Bio Writing and Visibility As a Leader:
How to talk about yourself without sounding arrogant with Writing Coach June Morrow
It’s not arrogant to talk (or write) about yourself in a way that shows the value you bring to the world.
June Morrow helps service-based entrepreneurs, leaders, and others find the words that describe their worth with bio writing, website writing, elevator pitches, and custom content marketing strategies. A former journalist and award-winning public speaker, she’s had her own story of personal transformation viewed over 1 million times on social media.
More about June at https://junemorrow.com
Read the Interview Transcript
Hugh Ballou: Greetings, everyone. I bet you’re a nonprofit leader or clergy, and you just want to talk about what it is you do, but you don’t know how to get your head around it without thinking you’re boastful, arrogant, and toting your own horn. Our guest today is going to give you some concrete things to think about. You do important stuff, and you’re the leader, so it’s important to get the language that lets people know why they want to connect with you, why they should bother looking at what you’re doing, and why they can get their passion fulfilled by working in the project that you champion.
Our guest today is June Morrow. She has lots of really good gifts in lots of areas. June, tell people a little bit about yourself. Who is the person? Why do you focus on biography writing?
June: I am a content strategist. That means someone who helps you with your emails, blog posts, social media posts, and helps them align with your organizational goals. I am also a copywriter and a former journalist. When I was a journalist, my bread and butter was profiles of people. I wrote in arts and entertainment. Moving on from journalism, I worked in corporate communications for the Ontario government here in Canada, where I am. What I did there was write profiles of public servants who otherwise wouldn’t get the publicity and credibility they deserved for doing great work and making a difference. I loved that.
When I went out on my own as a content strategist, and thought about things I could help people with, one thing was bio writing. I had one friend come to me, “I need a bio. I don’t know what to say.” I did her bio, and I thought it was so fun. You get to interview people, learn more about them, and share what is unique about them and what is relevant to audiences, which is what I love doing. I love matching what’s unique with what’s relevant and spreading the word. Bio writing is a natural fit for the different things I do.
Hugh: Every time I talk to you, you have such enthusiasm about the mission and the work you do. A content strategist. I’m a leadership strategist. It’s about creating a strategy around the topic. We want to be a leader, but first we have to understand what leader means. I teach strategy, but do you think I can write my own strategy? No. There is this thing about being too close to what we do to be objective or to understand what we need to tell people. When you start working with someone, is it better to have a knowledge of what they do, or is it better to start with no knowledge?
June: I will start with what they have put out there so far, but I find that’s not usually the whole picture. If I am doing content strategy or writing their bio or website, we go through a long interview process, where I ask them all about them, but also about who their audience is, what their mission is, what drives them, what is in their heart for what they do. From these, you can start to see what differentiates them from other people. Their essence starts coming out, for lack of a better word. I’ll look at what people already have, but that is usually a fraction of the magnificence of who they are.
Hugh: My expertise is in leadership and leadership development. It’s not about writing about myself. You can say that about most people you work with, I’m sure. They have high-level skills, but they don’t know how to write this piece. A large part of our audience is nonprofit leaders and clergy. Why is it important for them to have a bio? It’s not about them.
June: Exactly. That’s why it’s important for them to have a bio. When people go to your website, whether that’s your church or nonprofit’s website, after the home page, the second most read page on most websites is the About page. Who is this about? Who is behind this? Who are the people running this? We all know people have limited resources, and they have a lot of choices for where they spend those resources, whether it’s donation, time, volunteering, or being part of a community. They want to know before they even take that first step: is this someone I can trust? Is this someone I would want on my team? Is this someone whose values align with my values? What your bio does on your About page, even if it’s an About page for your organization, is it builds a bridge. It’s that online handshake that says, “Hi, this is who I am.” It gives them a sense of if they’re a good fit for working with you or being a part of your organization.
Hugh: We want people to volunteer. We want people to be on our boards and committees. We want donors. We want corporate partners, among other things. Does one bio work for all of that?
June: One bio will. It’s not going to sell you. It’s not going to be like, “I read your bio, and now I’m in.” Maybe for some people, it will, depending on their level of commitment. Some people will be like, “I read your bio, and I had to meet you.” But it’s a step. It’s an open door. “Hey, here’s a peek at what we’re about.” It works in conjunction with your other marketing that you do.
