Who are you on the web? How do you describe yourself? What words do you use to tell the world who you are, what you stand for or represent, what you do, how you do it, and why they should want to get to know you and work with you?
Preparing to teach my WordPress course at Clark College, with thoughts on Campaign 2011: Prove It! tickling the brain stem, I did some guest teaching for their new social media course. The first program was my popular “Your Blog is Your Business Card” presentation. When you network in the business world today, you need to have a site to call “home” which lists your contact information, resume/CV, portfolio, and represents you on the web.
The key page on the site is your About Page, the biography that showcases who you are, what you do, and how you do it, telling people of your worth and value to them. Most importantly, it must tell them why they should care about you and anything you do, why they should trust you, and why they should want to get to know you.
The students’ homework was to write a bio, their About Page, on the WordPress.com blogs they created for the class. I returned two weeks later to review and critique.
I’ve received permission to use the bio from the student who bravely went first for the verbal bleeding-red-pen-slashing. I’ve changed the name and a couple details to protect him.
Here are my guidelines for such biography torture tests, the same ones I give my clients.
- This is not personal.
- Don’t take it personally. While it’s about you, it’s not about “you.”
- It’s about the content.
- My criticism may or may not represent my thoughts personally, but they do represent world perspectives and stereotypical judgements – Devil’s advocate, if you will.
- This is a lesson. Learn. Process. Filter. Use what is applicable.
- It can all be changed at any time.
Here is the first paragraph of his bio, a work of perfection for the opening salvos.
My name is Steve Jones. I’m 47 years old and live in Vancouver, Washington. I have a wife and a son and a grown up daughter in college.
What Do We Know So Far?
From that opening paragraph, what do we know about Steve so far?
One student said we know his age.
What do we know about his age and why is that important?
“It shows he has experience.”
Does it? What kind of experience? Experience in what?
What does that mean? Was it a good experience? Was it a bad experience? Did he learn from his experiences? What did he learn? Does any of this experience help him get a job or clients or build trust with an audience of readers?
“It proves he lived. He made it this far.”
Yes, it does, but it tells us nothing about the journey.
One student said that this wasn’t enough information and that we needed more to define his life journey and define who he is and what he does. I agree, but let’s go with the information we are given and see what we can learn about what we know so far.
Does Your Age Matter?
When people find out how old you are, they start making assumptions. At 47, for some, it could mean that he is still in the prime of his life and has lived long enough to get the “bugs out” as one human resources manager described it to me. For others, it could mean that the employer might only get about 10-15 years of work out of him which might make him a liability since men over 50 tend to start having health problems, adding up to time loss, increase in health costs, etc., just too much of a risk and liability no matter how many federal laws say we can’t make that assumption.
It could also mean that he is just too old for the job. If the company is working on cutting edge technology, does he have the skills and experience? Or is it all new to him? Did he keep his skill set active or is it stagnate?
It could also mean he is too young for the needs of the customers. If the customers are older, maybe they can’t connect with someone closer to their age or older.
If the average age of the employees is 35, how would someone nearly 50 feel about working for a boss who is 28? Is that going to be a problem?
What about his experience. Life hands out different kinds of experience to everyone with no life story the same as anyone else’s. We have no information on his journey. Maybe he was a stay-at-home dad for the last 20 years and other than his cell phone and email to track his children, has no clue about how to use a word processor let alone anything more sophisticated. Google is the best he can do for research to help kids with homework. Or maybe he was a CEO of a huge company that fell down on its luck in the dot com bust. Or maybe he was like David Carr featured in the documentary, “Page One: Inside the New York Times,” a former cocaine addict and single parent on welfare now one of the most popular writers and spokesmen for the Times. In spite of a shady life with time in jail, he’s not only employable but well-respected for what he can do and where he has been. His life experience didn’t just define him, it made him, and his employer respects him for that.
Without more information, we’re left making things up. I could make things up all day but none of those stories are true, they are assumptions and preconceived notions.
If your age is important, then brag about it. Put it in the first sentence. When is age important? If you are a 46 year-old female computer programmer that just became a professional football player (the “real” kind not powder puff), that’s worth bragging about. If you are 94 and the world’s top hula hoop or skate board champion, shout it out. If you are six and just discovered the cure for cancer, age matters. Otherwise, who cares?
