Here is the text I wrote before the talk I gave at the re:Write Workshop April 18th of this year. It was a conference for aspiring writers called “Celebrating the Courage to Write.” Special thanks to Alice Sullivan and Randy Elrod for asking me out, and to all the folks who listened to me carry on over my allotted time. Speaking is out of my comfort zone, so I had to write down what I thought I would say before I arrived. I said some of it. I also said a bunch of other stuff that’s probably not here. I don’t speak as focused as I write.
Also, I would like to point out that someone tweeted that I said “You can’t read the label of the jar that you’re in.” I didn’t, but I wish I had. It’s pretty good. I will probably start saying it now.
OK, here it all is, including the Incredible Magic bio questions:
I’m all nervous. I’ve been racking my brain trying to think of what I can say that will help you.
I am honored to be here. Thanks to Alice for inviting me to come be a part. I’m going to talk about me. It’s really what I’m best at. I heard a guy once say, “I’m not much, but I’m all I ever think about.”
I feel a little bit like a fraud. There are real writers in the room. Alice is a real writer. All of you are.
Don’t get me wrong—I write. I write on my blog, which is kinda like a guy who makes cupcakes calling himself a pastry chef.
I wrote ad copy and radio promotional spots for years and years. That’s like a guy with a dog calling himself an animal expert.
I also write essays and keep notebooks.
But I am less a professional writer than a guy who makes a living because he can write.
I want to get to know you. Who here has a website?
WHAT I DO
My day job is helping people, brands and companies tell their stories.
It’s kind of a crazy thing to do. Everyone has trouble doing it, with the exception of really shameless self-promoters. I bet you know some. Don’t they make you uncomfortable?
A person who can really easily say, “I am the best pastry chef in America, I won that cooking show making flaky confectionery things, and chicks in elevators take off their clothes when they learn who I am” is kind of egocentric, right? We’d rather have someone else do it. That’s how I get some of my paying work. Writing the bios.
But most of us have trouble blowing our own horns. We’re too busy being us.
LEARN TO TELL YOUR OWN STORY
How many of you would rather go to the oral hygienist than write your own bio? Be honest.
What I thought. How many of you like your bio?
OK. Now, if I gave you a half a page of facts about me, a resume, and $500, how many of you could write a book-jacket-sized bio of me by tomorrow afternoon?
See? It’s easier to write about something or someone else. But I’m here to tell you it shouldn’t be. You should be able to crank out your own bio as easy as pie, or if you have a business, be able to say exactly what you do just like that.
“My company makes pastries with icing that will make you feel like you’ve just had sex.”
Or whatever. That’s an example of my one-sentence-without-a-comma rule. More on that directly.
So how do you get out of your own way and write about yourself? It’s a great exercise, because if you can write honestly—ok, maybe not too honestly—about yourself, think how awesome you’ll be when you want to describe a scene or articulate a complex idea in language that readers will both enjoy and understand.
The first thing you can do is pretend you’re someone else. That sounds kinda fake-y, but it may help. When someone asks me to write a bio, I give them the same form every time.
- facebook URL:
- twitter URL:
- LinkedIn url:
- website or blog URL:
- what you do for a living:
- other stuff you’ve done for a living:
- work history:
- big names you’ve worked with:
- coolest project you’ve been involved with:
- What do you do for fun? (Don’t say what you do for a living.)
- What’s something that turns your crank, that you are passionate about?
- Tell me a life experience. Anything funny, weird, or anecdotal. For example, “I ran over Taylor Swift’s dog in a parking lot and now I am filled with shame.”
- Share anything else here. Example: “I own 452 pairs of saddle oxfords and an original Dali portrait.”
That’s it. This is obviously an example for a bio in a creative industry, but you get the gist.
The first 10 questions are all resume-type nuts and bolts stuff, then the next 5 get to your actual identity: cool projects, personal stuff, and anecdotes.
People want to know something juicy about you. If you raise chinchillas, or invented a better mousetrap. The story of the time you caught flu on a safari or broke your brother’s nose playing Twister.
Pretend you’re at a party and someone asked you about yourself and was actually interested.