Hugh: Marketing is a topic we’re not very good at, but we won’t get into that deep dive today. In order to do marketing, you have to have some narrative that’s important. Leadership is about relationship. It’s important that people know who we are. We’ve got a bio on the About section on our website. We’ve got a bio on LinkedIn. We’ve got a very short bio on Twitter and Facebook. In my thinking, all of those are slightly different. Can you give us an idea of what’s different? Or are they the same?
June: I look at it as most people need three bios. You need the longer form, a couple of paragraphs for the About page. That can be repurposed for your LinkedIn summary. Then you have what’s known as a boilerplate bio. That’s one paragraph. That’s something that can be used when people are introducing you as a guest speaker, if you’re guest writing for them. That is the bio that is an introductory bio. Then you have the one sentence, unique value proposition. That is the bio you can use to introduce yourself. You can repurpose that as your bio for your social media description. There are three different levels. They are all the same but can be stated differently. They all follow from your larger bio. It all starts with knowing who you’re speaking to.
Hugh: Let’s pick one: LinkedIn. I have seen a lot of really funky bios. When I read them, I still don’t know who that person is or what they do. What are some of the big sins or mistakes people make in a bio?
June: Some of the things people do is they keep it too much like a resume. It’s just a list of “I went to school here. I worked here. Then I did this. Then I got involved here. Then this was my role.” It’s a straight-up chronology. You want to have highlights of your experience and what your credentials are. But you also want to give people a taste of who you are. What is your personality? What are your values? Is there a snippet of a story that can put a visual in people’s heads that describes who you are and what you stand for? It doesn’t have to be a lot. Bio writing is a mix of telling and showing, and that is where the art comes from. That is one mistake people frequently make.
Another thing is people are sometimes too vague. They are afraid to say anything, so they keep it really broad. You still don’t have a sense of who they are.
Hugh: You said to let your personality come through. How do you do that?
June: You do that through storytelling. It doesn’t have to be a long story; it can be a short story. Hugh, your background is you conducted orchestras. Using that, maybe you use that experience as a metaphor for what you do now. How to lead people through orchestras. It’s bringing people to a moment in your life that exemplifies the things you stand for.
When I work with people on their bios, one thing I ask them to do is think of their top five values in life. Think of times that really showed those values. You don’t pick all of them. You might pick a little bit of one. It’s about painting a picture, giving an example.
Let me think of an example. If it’s somebody who’s a pastor, maybe their example is, “My earliest memory is getting up in church and saying something, and I knew then that I was destined for the pulpit.” It’s like giving those snippets of life, and it’s sprinkled in there for flavor. It gives people an idea of who you are.
If you have a unique belief, or if you have something that you stand for that is different from what other people stand for, you can always put that in. “I believe that people are more important than profits.” That might be a common one. That can help people give a sense of what you’re about.
Hugh: I’ve never thought about some of those things. I’m not going to tell you my opinion on this. But when people put in, “Married to my wife Jill for 37 years, two children named Tim and Sammy, and a dog and cat named Choochoo and PopPop.” Is that too extreme? Do people care about that stuff?
June: Yeah, they do. If family is a value to you, if that’s one of your core values, and you want people who have similar values coming to you, then that is something you might put in. I like that you included the names of the pets because that is really amusing. Why did you name your dog that? You’ll remember those things. Little things.
Hugh: I’m not always responsible for what came out of my mouth.
June: You don’t have to put that in if that’s not something that’s going to be important to your audience. It all depends on who you’re dealing with. If you are working with inner city kids, and you want inner city kids to be a part of your program, you won’t put that you’re married with a spouse. That’s irrelevant to them. Who are you speaking to? What’s relevant?
Hugh: There is a humble spirit of people who are in the nonprofit sector, which is a bad word. It’s social benefit, for purpose, tax-exempt company. It’s service-oriented. We serve other people, and we help people do things they can’t do for themselves. All of that together, people in that demeanor say, “I don’t want to talk about myself. I’m not important.” How do you have that conversation that yes, you are important, and people need to know who you are? How do we as nonprofit leaders rethink that paradigm?
