Act Smart!: A funny thing happened on the way to the bio

Way back when, at the end of the first installment of my series on marketing yourself, I dropped a wee hint about the importance of having a good bio written and ready, a suite of them, actually. Amazingly, I had no shortage of willing victims—er…volunteers. Right. Ready? Here we go…

Let’s start with a traditional Japanese storyteller who is super-smart and runs a fast mile. Why? Because that’s interesting!  And also, because he was first, which should count for something.

Here’s the bio that William Crowley sent me:

Coming off of a very successful acting career in Japanese traditional theatre and TV in Japan, William Crowley is now a working SAG actor in TV & Film in Hollywood. After graduating Stanford as a professional athlete, ranked 2nd in the U.S. with a 3:57 mile time, William understands what it takes to succeed in Hollywood: patience, hard work, and a belief in oneself. The Hollywood race is a marathon not a sprint. William is also able to bake 5 minute brownie mix in 3 minutes.

We don’t have any real context for William’s bio, which is my fault, really, I didn’t ask for it in my appeal for bios. Still, if William was a consulting client of mine, I’d ask him what he was trying to do with this bio: what it was for, where it would run and who would be reading it. That would help to determine certain things about tone, length, content and, of course, links.

But for our purposes, let’s look at this as a general, all-purpose, workhorse bio: the kind you’d use in a program, or start with as a base recipe when someone requested a short bio for PR purposes. With that in mind, let’s first take a look at what’s working:

1. It’s short and funny. Not that a bio must always be short and funny, but you should have at least one short bio (you’ll use it more often than a long one) and, unless you’re only going to play Ibsen and Strindberg, you should have at least one lighter version. Especially when you’re starting out, it’s good not to take yourself too seriously: you risk coming off as pompous.

2. It packs a good amount of information into a small package. In just 87 words, I know that William has been a working actor in another country, that he had some sort of status as a pro athlete, that he’s gotten his SAG card and lives in Hollywood, and that he graduated from an elite university. All of this speaks to his ambition and his work ethic; it also does that miraculous thing of getting me a little bit interested. (Give them an opener and always leave them wanting more.)

3. It’s self-effacing. The story he’s telling here is of a hard worker who followed an interesting path to (so far) successful ends. Keeping it short shows he values my time and that he has a sense of what’s appropriate. (And for the record, you almost cannot lose by understating your excellence in a bio; you can blather on longer than John Malkovich when your resume surpasses his.)

Next, some areas for improvement:

1. De-wobble-ize it. This bio is about 85% there, which is damned good. But there are some wobbly bits that weaken it in parts. Remember, any one piece of your marketing materials is serving as your gateway drug. What’s more, it may be all anyone see of you, so make it tight as a drum, with no sloppy bits.

2. In William’s bio, he mentions Japan twice in the same sentence, and Hollywood twice in the space of two sentences. “Very” is fluff; quantify it in real time (e.g., “Coming off a successful seven-year career in Japanese TV and traditional theater in Tokyo”) or just drop it.

3. Be earnest, not dull. I’ll buy the line that draws a parallel between his athletic training and understanding what it takes to make it in Hollywood – especially if William is just starting out. It’s rather charming, and a neat way of slipping in some cred. The second line, about the marathon vs. the sprint, is redundant and even a bit nonsensical as I read it: he’s positioned himself as a sprinter (running a 3:57 mile…which I couldn’t do, by the way, if I were being chased by a gang of well-armed hoodlums) in the previous sentence.

4. Style cleanup. I like how much William has packed into a small space. I’d like it better if the first two sentences didn’t mirror each other quite so closely.

Here is my (slightly) revised version:

After a successful career performing in both traditional Rakugo theater and modern TV in Japan, William Crowley is now a SAG actor working in TV and film here in Hollywood. He graduated Stanford as a professional athlete, ranking 2nd in the U.S. with a 3:57 mile time, which taught him what it takes to succeed in Hollywood: patience, hard work, and a belief in oneself. A relentless overachiever, William is also able to bake five-minute brownie mix in just under three minutes.

Subtle changes, but hopefully you can see how they help the flow and the overall confidence of tone.

Here’s another, from Ellen Clifford, who, according to her very nice email (with attachment, slightly less nice, from this writer’s perspective) was hoping to get a re-tooled version in time for a June show. June!? Maybe she meant June, 2009.

Anyway.

I’m sure you were excellent in the play, Ellen.  Your bio shows that you know what’s what:

Ellen relocated to Los Angeles after receiving her BA in theatre from Washington University in St. Louis. In her hometown she acted in many professional productions, with favorite roles including the title role in “The Woman in Black” and Ariel in “The Tempest”. She also performed with the St. Louis Osuwa taiko drummers. Her most recent LA stage credit was as Ms. Cratchit in West of Broadway’s “Mrs. Scrooge.

