Act Smart!: Special-case bios

In my series on marketing yourself, I established the necessity of having a killer bio (or two, or six) on hand. Last month, we looked at bios from three young-ish actors who have interesting credits and saw what they could possibly do to buff out their mini-histories. This month, we’ll look at some special-case bios.

This month’s example comes from Abe Mendel. I really enjoyed this bio!

Abe grew up on a dairy farm milking cows, riding horses,and speaking German, joined the U.S. Navy at 17 to age 21, sold radio advertising as well as lived overseas for 14 years. Married to the same woman for 40 years with two children and seven grandchildren. He has many special skills, two foreign languages,good health( can hold his water on the set)and has a current passport.

Abe is a full time actor credited in films,TV ,commercials, Off-Off Broadway plays, voice over, teleprompter,& live promos. Credits include Borat with Sacha Baron Cohen, Showtime promo with Kim Cantrell, P. I. Ron Dinkelman in French film/game In Memoriam, KKK Recruiter,Randall Monahan in the play Conversation with a Kleagle, Singer/Dancer for Orange Communications, Voice of animated Tex for CourtTV, Stand-In for Philip Seymour Hoffman and more.

He is a member of AFTRA & SAGand credited on IMDB as well.

One of the fantastic things about acting as a career is that given a reasonable amount of talent, will and good health, you can jump in at any age. I’ve worked with quite a few wonderful actors who came late to the game but have lots of other real-life credits to their name.

Abe has a lot of fun material to work with, and some interesting credits for someone relatively new to the profession. Since his bio clearly indicates that he’s spent the bulk of his life racking up accomplishments outside of acting, and because they’re particularly interesting, I’d suggest leading with them (as he does) and tightening up the rest, thusly:

Abe grew up on a dairy farm milking cows, riding horses and speaking German, leaving at age 17 to join the U.S. Navy. After a successful lifetime of selling radio advertising (and building a large family with his wife of 40 years), Abe now works full-time as an actor in everything from film and TV to off-off-Broadway plays (and commercials, of course). Favorite credits include Borat with Sacha Baron Cohen, the voice of animated “Tex” for CourtTV, and (yes, really) stand-in for the amazing Philip Seymour Hoffman.

My rationale for the changes? Let’s look at them, one by one, and see what we can illuminate:

Shortening up personal stuff:

  • Your info is there to entertain, not to talk about you. While the particulars of Abe’s family life are interesting, they’re mainly interesting to Abe. I actually hesitated before tossing the kids and grandkids, but the “40” was more impressive than the number of progeny, and we want to keep this part tight. Just enough to keep them interested in you and wanting to know more: that’s what to aim for.
  • The “many special skills” is mushy and vague. It’s better to be specific with one or two items, like speaking German and riding horses, and leave out the rest. We get a great feel for the many possible talents of Abe from the way he lists these particular skills (cleverly disguised as biography, way to write it, Abe!).
  • Don’t look needy! I get why he has the health/passport bit in there, and appreciate the humorous way in which the “water” thing is written. But both of the mentions come off a little like, “Oh, please hire me! I can work, I swear!” The passport belongs on a résumé as a line item, and the health thing is better broached elsewhere, by someone else. If Abe had a way of showing, not telling that he’s super healthy – mentioning that he is still an active skydiver and krav maga instructor, for instance – that would be great, although I’d probably take out another piece of personal data so the bio doesn’t get overly long.

Credits and techical stuff:

  • Trim, trim, trim! Unless you have KILLER credits, exercise reserve and list just the very best, especially when starting out. Abe’s list is far more interesting as an eclectic, conversation-starting mix than as a laundry list of everything Abe has done. (For the record, 99% of the bios I’ve received since I started asking my readers for them are TOO LONG.)
  • Think hard about your most impressive credits. I know – they’re all impressive. But in this case, Borat (a huge film) and Court TV (a recognizable brand) showed the most heft. I don’t know who Orange Communications is, and, most likely, neither will a reader. While that credit is impressive for Abe’s singing/dancing skills (!), something has got to give. Unless you’re looking to market yourself as a diversely trained performer – which can be a good option if you’re exceptionally diverse and good at those things – I’d stick with the biggest guns you’ve got.
  • Alphabet soup can be tricky. You can make an argument for having acronyms like SAG and AFTRA in your bio, especially if your credits make it look like you’re really fresh off the turnip truck. Personally, I’d leave them to the résumé. Having an IMDb profile just isn’t a big enough deal to mention, unless you’ve got a big one, and then you don’t have to!
  • Vet for errors! Yes, I’m a picky Virgo writer with a great editor. But just like leaving money on the table – something I’m sure that as a successful ad guy, Abe would never do – it’s crazy-times leaving fixable errors in your written communications. Abe’s bio had a whole clutch of words with no spaces between them, and unless there is a Kim “Cantrell” with a Showtime promo who’s keeping a super-low profile, one egregious misspelling. (Hint: always triple-check names, even if you’re certain you’re right.)
  • Formatting This is another picky-Virgo thing, but when you send out your stuff, please check to see that the paragraph and line breaks that worked in your word processor have been preserved. You can see from the “before” bio that the paragraphs mash up under one another, and that there’s an unnecessary line break between “has” and “a current passport” in the last sentence of the first paragraph. Programs like Word are notorious for ganking things up with their unnecessary, behind-the-scenes code. Always check after you cut and paste to make sure things still look the same; don’t trust the designer (for a theater program) to do it: they’re not all picky Virgos, and most are overworked volunteers.

Hopefully, this little breakdown will help you see how you can make your own bio better from the ground up. We’re going to move on to a new topic next month – I’m afraid I may have already turned off great swathes of my readership with this one – but I may try to do a little revision from time to time as an added bonus to the column.

And as always, I welcome your feedback – rants and raves alike!

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Bios are just one small part of your communications package. If you’re looking to sharpen up the whole kit and caboodle, why not sign up for my free monthly newsletter, communicatrix | focuses? Every issue covers one aspect of communication (i.e., you getting your word out there) and includes actionable steps. I also share the best of all the many, many inspirational, how-to and otherwise useful links I come across in my nerdly travels.  Back issues available to peruse here; signup directly here.

Colleen Wainwright is a writer-speaker-layabout who started calling herself “the communicatrix” when she hit three hyphens. She spent a decade writing commercials and another decade acting in them. Now she uses her powers for good and not evil by helping fellow creatives learn to tell their stories in a way that earns them attention and satisfaction.

2 comments

  1. Hi Colleen, I just wanted to thank you for sharing these insightful articles on bios. I’m working on mine now and your input is crucial. Bonnie Gillespie linked to your site in a bio article she did a while back. I’ve read your Casting Networks’ newsletter pieces for a while now, but had never visited the Communicatrix site. Thanks for using your powers for good!

    1. Thanks, John! I’m a big fan of Bonnie Gillespie—she will never steer you wrong. And I’m glad you found the back catalog here! Just because something is old, doesn’t mean it doesn’t hold true! Best to you in all you do.

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