June: Yeah. I think it goes back to the not taking time for self-care. Put other people before you. To have that conversation, it’s really thinking about building a bridge. Your bio is a service. It’s a service to your organization, the things you believe in, the change you want to make in the world. It’s thinking of that as a way to start a conversation, as a way to build a bridge, to get people to take that first step to know, like, and trust you. It’s about yourself, yes. It’s about the value that you’ve created in this world and evidence you can continue to create that value. Beyond that, why do we care about that? We want people to trust us. We’re doing something important. It’s reframing it from being about, “Hey, this is why I’m so great. Here’s the great stuff I did” to really, it’s a service you do for your organization.
Hugh: Yes. We are leading that charge. As a transformational leader, the difference between a servant leader and transformational leaders, although they are in the same space, is the transformational leader is the cheerleader. We are not always behind the scenes. It’s like a conductor. We don’t play the music, but the music happens because the orchestra follows. It’s not just the beat. It’s the presence of influencing people. I translate that into the boardroom. It’s our position of influence that enables people to raise the bar. We are defining ourselves as an influencer in this bio. How do we do that? We subtitled this interview “How to talk about yourself without sounding arrogant.” That is a big deal. Give us some tips about reframing our thinking. What are some of the tactical things we should consider?
June: Think of the value that you have created for others. Then it’s not necessarily about you. It’s about what you’ve done for others. Thinking of the highlights of your life. What difference have you made with the things that you’ve done? This isn’t about you. Think about it from the perspective of the audiences, the outcomes. Not necessarily that it’s you. You did do this. But it’s thinking in terms of what were the changes that happened as a result of you being involved or taking leadership on something in the past? Think of it in terms of storytelling.
One way to do this is to ask other people. This is one reason you might hire someone to do your bio because they can give you that objective feedback. Sometimes we don’t see the things that we’ve done. We don’t recognize our own strengths. Another way to do it is to ask the people closest to you, colleagues and people you have worked with. What are my strengths? Is there a time you have really seen me exemplify these strengths? It’s also really looking at it as a service that you’re doing by describing what you’re doing. You’re a door. People come through you when you’re influencing them. It’s just thinking about how this is how your story is opening a door.
Hugh: Your choice of words is fascinating. It’s giving me a reboot on the process thinking, which is what our guests do here. I learn as much as everybody else when I interview our guests. You do this all the time and have honed in on a niche. People think, “I can write it myself.” What is a paradigm shift? You have given us a lot of sound bites here, a lot of things to think about.
Where do you start? You have all these things you’re thinking about. How do you sort out all you want to say? You’re approaching it from the fact that as a leader, here are the results of my leadership. Is that the context you were suggesting? How do you take all this stuff you want to say and put it in a concise form that people actually want to read?
June: I lead people through a process, which I can share with you. You want to list who you want to speak to. Who is the big audience? For some of you, there will be multiple audiences. You want corporate and volunteers, which are two very different audiences. Thinking about the vision and the purpose behind what you do. Think of your audience. What is your purpose?
What are your credentials? Experience, education, accolades.
What are your values? Where have those values been in action in terms of the difference and outcomes you’ve made? Any unique beliefs?
Any other facts that would demonstrate who you are as a person. You list of all those in a big brain dump of each area.
Then you look at who is my audience? What is the purpose? And you rank them, according to your purpose and audience, which of them exemplifies those the most. The highest-ranking ones will go first. That is the process of editing. In journalism, it’s like what is my lead? What do I lead with? What is most interesting and relevant to my audience? That’s what goes first.
Hugh: Let’s take these pieces one at a time. All the academic credentials, accomplishments, accolades. I have a lot of people say, “I don’t want to talk about that. It’s not important.” But that’s a credibility piece. How do you sort that out?
June: It’s about your authority. Obviously, you’re not going to include everything. Again, it’s not a resume. You’re looking at what’s relevant to your audience. What will help them trust you? What will convey the message of your organization the best? What will reflect the purpose, your why? It’s bringing those three things together.
Hugh: Here are my credentials. People want to know why are you qualified to do this? They don’t ask you. They don’t know to ask you, but they’re thinking it, right?
Hugh: They won’t go any further if you don’t have that credibility.
You can find June at JuneMorrow.com. What will people find when they go there?
June: You can check out my blogs. It’s a description of what I do. I also have a freebie for how to craft an irresistible elevator pitch. It’s not like a sales thing; it’s how you introduce yourself in networking or at a new place. It’s like, “I’m so-and-so, and this is the difference I make with so-and-so.” There is a free training on that. On my blog, I have different tips every week on how to communicate better with your audience.
