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How to Spin Biographical Information Your Way

by Marcia Yudkin

An impromptu reader survey got me thinking about techniques that increase the chances that your audience views your credentials and lifestyle information the way that you do. In conjunction with a discussion of biographical profiles, I asked my newsletter subscribers the following:

Originally I included in my online bio the fact that in my spare time, I serve as Town Librarian for my town of 920 people - Goshen, Massachusetts. My husband persuaded me to take that out, for two reasons. 

First, he argued, city-based organizations would assume that living in some backwoods town, I couldn't have my pulse on today's top business trends. Second, most people wouldn't imagine that directing a one-room library could be a very part-time commitment (10 hours a month). Therefore, he said, this information hurt my professional image.

What do you think? Does this information hurt or help my image?

Readers Weigh In

Around 60% of those responding said that my library commitment improved their opinion of me, and I should put it back in the bio. Around 30% said this information hurt my image, and I should keep it out of the bio. The remaining people were either not sure or said, “It depends.”

With votes favoring mentioning my library position two-to-one over not doing so, the conclusion might seem clear. However, several people on both sides of the issue pointed out that the library information was likely to have a different effect on those who already knew my work and those who had never heard of me. 

“Unless I already ‘knew’ you, the library stuff would make me think you were a housewife occupying herself with a little business on the side,” said one person. I certainly did not want to convey that, and therefore I had to take a close look at the reasons people gave for their opinion one way or the other, along with how I could forestall misinterpretations.

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A Deeper Look 

My current small-town location seemed to be almost a non-issue for both the “Yes” and “No” sides. Everyone knows that these days you can run a business from anywhere, many said. However, if I mentioned living in a town of 920 people, it would be smart to also show explicitly that I had been and remained in touch with business trends. Like this: 

After 17 years of serving clients amidst the big-city bustle of Boston, Marcia moved to the woods of Western Massachusetts, where she works with business owners and marketers around the world via phone and satellite Internet.

Most of those who commented positively on my librarian position referred to it as a service to my community (true), and many used the words “volunteer” or “pro bono” (strictly speaking untrue, since I receive a minuscule salary for the hours I put in). Here I realized that there was no need to make people draw their own conclusions from the information I provided. Why not say why I had stepped up to the plate when I learned my town was losing its Library Director?

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One motive was to get to know other town residents, something that is hard to do when working at home in a rural setting. But more importantly, it was a matter of “If not me, then who?” A town of less than 1,000 people is necessarily and completely run by well-intended amateurs who can spare the time and energy for tasks in line with their abilities and interests. I had the required college degree, a lifelong passion for books, experience in leading discussions and promoting events, and had even held a part-time library job 30+ years previously. 

Another issue that needed attention was ridiculous images of librarians. Several respondents mentioned, disparagingly, the librarian played by Donna Reed in the classic movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” (“not terribly with it, quiet, mousy”) or the shushing spinster stereotype as running contrary to how I should come across as a marketing consultant. I decided that I could sidestep those implications by not using the word “librarian” and instead, talking about my duties in a way that conveyed their significance to me and to the town.

Likewise, although it’s a picturesque detail, it didn’t seem necessary to state the population of my town if I referred to living in the woods and the library being just one room.

Rather than “In her spare time, Marcia serves her town of 920 people as Town Librarian,” I’d therefore go on to say:

In her spare time, she serves her community as director of Goshen, Massachusetts’ one-room library, helping to make it a welcoming center for intellectual stimulation and discussion.

The final issue I thought hard about concerned whether or not people would perceive this kind of a community commitment as watering down my ability to do great work for my clients. A number of subscribers thought that 10 hours a month was an excessive amount of time to devote to any activity outside of work. “Why isn't she spending 40-50 hours a week on marketing? Where does that 10 hours come from?” someone wrote.

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I wondered if people had misread 10 hours a month as 10 hours a week, since practically everyone must spend 10 hours a month outside of their work doing something else they consider important, whether that’s gourmet cooking, watching sports on TV or helping their kids with their homework. Besides working at the library, I spend almost 10 hours a month running, more than 10 hours a month hiking and probably 30 hours a month reading for pleasure.

Those who said my library commitment indicated a well-balanced life already understood this point, but for those who believe that a world-class expert should aim at a single-minded existence, I thought leaving out the number of hours might help. 

The Upshot 

This whole exercise drove home to me the extent to which facts do not in themselves imply a particular interpretation of those facts. If you want people to interpret your credentials, professional history and lifestyle the way you do, then you should provide the interpretation and not just the facts. You should also anticipate and head off possible misinterpretations of what’s important to you. Your tools for spinning information include word choice, context, background and implications.

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And yes, once I had thought all of this through, I did re-insert my status as my town’s library director in my bio. I left much less room for readers’ assumptions to let this involvement subtract points from my reputation. A fellow New Englander, consultant Brad Hosmer of Concord, New Hampshire, may have hit the nail on the head:

By taking on this seemingly humble library task, you demonstrate important character traits. You value knowledge and learning and want people to have opportunities provided by books and other media. You are willing to roll up your sleeves to do what needs to be done where and when it needs to be done. You believe that a library is a noble thing, even though the one you serve is modest. 

While some people may see your affiliation with the Goshen library as a negative factor, most likely you don't want them as clients anyway.

Copyright 2006 Marcia Yudkin.  All rights reserved.

2012 Update: Since I completed my six-year term as Goshen town librarian, this fact is no longer in my bio.

My fee for writing or rewriting a business bio is $300.

"When I hired her to write me a new bio, Marcia Yudkin was fast, 
professional and extremely helpful. I appreciate the fact that she took time to get to know my language, as Australian business-speak is somewhat different to that of the US in that it's not good to speak ourselves up too emphatically. Where I had been struggling, she got it perfectly right." - Teresa Keleher, Sydney, Australia

Inquire about having me create a dynamic new bio for you.

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