re a Northwestern grad? Did you know …”
That kind of bio also helps with recruiting efforts. Prospective candidates look through your website to learn more about the organization and its management team. If all they encounter is resume-like bios, they’ll assume nobody has a sense of humor. But if they find friendly, lighthearted bios that reflect your working environment, they’ll be more likely to think they’ll fit in.
So why do so many execs and companies fall into the boring bio trap? I’m pretty sure the blame rests in middle school. Thanks to that experience, we all — every one of us — embarrass more easily and are less confident than we’ll ever admit. And “if I share something about myself, people might laugh at me” is just those middle-school anxieties about not being one of the cool kids coming back to haunt you.
Reading an interesting bio feels like I’m meeting that person. I truly want to get to know them better, and when we do meet, my questions flow out of the bio. “So how did you go from majoring in Athletic Training to entering IU Law?” And do you know what always, always, always happens? They break into smiles and tell me their stories. People are proud of what brought them to their current place in life. When someone shows an interest, their egos get a healthy boost.
That’s why bios shouldn’t be limited to job-related data. Including information about personal lives, hobbies, and interests, can be so powerful. If you’re an avid golfer and so is the subject of the bio, you gain a shared connection. “What’s the toughest course you’ve ever played?”
There’s one more benefit to using a livelier bio: it may steer the wrong kinds of people away from you. If someone thinks my skill as a writer is somehow diminished by my tendency to play with trains in my basement, I probably don’t want to work with them. Or invite them to join me some evening.