I’ve been a writer all my life; I’ve been writing professionally for over 20 years.
I’ve written almost every kind of product you can write. Some have been my ideas, some have been written for fun, and some have been written for huge brands or senior organization officials.
There’s only one kind of writing that scares me: anything about myself.
I hate writing my own bios. Personal essays are my kryptonite. Journaling? Too introspective.
When it comes to building a brand, I can help any individual or organization find their way. But when it comes to my own brand? Well, that’s a horse of a different color.
Buckle up, campers. Together we’re going to figure out how to tell our own stories professionally.
Here’s a scenario: You’re in a group event of some kind and the facilitator asks you all to go around the room and introduce yourself with your name, a brief background, and one of those funny icebreaker things (like something no one else knows about you).
Or do you:
I fall into the second group far too often.
Telling our own story is hard, and that’s because we’re too close to it.
It’s easy to step back and look at someone else’s story. When you write for a brand, even if it’s a brand you care deeply about, you can still maintain some objectivity. You know all the steps and processes and points to cover.
Why is it so difficult to do the same thing when it’s our own story?
Because with your own story, you open yourself up for review — to criticisms and comments, and in today’s world, those things are frequently not good. It’s hard to tell your own story because it’s scary. Your story doesn’t have to be intense or dramatic — you may simply be trying to get clients for your freelance business and all you have to talk about is your professional story.
What if the editor you’re pitching to doesn’t appreciate the fact that you’ve written for other big name publications? What if the CEO doesn’t care that you single-handedly launched a major new brand? What if the Communications VP doesn’t understand that you are the only reason this influencer’s Instagram feed is so good?
These fears all boil down to one thing: What if they don’t like me?
Tell your own story and it opens you up to personal critique; when your professional and personal stories cross, it feels risky to open up.
Sometimes it all feels like we’re back in high school. As creatives, our sense of worth is tied up in what other people think about us.
In many ways, that has to be a fair assessment, because the only way our products — whether they’re copy, novels, screenplays, articles, or blog/social media posts — succeed is if people have a visceral reaction to what we’re writing.
As professional writers, our job is to get someone to believe in and act on what we’ve created. When they don’t, it doesn’t feel good.
It means that when we’re telling our own story, we lose any of the perspective we might have when we’re telling someone else’s. That can create a cycle by which the act of writing starts to feel stressful.
The thing is, that’s never going to change.
Part of the issue is that society sees writers as “artists,” not professionals. (Raise your hand if anyone in your extended family actually knows what it is you do as a freelance or professional writer.)
Often, writers buy into the idea that writing is only creative work, even when we’re getting paid to do it. And because we have the trope of the starving artist or the absent-minded, hapless writer stuck in our heads, treating writing as a professional endeavor can be difficult.
You know the process, though — it’s the one you use working for someone else.
You’ve created brand stories for clients, so you know what to do. The trick to writing your own story is to treat yourself as a client. When you’re going to work for a client, there are four things you ask them (or help them discover) that create the foundation of their brand.
These are the same four things you need to know to tell your story: why you do what you do, who your audience is, your end goal, and who you are.
It’s harder to go through this foundational process when it’s for ourselves, though. Especially if you’re just starting out as a freelancer or professional writer (and by starting out, I mean anything under two or three years), you may still be developing these critical pieces of knowledge.
And that’s okay. Coca-Cola and Google and Ikea didn’t become the brands they are in a year’s time. Or three. You don’t have to either.
But just like with a client’s brand, these four things are your starting point.
What’s the foundation of your story, and why are you telling it? Just as you would for a client, you need your own “why.” Your purpose is the foundation of your work — it’s the reason you get up and turn on the computer and get shit done. It’s different than a goal; the “why” is the driving force behind the goal.
Develop a vision statement or a manifesto that outlines your principles and your purpose for your professional life, or if that feels too touchy-feely for you, think of it as part of your business plan and make it the mission statement for your company.
Every audience you tell your story to will be a little different. There’s the high school journalism class you’re talking to for career day and the startup CEO you hope hires you and the connection that can introduce you to the local business collective.
To tell the best story, you need to know who you’re telling it to. Maybe you can quote Gilmore Girls and lyrics from 80s songs, or maybe you need to know the jargon and be uber professional.
Think about who you want to reach and where they are. Create an avatar and write down everything you can think of for that ideal person — their backstory, where they hang out, and what kind of building they live in. Think of as many details as you can. If you have published work already, you can look at the stats to see who your writing resonates with to get an idea of who your current audience is, and then you can grow from there or shift your writing to reach a new audience.
What do you want to obtain or achieve by telling your story? Your story will be shaped by your goal.
For example, if you want to pitch a story to a dream publication, your story needs to focus on your pitch and how you are the best person to write that article. Or if you’re working on landing a new client, your story should focus on your expertise and skills.
Who are you? You would advise a client that to create a strong brand, they need to know who they are, and then they need to be true to that brand.
