Many of us feel panic and dread when we sit down to write our bios, cracking under the self-imposed pressure to paint a perfect portrait of who we are in this point in time.
But what if I told you that a great bio simply started the conversation of what you can bring to a project and then motivated your reader to to keep that conversation going with you – through a meeting, an audition, a Twitter follow, or a viewing of your reel? Most of us make the mistake of writing a bio that looks backward on what we've already done, instead of positioning what we've done to get the reader interested in what we're going to do in the future. I've written many bios for accomplished actors, writers and directors and have coached many more through my bio workshops in LA. Here are four steps I use to help clients create bios that they're proud to share.
I'd say that a good 50% of bios I read start with where the artist was born. Yawn! That fact seldom tells me anything about the artist (it tells me more about your parents!) and it wastes the most valuable real estate in your bio – the first two sentences. Of course, there are exceptions. If you were born in a yurt in rural China and can weave your nomadic spirit through the rest of your bio, go for it. But “John was born in St. Louis, Missouri” is a bit of a bore. Instead, start with a recent “win,” your biggest accomplishment to date, or a joke that expresses your unique sense of humor. Here are three sample openings that make the reader pay attention.
- Johnathan's directorial debut, the thriller “Fog on the Water,” screened in fourteen festivals last year, winning Best Feature at The Hamptons International Film Festival.
- Jeannie Hudak: that's “Hu” for “Humor” and “dak” for “daquiris...”
- Anna Withers is best-known for her Obie-winning play Mountain Time, which starred Blythe Danner in its sold-out run at The Public Theater.
In keeping with the dictum of making the first paragraph count, feel free to say goodbye to listing your credits in chronological order. You could organize your bio around the different media in which you've worked, or choose a few highlights and move on to your training and hobbies. The structure can be anything from a list to a faux-film script. But no matter what you decide, I implore you, put the biggest guns first! If you have meaningful awards, tell us right away. If you are just starting your career but graduated from an well-known training program and have a couple of minor professional credits, put the training program up front. When you're writing your bio, think of yourself as your own agent and the bio as your pitch. If you only had ten seconds to get the attention of whoever's listening, what would you say about yourself? What gives you the most professional credibility? That should be in your first two sentences. The truth is that few of your readers will read all the way through your bio, so leaving the best for last is not a great strategy.
I know, I know, everyone says you're hard-working and reliable, and nice and funny. And I'm sure you are...but funny people don't tend to go around saying they're funny - they're too busy cracking people up. So take a cue from your craft and use your bio to show us who you are, instead of telling us who you are. When you find yourself wanting to use an adjective to describe yourself, instead find an anecdote, accomplishment or observation that shows that aspect of yourself. That way the reader can come to her own conclusion about your amazing work-ethic, sense of humor, or winning good looks. Here are two examples from my clients:
- Instead of “hard-working” :
After high school, I continued a long line of military service in my family when I joined the U.S. Navy. There, I pulled engine room equipment apart as a nuclear mechanic on an aircraft carrier and then helped put my colleagues together as a career counselor, a position for which I won The Navy Achievement Medal (NAM).
- Instead of “funny” :
Let's get a few things out of the way:
Ok. Now that we've cleared the air, I'm feeling a lot better. Oh, you wanted to know about my acting? Yeah, alright. Look, I'm not going to sugar coat it. Things are going...very well, thank you.
Share a few details of your past professions, your family life, and/or hobbies. The extent to which you want to reveal your personal life in your bio will change as your tastes and career do. Do what feels right to you, but don't underestimate the relevance of the totality of your life to your artistic career. If you're an actor and have spent ten years as a medic that might, of course, be catnip to casting directors for medical dramas, but it also proves that you can work under pressure and have experience helping all kinds of people, both of which are meaningful qualities in many characters. If you're an aspiring screenwriter with twenty years teaching high school under her belt, that fact might position you perfectly to be considered to co-write a web series about teens. And it's always a nice note to end on to imagine this person whose career we've just gotten to know “in real life,” doing volunteer work, tracking down antiques, or playing with his sons. At the end of the day, bios and resumes get read, but people get hired.
If these ideas resonate with you, let us know in the comments below. If you're ready to take your bio to the next level, join me this Saturday, January 9th at 11am PST for the Stage 32 Next Level webinar What Gets You Noticed on The Page? Essential Bio Writing for Creatives. In the webinar I'll discuss how to make your bio resonate with the artists you want to work with, how to maximize your bio on your website and in social media, and how to update it as your credits grow.
Claire Winters has spent the last fifteen years working as an actor, film and acting teacher, and writer/editor. In each incarnation, her mission has been to create and share deeply personal and entertaining stories. Her background as both a performer and writer gives her a unique understanding of how one's story and the performance of it - whether in person or on the page - best work together.
On screen she's appeared on The Mentalist, The Bold and The Beautiful, As the World Turns and HBO's Empire Falls, among others, and has acted on stage in New York and in regional theaters throughout the US. Her cultural and personal essays have appeared on Elle.com, Medium.com's Human Parts, and The Liberty Project. Claire taught acting and filmmaking at The Lee Strasberg Institute in New York has led workshops on social media for artists, bio writing and interview skills at The SAG-AFTRA Conservatory and SAG Foundation.
In addition to her creative work, she's a committed advocate for the arts community. As a charter member of SAG-AFTRA's NextGenPerformers Committee, she helped educate young performers about the benefits of guild membership and served as a delegate at the 2015 SAG-AFTRA Convention. She co-founded and edited the influential acting website BrainsofMinerva.com, which Backstage Magazine called "the spirit of helping others to find grace in a pressure-filled business." Claire is a graduate of The MFA in Acting Program at American Conservatory Theater and The Actors Fund Teaching Artist Institute and a member of Actors Equity and SAG-AFTRA.
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