Hugh: Love it. Useful stuff. I hear in a lot of networking really bad elevator pitches.
June: No doubt.
Hugh: Way too long, way too much data. I got out of a play in London with a friend and asked him what he thought. He said, “I have a problem with the ending.” I asked him what he meant. He said, “It was too far from the beginning.” People forget what you started with when you go on too long. It’s the short snap bio about you. How long should an elevator pitch be?
June: You want to be under a minute. It depends how interesting it is. If you can keep people’s attention with your elevator pitch… Ideally, you want it to be, “Hi, my name is June Morrow. I help service-based individuals and leaders with their bios and content strategy so they can reach more of the people they want to reach.” It should be about that. It doesn’t have to be that.
There are three different types of pitches you can do. You can do that pitch, which is a unique value proposition. You can also do the question pitch. “Have you ever wondered why?” or, “Are you familiar with?” “That’s what I do, except for this audience.” Or you can do a unique pitch, which is completely off the wall. Very few people can get away with this, but when you do, people remember it. It rhymes, or it’s a sing-song.
Hugh: June helps people craft their content to attract who you actually want to attract instead of repelling them. A lot of times what we write pushes people away. We’re totally blind to that because we’re not reading it. But the first part of your bio should be your credibility. What is the next part you went to?
June: That’s not necessarily the first part. Your credentials should be the second part. It might be an interesting story that starts it off. You have your credentials. Your purpose.
Hugh: Give me an example.
June: Start with your why. Hugh, why do you do what you do?
Hugh: I see a lot of nonprofit leaders with great skills, great programs really suffer in not being able to fulfill their mission. I know I can give them the links they need to be able to be successful.
June: You might start with something like that. “From my position, I see a lot of people suffering from this, and I know things can be different.” Your why might be a personal why. You’ve been through something. Maybe you have a personal mission based on your own personal experience. You’ve had a transformative experience that can be powerful. I know what people are going through.
You always start with what is it that is driving you? For me, it’s connection. I want people to connect. We’re too isolated in this world. We’re so separated by online and technology. There are ways we can come together and work together better. For me, communication is the first step to connection. Everyone will have a different why. Start with your why. Think about what it is that is important to you.
Then you have your credentials, which is your experience, education, and training. Both of those can be formal or informal. You can have achieved something as a volunteer. You could have learned a lot mentoring under someone in your field. Then you have accolades, which are things like you have written a book, you have appeared on CNN, you have done a TED Talk, those things.
Then your values and your beliefs. Those go together. That is looking at what matters to you personally in life. If you are part of an organization, what matters to your organization. How does your life reflect that? Are there examples in your life?
Here is an example of them. Someone I work with, she values the environment. That is really important to her with what her business does. Also, she wanted to show she is hard-working because she likes to work with people who are hard-working. In one sentence, “Jennifer is a vegan who has trained for three ultra-marathons.” You get a sense of she is very disciplined and hard-working to run an ultra-marathon. Rather than saying, “I’m hard-working,” you can say that you’ve done this.
Hugh: Don’t mess with this woman. She’s hearty.
June: I got exhausted just writing her bio.
Hugh: That’s quite amazing. We want to think about what we want people on the other side to see about us that is relevant to what is coming up. We hold a conversation. When you write it, you should read it. Should you have other people read it? Should you read it out loud to people? How do you test it out?
June: The best way to test it out is to float it by some people who are in your target audience and ask them what they think. If you can’t do it, or even if you do do that, another good thing to do- You should test it out. You should get different people to read it. Maybe not the person closest to you, like your spouse or close partner. They will have a different perspective of you than your professional colleagues. They may not even understand the audience thing. But one thing you can do, when you get anybody to read something, is ask them, “At any point, did you find your eyes glazing over? Was there a sentence where your mind drifted?” That is the sense where you need to change things a little so they are more interesting.
Hugh: My suggestion to people is befriend a middle schooler and read it to them. How long is this going to take? They are not known for patience, but they can give you back something concrete. I don’t know what the median education level out there is. When I wrote my first book for a publishing company, they told me to write it at a seventh-grade level. Sometimes I want to use too many big words, and it sounds pompous. Then it’s a barrier for some people.