If you were a child prodigy, performing at Carnegie Hall at age six, where do you go from there? You aren’t that special showing up again at Carnegie Hall at 35 unless there is something else attached to the age information such as it is your 1000th performance at Carnegie Hall since age six.
If it doesn’t matter and you feel compelled to add it, don’t make it first. Incorporate it in further down in the biography.
Does Location Matter?
“We know he lives in Vancouver, Washington.”
Yes, we do. Is that important?
The class all agreed it was important.
“It will help him get work.”
“People in Vancouver looking for his skills will hire him.”
In today’s virtual world, location might matter, and it might not. If you are looking for a specific job in a specific area of the country or have a business that serves that area, and your site is about working and living in that area, then yes, it matters. Put it in your blog title or tag line. “Sally’s Vancouver Page Notes covering all the news on startups south of Seattle.” Put it everywhere and include maps and geo-tags. If you are blogging about Vancouver, Washington, then clearly, location is essential.
However, if it has nothing to do with what you do or blog about, should it be included? Maybe. Maybe not. Should it be in the first sentence? Definitely not.
I’ve lived all over the world and travel extensively. When someone asks me where “home” is, I have to stop and ask them what they really want to know. Is it where I was born? Where I grew up? Where I lived the majority of my life? Where a location defined who I am and my beliefs and culture? Where I live right now? Where I just was? What does home mean?
Discussions on location and “home” is a way of finding commonality. How many times have you said you lived somewhere or worked for some large company and someone asked, “You probably don’t know them, but do you know Fred Smith who lives/works there?” People want to find that connection, something in common. Within a few minutes of meeting some people for the first time, you quickly find out that the were born in Seattle, moved to New York for a few years, then California, Wisconsin, spent two years teaching English in Japan, and eventually ended up in Portland, Oregon, where they found “home” as it means to them. If that is important to who they are and influences your decision to work with them, it’s important to know. It could also influence and change your impression of them.
“But it helps people know you better,” a student argued.
Yes, it does. It also defines you. It lights up stereotypical judgements.
If you are from the southern United States, does people’s attitude change when they find out? Does the conversation change? If you are from New York (Manhattan/9-11), San Francisco (Silicon Valley, gays, home of WordPress), Seattle (rain, Microsoft, Amazon.com, Boeing), or other major locations with famous characteristics, the assumptions spill into the conversation. This information can change perceptions of who you are and how you think and behave. If you are from Alaska, can you even have a conversation outside of the state without talking about cold, moose, weather, oil, and Sarah Palin? Sure you can, but if you are from there, you know what I mean. If you’ve traveled to foreign lands and dove into their lifestyle and culture, then many assume Mark Twain was right when he said:
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”
What if you came back more jaded than before with a narrower perspective on life?
I’ve found that when I’m talking business with clients or speaking before groups, I don’t bring up “home” unless it is pertinent. When the question comes up, the conversation completely changes, often derailing as they go into connection and familiarity mode.
“Oh, I love the Pacific Northwest! I went there on vacation to the Oregon Coast about twenty years ago. Loved the sea lions. The Tillamook Cheese Factory is incredible. The ice cream! Oh, I love the ice cream, don’t you? And Portland! What a great city. Love Stumptown Coffee…” We’re off into tourist talk and the productive business talk is left behind, sometimes making it difficult to get back on track. As I’ve lived on the road full-time since 1996, only recently coming off the road, this discussion leads to long stories of the why, how, and where of my life on the road. While this is nice for a while and definitely helps people get to know you better, it’s usually a distraction.
Unless your location really defines who you are and what you do, then make it unimportant. My location is important enough that I include it in my bio at the very end, helping you get to know a little more about me and my life and how I live it – if you cared to read that far:
Lorelle is currently back in the United States after five years spent living overseas avoiding terrorists and political leaders in the Middle East, and has been found in Hurricane Alley swinging a chainsaw and shovel helping the recovery from Hurricane Ivan and Hurricane Katrina, and whatever hurricanes kept coming. She recently moved closer (Oregon) to her native Seattle, where only earthquakes and traffic jams can terrorize her.
One of the most surprising assumptions students made about Steve was that he was “responsible.” I couldn’t see what was in that small paragraph to justify that assumption.
“He’s married. He has a family.”
