A fresh approach to the professional bio

By Ben Worthen, Editor in Chief  |  Mar 3, 2016

Bios are boring. Sure, sometimes we come across ones that are clever or fun, but most are just a list of accomplishments strung together in sentence form, capped off with a platitude about kitesurfing.

So when a client recently asked us to write bios for the entire company, we looked at it as a chance to try something new. Bios need to provide three things: an overview of someone’s skills and career; a sense of who he or she is; and some insight into how that person fits in the organization.

Website bios have a limited canvas. They’re usually fewer than 200 words long. We felt that we could relegate work experience to a list and a LinkedIn button. For the other two components, we felt that we could apply journalism techniques to marketing—a bit of a specialty for us here at Ready State.

In deciding on an approach, we found some inspiration in “Portraits of Grief,” The New York Times’ Pulitzer Prize-winning series from 2002 featuring a brief profile of every 9/11 victim. The articles are an exercise in focus: The reporters homed in on one detail, using it to reveal something about the subject. There’s no attempt to be comprehensive; just interesting.

We set out to find one intriguing—and professionally relevant—thing about each of our client’s employees. Over two days, one of our reporters individually interviewed each person (there were about 30 at the time), and we got to work. To speed things up, we split up the writing of the bios among several writers and editors.

Our first challenge was predictable enough: Some interviews were smoother and more productive than others. Some transcripts were laugh-out-loud funny, as people shared colorful stories, formative experiences, and guiding philosophies. Other people, for whatever reason, didn’t give engaging responses to our reporter’s questions.

We did additional research to fill some gaps—if you weren’t already paranoid about how much information a simple Google search can reveal about you, trust us, you should be—and soon enough, we had written 30-something bios.

Predictably, we liked some of the resulting bios we wrote more than others. We should have predicted what happened next too.

Bios are usually the most personal thing—and often the only personal thing—on a company’s website about an employee. At the very least, we think, an employee should be happy with his or her bio. It just doesn’t feel right for someone to have misgivings about it.

Some of the bios we wrote missed this mark. To be sure, most people really liked our drafts. But a few people thought theirs made them come off as boring or silly—or just provided a snapshot of someone that wasn’t them. The biggest surprise was that some of our favorites fell into this category.  

We stepped back and took a fresh look at our approach.

In journalism, your job is to write what you think is true in the most engaging way possible. It’s great to get along with the people you cover—and it’s natural to want them to like what you write—but your loyalty always needs to be to the facts and the story. The goal is an objective and thoughtful take.

That approach doesn’t work for company bios. Yes, we want the people who read them to be entertained and to think about our client’s company in a way that is “on brand.” But we needed to balance those desires with the need to make sure that the subjects were happy.

In the end, we replaced some of the stories we included with more traditional bio information about work experiences. We added some of that language to other bios too, to make them all feel cohesive.

We still think that the bios reveal something about what makes their subjects tick, which combined with a basic résumé is what a bio reader wants to know. So we’re all happy with the result. And along the way, we learned a bit more about what bringing a journalistic approach to marketing means in practice.

Heather Sparks, Ready State's reporter for this project, contributed to this post.


Topics: journalistic content, content marketing, revisions, editing, customer experience, biographies, professional bios, bios, reporting

Ben Worthen, Editor in Chief

Ben Worthen, Editor in Chief

Ben helps clients figure out how to tell stories that people actually want to hear. He worked as a journalist for 13 years, winning many national awards for news and feature writing. In 2007, he joined The Wall Street Journal, where he covered the tech industry for more than six years, while also writing about other fun stuff, ranging from the Bay Area food scene to people who build their own jet packs. In all, Ben wrote more than 50 Page One stories for the Journal. Before joining Ready State, Ben was head of content at Sequoia Capital, the VC firm that backed Google and Apple, among hundreds of other companies.