In addition to appearing in this production, she has been in many independent shorts, and has a lead in the webisode “3rd Triad”- check out her character’s intro at youtube.com/kendrastic4.

Spare time activities include ballet class, occasionally work as a contortionist, and imbibing copious amounts of coffee while reading big books she never got around to in school.

What’s working?

1. Her professional tone, with just a bit of well-written levity at the end.

2. Her brevity (we’ve talked at length about the virtues of brevity).

3. Her content, which gives us a sense of her accomplishments and breadth of interest.

What could use some tweaking?

1. More “Ellen”! She retreats to the third-person pronoun immediately after the introduction

2. Consistent formatting. I’ll give some folks a pass, but when you’re emailing me your thang in an attached Word doc? There’s no excuse, people!

3. Length. Even short, it’s a bit too long.

4. The URL. This is a personal thing, but they almost always look clunky to me in print, which is what this was written for. If I’m interested enough in someone to take the program home, the first thing I do is to hit the Google: no URL necessary.

Here’s my pass at it:

Ellen Clifford received her B.A. in Theatre from Washington University in St. Louis (her hometown), where she also performed professionally in a variety of productions (the title role in “The Woman in Black,” Ariel in “The Tempest”), as well as with the St. Louis Osuwa taiko drummers. Since moving to L.A., Ellen has played Ms. Cratchit in West of Broadway’s “Mrs. Scrooge,” and has been in many independent shorts, including a lead in the webisode “3rd Triad.” Spare time activities include ballet class, occasional work as a contortionist, and imbibing copious amounts of coffee while reading big books she never got around to in school.

Finally, from Amin Joseph, an actor whose star seems to be on the rise (you go, Amin!) comes this bio. Well, not this one, a previous one that he emailed to me, asking for help. I pulled this off his website:

Amin Joseph regular on the Cinemax series Zane’s Sex Chronicles as rapper Tarriq is a homegrown product of The World Famous Apollo Theatre in Harlem NYC. Amin (pronounced Amen) is a striking blend of West Caribbean and Southern American heritage. The charismatic dark-chocolate actor has a dimpled smile and chiseled body that is uncensored weekly on the new hit show Z.S.C. produced by Suzanne De Passe. Amin’s additional television credits are comprised of The Shield, Shark, and Women’s Murder Club. The exceptional actor’s film credits include the Weinstein box office thriller “The Mist” (pro. Stephen King) as MP, a no non-sense military personnel. “Rage and Discipline” (pro. Roger Corman) as Bernard, a gang related boxer avenging the molestation of his girlfriend, and “JADA” (dir. Clifton Powell) as Ross, a young deacon saved from the streets of South Central LA. Amin has a powerful presence, both on and off screen. His dedication to his craft is intense and refreshing. Superstardom is in his near future.

My take? Amin has current credits and a solid resume. I’d let them do the talking rather than trying to tell people he’s a good actor. This bio has excised it, but it seems Amin also has a background in modeling and a B.F.A. from Howard University, either would be impressive alone, but the mix of looks and smarts is too good to leave out without a specific reason, so I put them back in.

The chiseled everything is very much in evidence, and they feel a little funny on his personal website (they’d be fine on Cinemax’s). Most of the physical description is better conveyed by a photo (he has several, along with his reel), so I took them out:

Currently a regular on the Cinemax series “Zane’s Sex Chronicles” as rapper Tarriq, Amin  Joseph has also appeared on TV in “The Shield,” “Shark,” and “Women’s Murder Club.” His film work includes the Weinstein Company thriller “The Mist” (dir. Frank Darabont), “Rage and Discipline” (pro. Roger Corman), and “JADA” (dir. Clifton Powell). A striking blend of West Caribbean and Southern-American heritage, Amin (pronounced ah-MEN’) is actually a homegrown product of the world famous Apollo Theatre in Harlem.  He was so moved by the example of his mentor there (Executive Director Grace Blake), that he continued to volunteer for the Apollo’s foundation throughout his years at Howard University, where he earned his B.F.A. Since moving to L.A., Amin has become an active presence in the local performing community, and maintains a website full of resources for actors new to the industry.

Again, I took a pretty free hand to this, and Amin will probably want to go back and re-tool for specifics (and he’ll have to, since it seems he’s a workin’ fool and will be updating his resume and bio regularly). Also, this is not an all-purpose bio, it’s a good, basic foundation from which to spin off bios for different uses, depending on what he needs.

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