Is he married? Yes, he has a family, but is he married? Looking at the words closely it says that he has a wife and son and daughter, but it doesn’t say they live with him. By changing the sentence to read, “…live in Vancouver, Washington, with my wife and son…” we might make that assumption, but not from the current wording.
What about having a family or being married makes someone responsible? If you are living in an Ozzie and Harriett or Leave It To Beaver World, maybe, but we are living in a world where dysfunction is the norm. Maybe he’s been a drug addict, drinker, or abuser. Maybe he’s been father of the year for decades. We just have no information either way to know what “family” and “married” mean.
“But he has a daughter in college.”
How does that make him responsible?
“He’s paying for her college.”
Really? Where do you see that?
It’s amazing the stories people make up when there are holes needing filling around the words. Because he mentions his adult daughter in college, they assume he is paying for it. Maybe she got a scholarship. Maybe she is working five jobs while going to school full-time (or part-time) to pay for it. Maybe she hates her father and he’s used this “public” opportunity to reach out and tell her he’s proud of her and her accomplishments, his way of saying he cares about her – a personal agenda that probably has no place in his online bio.
With courage, I told them what his statement of family probably means that he gave up the first “older” wife for a young thing and started a second family with her, trying to fix what he screwed up in the first family.
You could have heard the gasp all around the campus. I invited the student to tell us if this was on track or not, and he openly admitted I was right, which had the class nervously laughing.
Does this mean he’s a creep or one of those mid-life crisis guys who run out on one family to start another? Or maybe that both were “accidents” and he got stuck with them? Or any of the other stereotypical stories where the man is the dirty beast? Or maybe she was having an affair, an alcoholic, addict, or doing bad things and he gave up after almost two decades of trying to cover up, protect, and help her. We still don’t know enough of the story – but it’s fun to imagine.
Should you share your family status? If you are a parent blogger, blogging about children, child-raising, education, family life, divorce, relationships, religion, or other topics where your family status, number of children, their age, your marriage, etc., represent your “qualifications,” then yes, include it and put it up front.
“I’m a 47 year old divorced father with an adult daughter in college and a two year old baby son. I’m on my second marriage and I know a thing or two about raising kids and surviving marriage I want to share with you.”
That changes the entire story, doesn’t it? It connects you to who he is, his life experiences linked with what his site is about, and lets readers know they may have this journey in common. That’s a more powerful connection.
Does Any of This Matter? Why?
Honestly, is it important that the first thing we know about Steve is is age, location, and family status? Does it make you want to know him? Does it make you want to work with him? Does it make you trust him?
Yet, most bios begin with similar descriptions.
What should he have started with? His third paragraph. That was when he got to the meat and potatoes of what he does, how he does it, why it is important to him, thus important to us.
Why did he wait so long to get to the point that would inspire people to want to get to know him? Because we’ve been educated to describe ourselves physically and with common references rather than starting with intentions and passions.
Our fictional Steve returned to college for a refresher to amp up his career from graphic arts to digital arts, moving from traditional illustration to web design and digital imagery. He wanted to broaden his client base and bring new skill sets to the work he currently does. That’s something to be proud of, and worth bragging about right from the start. It shows motivation, industry and trend awareness, and the willingness to change and adapt, embracing new ideas and concepts. That sounds more like a person worth knowing.
The revised bio now moves his passion to the top of the page and his personal statistics to the bottom as he still felt that information helps to define him.
What is in your bio right now? How does it start? Dissect every word. Carefully watch where you place information within the telling of your story. There are many ways to tell your story, and I’ll talk about those later, but focus on how to make us care, justifying your existence as well as your expertise.
Every word matters. It isn’t just about spelling and grammar but every pixel that forms every letter to make words which create sentences and paragraphs. They paint a picture of you. You leave blanks in the picture, people fill them in with their imagination. Let them fill it in with facts not fiction.
Throughout this Prove It Campaign I’m going to repeat the same thing over and over: Every pixel matters. Whether they are pictures or words, every pixel counts. Make sure every pixel on your site speaks well of you.
Prove It! Campaign Article Series
- Campaign 2011: Prove It!
- Prove It: It’s Starts With Defining Who You Are
- Prove It: Kym Huynh Exposed
- Prove It: What Makes You Trust a Website?