‘What do you do?’ How to write a professional bio

April 23, 2020, 12:00 PM UTC

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The question has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Q: I read your last column on freelancing and what freelancers can do right now. I’m interested in hearing more about redoing your bio. I don’t even know where to start. I am so bad at thinking through what I’m trying to accomplish. I start a new career every five years.

I don’t know that I need a bio or where I would put it. Every time people ask me what I do, I usually just make something up on the spot about what I’ve been doing recently that I think will matter to them. The only times I’ve had to talk about who I am are in job interviews, and I haven’t done one of those in a long time. 

Dear Erin, 

You’re not the only one who has a hard time talking about yourself professionally. I’ve coached dozens of people on improving their résumés and pitches, and over and over again, the same things come up. People feel blocked about describing their own experience. Many find it easier to talk about other people’s work than their own. People don’t know where to start. And many worry that if they’ve changed jobs, people may think they lack focus, or worse: that they’ll have to start over in a new industry.

When coaching new people, the first thing I focus on is how they are describing themselves and their work. Having a clear narrative around your work is one of the most powerful tools you have to demonstrate your expertise. A well-crafted bio is a powerful way for you to share who you are, and in a professional context, it’s about what you do and why you’re qualified to do it. It should focus on what experiences have informed your approach. 

Once you can have a bio that you’re happy with, you can adapt it to a range of contexts, shorter for social media, longer when you want to share more specific expertise, like if you’re speaking at a conference or posting on your website. It will also give you a succinct way to describe yourself. Not only will this be helpful the next time a stranger asks, “What do you do?,” it’s also a great starting point in updating how you’re presenting yourself, whether that’s on your résumé, in pitches, on your website, or in conversation with your coworkers or potential employers. Having a grasp on your career arc is crucial so you can give other people a sense of what you care about and what you’d like to be doing in the future.

There is power in introducing yourself on your own terms. Your story is yours to tell. Show how you’ve been able to get things done with examples from your past experiences. Tell people what you’re passionate about doing and what you’re excited about now. Frame your accomplishments in big-picture ways—launching a project, forming new partnerships, managing people, getting promoted—and offer details that show your impact. Trust that your big wins will translate, even if you’re working in a different industry than you were in the past. If people have questions, they’ll ask you for the details if you’ve captured their attention with the broad strokes of what you were able to get done. 

My please-if-you-do-one-thing-from-this-advice-column-do-this-one-thing is for you to start by describing the work you do in one sentence. Focus on the approach that you have taken and the impact that you have had in your work. A concise summary lets you lead with how you define your work, not what you think other people want to hear. It also helps you keep people’s attention without losing them in the details. Based on your process, you may start with one piece, like your title, and need to add details to get to a concrete description. Or you may find that you can describe your work in a paragraph, and need to take a few passes to boil it down to something concise. 

Your goal is to get to one sentence that clearly tells people what you do and what your approach is. I’m a magazine columnist who offers real talk with deep empathy. In another professional world, I’m a program director who identifies talent and invests in innovative media projects. You may be an event producer who designs experiences that connect people with new technology. Or a restaurateur committed to teaching people about mezcal and food deeply rooted in the Sinaloan ritual. All of these descriptions give people a place to anchor their understanding of you and how you’re approaching your work. 

Once you have a strong idea that summarizes what you do, build on it. Find a through line between your past experiences—either by way of the approach you’ve taken to your work, the impact that you’ve had, or what you’ve accomplished in those roles. Again, one sentence is great for this. You should be framing it thinking about what’s most important for people to know about how you approach work. For example, the restaurateur I mentioned has collaborated with chefs and artists at multiple restaurants, creating authentic experiences centered around regional cuisines and small-batch products. 

To craft a narrative, you’ll build on how you define your work and the arc of your career with more examples from your experience. Here are prompts that will help you unpack your work experience: 

  • How would you describe the work you do now in one sentence?  
  • Think about someone who understands what you do well or who you work with often. How would that person describe what you do? 
  • Think of a project that you are proud of. What was your role in the project? 
  • What was the impact of that project? 
  • Name one thing that you’re proud of in this role or a past role. 

Your next task is to frame your experience with a focus on what you want to be doing—whether that’s in your current position, in your work with clients, or in your next role. Based on your range of experience, there are lots of things you can do. What do you want to be doing most? Find examples from your past that show how you’re qualified to do that work. The better you are at capturing what you’re interested in now and how you’re qualified to do it based on your past work, the more likely you are to find new opportunities that fit with what you’d like to be doing. 

Your range of experience is a major asset. If you’ve had a nonlinear career, don’t discount your past because it’s not exactly the same as what you’re doing now. People change jobs all the time, and people grow within the jobs they have. Having a range of experience and responsibilities gives you valuable insights. You need to show people how it has shaped you and your approach, and how it makes you a more interesting candidate or collaborator. Think about the parts of your experience that inform how you approach your work. Find examples that show you can deliver.  

These questions can help you think through how you want to position yourself: 

  • What are you most passionate about at work? 
  • What parts of your experience are unique to you and give you a valuable perspective? 
  • What experience informs your approach? 
  • How can you show people that you can deliver? 
  • Do you need to revise how you are presenting yourself for who you are now? Or where you want to go next? 

If you’re having a hard time thinking about what you want your next accomplishment to be, start small with what you’d like to be doing right now. Track what you do at work for a week, and note which things you enjoy doing and which you would prefer not to be doing. You may need to revise how you’re presenting yourself to be more in line with the work that you’re actually doing now (as opposed to how you may have defined your work in the past), or for where you’d like to be focusing more energy in the future.

While you’re working through how to present yourself, write all of these things down. Your bio will change over time as your experience and your goals change. If you have a hard time working on it by yourself or actually making the time to do it, ask someone you trust to be your accountability buddy. Ask them to talk things through with you, to check in with you in a couple of weeks to see if you’ve written a new bio, and to read things when you need feedback. 

Like you, I’ve changed a lot over the course of my career. I’ve worked in completely different industries in a range of roles. For years, I was more comfortable rambling on about the details of the work I was doing at the moment than I was talking about myself. More than once, I felt like I missed an opportunity because I was so focused on what other people might be interested in that I didn’t give them more context about who I am. I was underselling myself in two ways: I was letting other people guide the conversation, and, worse, I thought I needed to convince people that I was hirable. 

A turning point came when I realized that I didn’t need to focus on convincing people I was capable. I needed to help people understand what it means to work with me and what I value in coworkers and collaborators. Now I focus on showing the bigger picture about how I get things done and what I’ve been able to accomplish. The reframing has been a game changer for me, and I think it will be for you too. Owning your past accomplishments and being able to give people a snapshot of what you’ve been able to do opens up more possibilities for what you can do in the future, on your terms. At this point in your career, it’s not just about showing people that you can do work. It’s about showing them how you approach things and what you want to get done.

Sending you good vibes, 

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