ONE SENTENCE WITHOUT A COMMA
My first career was broadcasting. I was an overnight DJ, and I also got hired to help write ads in the afternoon. I had a folding table and a Royal manual typewriter. I had to write ads for car dealers and grocery stores. “This week at Piggly Wiggly, bananas are 19 cents a pound. Start your day off right with Cheerios, two for a dollar.” One of the things I learned in radio is to get to the point. That’s the origin of “one sentence without a comma.” We’d have eight seconds to say something.
“Our interview with Alice Sullivan and a chance to win $1000 coming up in just a few minutes. Sports and weather next.”
Now here’s a great exercise. Describe yourself in one sentence without a comma. Bonus points if you don’t have any conjunctions. Pretend you’re on a game show and they just asked you about you.
During my first career, I could do this very easily: “I am a rock and roll broadcaster.” Bam.
EDIT and FOCUS
I used to critique disc jockeys. DJ’s are kind of a thing of the past, now—someone talking over the music telling the artists and titles and making wisecracks. DJ’s were really conceited. All those people would be listening for their favorite songs, and we’d think we could say something more interesting to them than the music. I would say to DJ’s, “Edit and focus. Say one thing when you interrupt the music. If they stick around til you finish, it will be a miracle.”
I had a morning show host who used to talk a lot. He thought he didn’t have to play any music in the morning, but we weren’t a talk station. I got a lot of complaints. I would say to him, “Edit and focus,” and he’d get really pissed off. I got tired of fighting with him. At the time, there was this horrible southern rock band called .38 Special that had a string of hits. I would say, “If you can be more interesting than .38 Special, you can keep talking.” He ended up going to work for talk radio. Those guys never shut the hell up.
After the radio business, I started writing more. My ex and I started an internet marketing company. Because I could write, I made the website and wrote blogposts and proposals and ad concepts. I was always amazed at how many smart people who came to work for us that couldn’t write a sentence for sour apples. So I did all the writing about eight years, then my wife said I was getting too hard for her to work with. She divorced me and took all the clients.
That kind of brings me where I am today. I was an unemployed creative director who writes. I was scared. I kept trying to write my own website. I thought it’d be easy, and it wasn’t. I had been writing websites and ads for years, so I was mystified it was so hard. I kept making lists of what I do. I had a notebook full of them:
- I write stories about companies.
- I consult with companies to help them discover their essence.
- I can spit out a tagline for your company in two seconds.
- I help companies understand themselves.
- If you hire me, I will create compelling content that gets pageviews.
- I do digital content strategy.
- I write scripts and ad copy and conceptualize creative campaigns.
- I run and go to the Y a lot and eat a lot of kale.
- I’m smart and I get better looking every single day.
I’m making myself dizzy just thinking about it. I forgot my own rule: edit and focus. One sentence without a comma.
The trouble with making lists is that lists are not stories. That, and no one wants to limit themselves, so they keep adding items. Pretty soon, your one-sentence-without-a comma is the longest, most over-punctuated, quadruple-compound sentence in history. Semicolons and em dashes and conjunctions take over, and readers drift off to find the hors d’oeuvres.
Did you see the Twitter “strategy statement” that they released last year?
“Reach the largest daily audience in the world by connecting everyone to their world via our information sharing and distribution platform products and be one of the top revenue generating Internet companies in the world.”
What the hell is that? It’s a list. Somebody was not willing to leave something out, to let things go. You have to, or you sound like wordy rappinghood. Leaving things out doesn’t mean you aren’t all those other things, just that you’ve decided that if people remember just one thing about you, it is fill-in-the-blank. You can explain the rest later. In more really clear sentences.
I figured out mine after going to take the Duarte Resonate workshop in Silicon Valley. It’s incredible. Almost everything I know about helping present an idea or tell a story with a compelling narrative came from that workshop—that, and my radio career. I went out, spent the day, and by the time I got back home, I had crystallized my story on the airplane on just a few sheets of notebook paper. I recommend it highly. There is a book, too.
Now, I just say,
I help people, brands and companies tell their stories.
Yes, I know it has a comma, and if you’re really a stickler, it lacks the Oxford comma.
You can’t win ‘em all.
Here is your exercise next week. Write your own story.
Start with this:
I am a writer.