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Lessons I learned from editing 70+ executive bios in one week

Wednesday, July 18, 2018 by Cheril Clarke in Executive and professional bios

“Innovative” and “strategic” are two of the most overused words in executive biographies. Professional jargon still runs rampant in business communications and the brilliance of too many executives is dulled by banal corporate-speak. That’s what I learned two months ago when I was tasked with shortening more than 70 full-length executive bios to 75 words each. That’s less than a Tweet! It was a challenge, but along with an assiduous creative team we got the job done.

Many of the bios were at least one page to start, while others were about two paragraphs. I worked around-the-clock to meet my client’s deadline and quickly began to see a common theme: despite the subjects being incredible (many of whom beat insurmountable odds to reach their leadership position), if some of their names were removed from their long-form bios the text could be easily be swapped for someone with a similar career history. That’s no good.

Below are six tips for writing an executive bio that is simple yet deep, one that highlights your genius but doesn’t carry the stench of braggadocio.

  • Start with your first and last name. Though it is good to have a conversational tone with your bio, it is still a formal document and stating your full name is authoritative. Using a first name only can come off as too casual and beginning with a last name without the first is odd—unless you’re in the military and everyone goes by their last name. (In that case, still use your full name and add your rank.) For the rest of your bio, you can stick to using your first or last name only, just be sure you’re consistent with your choice.
  • State your current position and why you are passionate about what you do. It is easy to type up a chronological list of your work history, but that rarely makes a bio engaging. By adding a quick reason as to why you love what you do, you ensure your story isn’t easily interchangeable with someone else’s.
  • Keep it formal yet conversational (avoid listing your accomplishments in a mile-long run-on sentence). It is a good idea to toe the line between formal and conversational. Too much of the former may make your bio stiff and tiring to read.
  • Include at least one professional achievement. It may be tempting to list every award you’ve won or recognition you’ve earned, but try to choose only one or two of which you are most proud. This is enough third-party validation of your professional efforts.
  • It is also worth noting that “utilize” can almost always be trimmed to “use” – use the latter word instead. Please. 🙂 It gets to the point. It keeps your words flowing. It helps usher the reader to the essential parts of your bio that might actually penetrate their minds and get them to remember you (rather than alert them that there’s nothing interesting to read here).
  • Show your readers a glimpse of who you are outside of work. In this age of oversharing, it’s understandable that executives and other leaders in their fields may not want to reveal any more than they have to about their personal lives. However, divulging your favorite hobby or charitable interest (toward the end of your bio) can make you more relatable to the reader and help your bio come off as conspicuous rather than sphinxlike or worse, forgettable.
    • For example, in a conference program with 14 plastic surgeons, the one who lists that she enjoys skydiving and big-wave surfing on her time off is likely to stand out from those who end their bio with where they earned their degrees 30 years ago. Engaging in extreme sports is not necessary to be captivating. It is just as interesting to note you enjoy growing an herb garden or fostering dogs that will go on to be service animals for the blind. The goal is to draw back the curtain to show a little of the person behind the position. Show dimension.

Whether long or short, a fantastic executive bio stands out! Done well, it is a magnet for attention and an easy opportunity to share your accomplishments. A phenomenal bio connects with readers and tells your unique story. Having multiple versions for different occasions (and of variable lengths) is ideal and can help you avoid a rush when a conference organizer requests a condensed summary. You may want to share different parts of yourself to a graduating class of 9,000 students than a board of directors so keep that in mind as well.

To learn more about our executive biography writing services, contact us today.

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