Keys for writing someone else’s bio: Keep it succinct, start with current role and responsibilities, don’t get hung up on dates, and leave out information that could describe ten thousand other people.
Did you finally nail your own professional bio? Yes? Outstanding! No? We get it: Writing about yourself is difficult. You know too much, and have too many opinions and expectations. Keep fine-tuning it. Regardless of that, you may be able to tap into a consistent source of income writing other people’s bios.
Executive and corporates bios are fundamental needs in a company’s suite of PR, investor, website, and related brand info. Regular content consultants for enterprise businesses may be kept busy writing only executive team bios and profiles (very much like a bio, only with a more editorial slant). Non-profits, startups, creative ventures and restaurants also typically need bios of their key players for web publication and sales/media kits. And additional to public-facing bios, a lot of marketing teams will put together bios of people that either are fulfilling a role for a campaign (spokesperson, guest expert, customer testimonial) or being considered for one.
Writing a professional bio for another person, or even a business entity, comes with the opposite challenge to writing your own bio: When the subject is a stranger, you start the job without any insight or background information. But once you know how to collect and organize that, it just takes an intuitive mind and an aptitude for identifying highlights, and you can find steady paying work.
Let’s have a look at this in-demand writing specialty and how you can improve at it fast.
How to write a bio for executives and others: Top 5 do’s
1. Push for a phone interview if you feel it will help the piece (and you’re getting paid well).
An interview is only a recommendation if the compensation you’re getting for writing the bio, including research time, averages to your ideal rate. In that case, spend the extra effort to get the subject on the phone. It may be difficult to get phone time on the calendar, but you will get some jewels of insight and quotes if you secure the interview. Keep your request to 30 minutes or less, and be patient when you need to reschedule two or three times.
If the interviewee wants questions in advance or to review the draft afterward, accommodate them. When coming from another field like television production or magazine editorial, this may be the opposite of your training. But keep the new chain of approvals in mind, and do your utmost to make your subject shine.
2. Collect all previously published/vetted/approved pieces on the particular person.
Researching what has been written before — both the subject’s favorite pieces and the ones they took issue with — will give you extra insight. Make sure you know which pieces they liked versus which ones weren’t favorable.
When you do your interview, use your previously researched insight to lead the subject into talking expansively about things they have enthusiasm for, and likewise avoid triggering them with negative memories. If this piece is an editorial-style profile, you may want to gently dig into controversial topics or past moments. But if it’s a bio for press or web purposes, keep it brief and positive.
3. Begin with the most important pieces of current information
Start with why you’re in this position, and then move to past highlights in the next paragraph. Although many subjects will want to begin with their lifetime bio highlights, you always want to start by positioning them here and now — what are they doing that’s significant, and why is it significant? In the next paragraph, you can jump to their lifetime achievements.
4. Stick with the highlights, and keep it succinct.
The first few times someone’s asked to come up with a bio, they’re likely to go all the way back to grade school or college for significant achievements and memories. Then they’ll carry on trying to re-create the breadcrumb trail that led them to now.
Don’t get bogged down trying to follow that.
Your final piece should be a clear distillation of the high points, starting with now and looping back to career achievements, accolades, with perhaps a final sentence on education and/or training.
5. Stick with third-person singular. (Unless first person is more organic.)
This rule is hardest for entrepreneurs to follow, because they tend to blur the lines between themselves and their business. Thus, you often see bios that refer to the founder of a startup but switch regularly to the the pronoun “they” to refer to the entire company — sometimes in the same sentence.
The question to answer right away is: Are you writing about a person or a company? If it’s a person, keep it as a narrative about the person, not the company. And if you’re revamping rough copy they’ve written themselves, decide whether it’ll be first-person or third-person and clean it up to be cohesive even if it loses a shade of personalization.
Five things to avoid when writing a bio: Top 5 don’ts
1. Don’t write a person’s chronological history.
A lot of non-writers tend to start their biographical narration at childhood and progress forward in a linear way. The problem with this is that most people are not interested in the long road that led to here and now.
Start with the currently relevant info, skip the childhood memories unless something is extremely compelling (and then it goes in the second-to-last paragraph). Grab the highlights. Pepper in awards and degrees toward the end.
