The other day I was invited to a dinner for non-executive directors to talk about women on boards. Even though I would much rather watch MasterChef on the television than go out and discuss this most worn-out of subjects, I said yes because I liked the person arranging it.
Before the event I had to send in a “brief bio”, so I dashed off something like: “Lucy Kellaway is a journalist at the FT, on the board of Admiral and has written various books.” It was short, to the point and based on a model favoured by Ronald Reagan. A friend told me he had seen his delightfully succinct bio at a grand do in the 1980s: “Ronald Reagan is President of the United States”.
In due course I received a list of the other guests’ bios and saw how outlandish my single sentence looked among the short essays they had submitted. I now see that there is a problem with the Reagan model: it doesn’t work quite as well if you aren’t president of the US. Indeed, the less important you are, the more words it seems you need. But looking at these bios – containing facts like “x played intercollegiate basketball three decades ago” or “y serves on the boards of 17 charities” – made me wonder about this trickiest of literary genres. How long should they be? What should they contain? It seems that the bio is trying to do two things: to say who you are and to show you are different from (and more interesting than) other people. Most overdo the first by being too long, and underdo the second. I’ve given the matter some thought and come up with eight rules for making them better.
● No bio should ever contain more than five positions or achievements.
● No one should include sentences like this: “I had responsibility for driving the success of marketing capabilities across many geographies”. Not only is it not English, no reader could care less.
● Keep the bragging down. Adjectives should be forbidden. The philosopher Roger Scruton tells us in his bio his thinking is “powerful”. Which I knew already, but him saying so makes me start to doubt it.
● Spice up success with a bit of failure. The one thing that all bios have in common is that everything everyone has done is always a great achievement. To admit to difficulty can make you braver, more interesting and more open. So Howard Davies might consider amending his bio to say that he resigned from the London School of Economics in tricky circumstances involving the Gaddafi regime. It would be a lot more revealing than telling us, say, that he is an honorary fellow of Merton College.
● Honorary degrees have no place on bios, and neither do awards. Surely Jeff Immelt doesn’t need to tell us he has been voted among Barron’s “worlds best CEOs” three times? To do so is coarse, and an invitation to the GE chief to fall on his face. (I’m uncomfortably aware that a couple of ageing and piffling awards are mentioned on my own page on ft.com. There is no excuse.)
● A little personal detail is quite acceptable especially if it sounds exotic. The trouble is bios routinely pretend home life is blandly blissful – “x has one, perfect, daughter”, says the bio of one top businesswoman; another reads: “Married with three children and spends most of her time outside work on various sporting touchlines!”
One man I know includes on his bio: “Married, two children.” It would have been so much more interesting had he told a fuller truth: Married for the fourth time; one child each by wives #1 and #3.
● Hobbies are perfectly acceptable. In the bios I’ve been studying I’ve found “likely to be found with her nose in a book” and “enjoys extreme gardening, reckless skiing and grouse shooting”. These are useful as they tell me who I might like to meet – and who I might not.
● Most cringe-making of all is to say you are “in demand on the speaker circuit” or “make regular appearances on radio and TV”. Such claims are ubiquitous and flabby.
My favourite bio, after Reagan’s, comes from a conference my husband has just attended. It begins: “Thomas Kremer was born in Transylvania. He survived the concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen.” It briefly lists some of the businesses he has started and ends: “Thomas Kremer and his wife, Lady Alison, live in a minor Elizabethan manor house …”
I like this but it gives me a depressing thought. Maybe bios are dull and predictable because the lives of successful business people are mostly dull and predictable too – concentration-camp survivors and aristocratic wives being rather thin on the ground.
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