June: That can be a barrier. Again, it depends on who your market is. If you’re writing for a market of geologists, for example, I’m not sure why, but say that is your audience. Or people who are highly technical. You can speak in their language. But if you are writing for a broad public audience, you will have to write at a lower level and avoid those multi-syllabic words. You don’t have to use multi-syllabic words to get people impressed by you.
I will say this. On LinkedIn for example, your bio/summary should be in first person. It shouldn’t be “Hugh;” it should be “I.” If you are writing your own bio, you want your bio to sound like you. If you are a multi-syllabic person who talks in sentences that are filled with big words, then you want to have some of that in there so people aren’t completely shocked. You don’t want to take on the tone of someone who isn’t you. But you still want to be professional. It’s so unique to each person and what their bio is, for how much of the personality, professionalism, what the balance is going to be.
Hugh: That’s a lot of helpful information. What I am discovering is many of these things are things we don’t ever- Us who aren’t professional writers, we’re leaders. We don’t think about these paradigms. It’s difficult to make things simple.
June: It is. There is a famous quote like, “Writing is like one hour of writing and four hours of editing.”
June: That’s not a famous quote. That is a quote I just made up. But there is a quote that has that same meaning somewhere.
Hugh: There are ratios like that. For a conductor, every hour of rehearsal is two to three hours of planning. I use the same paradigm for planning meetings. I teach people how to do meetings because I am tired of boring, unproductive meetings. I teach meetings in a profound way like a rehearsal. We have to be willing to pay the cost to create the right result.
June: Unless you are a natural writer, and some people are, or a natural editor, I would say, so much of it is in the editing, the deciding what to include and what not to include.
Hugh: I hear people use buzz words that are the words you hear all around. When I created SynerVision, people said, “Don’t use synergy. People overuse that word.” But SynerVision is unique. It’s the synergy of the common vision. It’s the culture of an orchestra that’s an ensemble. This is the non-musical version of the ensemble. I ignored that. Sometimes you want to get feedback from people on if there are words that are overused, or are there words that don’t have the impact you want?
Of course, people could engage you. On JuneMorrow.com, they could figure out how to do that. But it’s sorting out getting to you. If we come with more developed ideas, I assume you could do a better job of helping us.
June: Off the top of my head, I can’t say what the current corporate jargon du jour is. But I think what’s important is you can use any word so long as it makes sense, so long as people can visualize in their head what that word means. “I enable architects for synergistic organizations.” What does that even mean? This is something I find people who have MBAs can get a little bit into the corporate speak. It’s important if you are using those jargony words, flesh out what that means.
Hugh: Like abbreviations, insider language.
June: Acronyms. Watch for acronyms. That’s a common one. I was doing an accountant’s bio, and she said, “I did the APAR.” What does that mean? Accounts payable, accounts receivable. But you wouldn’t know that unless you’re a CPA, which is a certified professional accountant. When you have acronyms, even in your credentials, if people wouldn’t know what they mean, then spell them out. People know what an MBA means, so you don’t need to spell that out. Maybe you have an unusual degree, so you would spell that out, a Masters or Bachelors or diploma of whatever it is. Be wary of speaking your language as opposed to the people you are talking to.
Hugh: June, you have given us an incredible amount to think about, a large amount of information to reframe our thinking. In a very short period of time, you have the ability to get to the essence of what needs to be said and communicate it very succinctly. I might be sending you my bio. We write a bio. Being in conducting, I had guest artists come. They would send me a picture that was 30 years old and a bio that was just as old. I’d rather show up with a current picture and look better than asking who that is. How often should we revisit it and rewrite it?
June: My rule of thumb is whenever you get new headshots, or you change direction, or you step up a level in your career. There is some movement in your career, and things have changed. That is when you want to rewrite your bio.
Hugh: Just being aware that you have changed something and you might need to go back and revisit it. When I am being introduced as a speaker, they will read something, and I go, “Dang, I need to change that.”
Hugh: There is the downloaded version of the speaker introduction. There is the About page and other places. This has been helpful in sorting out how we identify ourselves and let people know who we are so that when we get together, we can start talking about the topic. They already know who we are. Or we can ask who they are.
June@JuneMorrow.com is her email. You can find her website at JuneMorrow.com. The whole world will email you a sample bio.
June, thank you for sharing your wisdom today and showing us a better future in writing about ourselves, not being arrogant, and not worrying about it.