To create your own authentic content, you need to know your own brand.
Are you a jack- or jill-of-all-trades? Do you only write perfectly optimized content for corporate websites? Can you crank out 500-word blog posts in under an hour?
As a professional writer, I know that sometimes the easy answer to these four foundational questions go like this:
My “why”? Because I need a gig.
My audience? Someone who will give me a gig.
My goal? Um, a gig. See answer #1.
My brand? Anything that will get me a gig.
If you’re bootstrapping your way into a business, those answers may get you through the first six months or maybe even a year. But if you’re serious about being a professional, then answering these questions are only the start. Next, you’re going to have to actually tell your story.
I had coffee with someone who is more or less doing what I want to do. We’d never met before, and before she went back to doing the awesome work she does, she provided some of the best advice/tough love I’ve ever received from a total stranger.
I handed her my business card. Now, my business card is cute as hell. She looked at it and said, “Oh, that’s adorable.”
Then she said, “Adorable isn’t going to get you business.”
Well, frak. I knew that, actually. But in my old world of government office jobs, I didn’t need a great business card (or a website or a really great elevator speech) to hustle up new clients. Out here in the entrepreneurial world of professional writing, those things are absolutely critical.
Once you’ve started the foundational work of building your own brand, there are four concrete steps you need to take to put your brand into action and tell your own story.
If you’re going to write professionally — full time or as a side hustle — and be serious about it, you’ve got to be serious about it. Commit to it. Put a ring on it and get yourself these four things.
The most terrifying words in the English language are: Tell me about yourself.
Especially if you haven’t had time to prep an answer (or is that just for my fellow introverts in the crowd?). So, prep an answer now. Put together an elevator speech that answers that question.
Or speeches, rather.
You need to be able to answer the “tell me about yourself” question, but you also need to pitch yourself for a specific project or network or job. And you need to confine each answer to about 30 seconds.
Include what kind of gig you’re looking for, what you write about, what your background or experience is, and what you want to do.
It’s a lot, yes. Which is why you need to have a few different versions so that you can use the most appropriate one.
Write it out, time it, and practice it.
If you want to have some fun with your practice, find a wingman to “Have you met Ted?” you at a no-pressure networking happy hour. It’s going to feel weird at first, but the more you practice, the better you’ll get.
I’ve actually written bios where I noted I was great at writing everything except a bio.
Sometimes your bio is going to be constrained by publication or event guidelines, but even then you need to make it you. You may need different bios for different purposes: the magazine you have a story in, the conference at which you’re speaking, for guest posts on other blogs, or for your own website.
People do actually read bios, so take your elevator pitch and put it in written form. Let your personality shine through (but, remember, cute only gets you so far) and speak to the specific audience reading the publication.
For example, if your goal is to write about food, then say that in your bio. Don’t only talk about your experience that has nothing to do with food writing.
Also, let your bio be confident and proactive. It’s not a resume. You may not feel like a “successful” professional writer because you’ve only published three pieces, but in a bio, there’s no time to downplay your qualifications. Own what you want to do and who you are.
No, really. You need a website in order to tell your story to people. It doesn’t have to be flashy, expensive, or extensive. But you need a professional home online where people can find you, learn about you, and contact you.
A website is a physical (well, virtual) manifestation of who you are and what you do. It tells your story for you.
There are free and inexpensive web hosting services. If you feel comfortable doing the work yourself, that’s great. You don’t need to hire a web designer, but if you’re more comfortable with that, there are inexpensive options.
It’s worse to have a bad website than no website, so if you’re going to build a site for yourself, take it seriously and make it functional and findable. It doesn’t have to be extensive. You need an About page, a Contact page, a page that outlines your services or explains how to hire you, and a portfolio page that showcases past work.
Again, think of what you would advise your clients to do. Then do it for yourself.
In the Victorian era, high-society people had calling cards that they left with the butler when they visited someone’s home. Today, we have business cards, but we also have social media.
Whether it’s electronic or paper, you need something that provides information on who you are and how to contact you. It could be a business card or your Twitter profile, but you should make your contact details clear.
For professional writers, telling stories is what we do. But telling our own story is a lot more difficult.
However, in order to be the best professional writers we can be, it’s a skill we need to develop. Learning how to tell your own story means strengthening your own brand, and that can translate into more or better writing gigs, or even your dream writing job.
Remember these things:
No matter where you tell your own story, you’ll find a whole new world opening up to you.
Sarah Ramsey holds a master’s in Science, Technology and Public Policy, and has spent the last 17 years working for space-focused organizations like NASA. She wishes she could write space-based, because if she could live anywhere else, Mars would be it. She has written for senior government officials, scientists, and engineers, translating technobabble into English, and creating content and messaging for the best government agency on the planet. She decided to escape the cubicle lifestyle and pursue the other 30 or so things she’s interested in, including more writing for fun.