2. Don’t include information that could apply to lots of people.
Is your client a chef who found his love of cooking in the kitchen with his grandma? Is your client a retail entrepreneur who loved to shop as a child? Was your client curious in school? All of these statements are sweet and relatable and should not make it into a bio — because they are so vague, thousands of people can claim the same thing.
If your client borrowed a James Beard Award-winning pastry recipe from his grandmother, that’s what you include in the bio. If their school-age curiosity won a scholarship to MIT, that might get a mention. Always look for the unusual, standout details and gently rinse away the experiences that are common enough to make your subject blur into a thousand others on paper.
3. Don’t include everything of importance that ever happened in someone’s life.
Most creative consultants can remember a few times when they received someone’s “final” bio and it was 2,000 words rehashing everything the person could remember from kindergarten to the current day. Clients need to understand: Most people’s attention span is short.
Start off with the relevant, interesting info. Fill in the bio with the highlights and milestones that create a foundation for the here and now. Keep out details unless they’re going to grab people for some reason (emotional, comical, pertinent).
4. Don’t get hung up on dates.
Were the dates of your client’s third executive position from 2001-2004, or were they 2001-2005? Or wait, did they actually join that company in 1998? Quick easy answer: Nobody cares.
Not only that, but with ageism in certain industries running rampant, it’s typically better not to anchor someone by their dates. Unless your subject/client has a globally significant dated event in their bio — for example, a significant role in an international sporting event, or a victorious run for office — it’s quicker and neater to leave dates out altogether.
5. Don’t let the client have the last pass at this.
A lot of people will want to have final approval of their bio, and that’s understandable. It is the document that presents them to the world. Let them see it, with the tacit understanding that after their final review and adjustments (there will always be some), you’ll give a final once-over and proofread to get rid of any extra hyphens — or a surprise extra sentence that mentions a favorite junior high teacher and switches pronouns three times and ends! With an exclamation point!
5 good examples of bios…
1. For making entrepreneurs personable
One of the most successful makeup brands created by a social media personality, Huda Beauty is built around one person, Huda Kattan. Most people who buy her cosmetics have some understanding , however vague it may be, that there’s one millennial powerhouse behind this line. Her bio personalizes the brand by using informal first-person tone that personalizes her striking, full-face headshot.
2. For lending credibility to corporate executives
As you would expect from an iconic American brand, the Walmart executive bio format follows a classic format: It starts with the person’s role and responsibilities at Walmart, then goes backward to summarize past key roles and accomplishments in a single paragraph, then moves to accolades and awards, wrapping up with education.
3. For humanizing non-profits
Although non-profit organizations may be as large and established as for-profit companies, their public-facing information often is a little bit lacking in personalization. Non-profits think first about grant writing, but anyone who works in the communications department eventually has to grapple with the substantial challenge of getting leadership and board member profiles written. And that may be just the beginning. If an organization is trying to put a human face to the work they do, volunteer spotlights and case studies of people they’ve helped may be next on the to-do list.
Check out this page of leadership profiles on Operation Homefront to see very impressive careers distilled down to a single lengthy paragraph per person — sufficient to impress any reader at first glance, but not even long enough to require a dedicated page.
4. For capturing the essence of creative professionals
The quirkiness and nonconformity that many agencies and production companies allow in their bio writing is amusing at best and self-indulgent most of the time. A headshot with an ironic Chaplin mustache on a stick, an “About Me” that includes a favorite sea creature and recommended urban bike route… Is it a professional bio or a dating profile?
For those who prefer more substance, LA-based Anomaly strikes a nice balance between quirky and practical. Its menu expands horizontally and then vertically, instead of normal dropdown fashion, causing a first-time visitor to turn their head at a confused 45-degree angle. But the bios themselves are relatively compact and stuffed with impressive details on blue-chip clients and accolades.
5. For conveying the values of a partnership
Sometimes a company name becomes better known than its founders — such as Altamarea Group, the restaurant mini-empire owned by Ahmass Fakahany and Chef Michael White. This duo’s bio is more of a mission statement, but conveys their values and longstanding history before gracefully segueing to introduce the rest of the team.