Wednesday, July 25, 2007


Writing to your readers

When someone gives a technical presentation or has a paper published in a technical journal, the talk or the paper is usually accompanied by a brief bio, which that person has written herself. There are two things I don't get about what people write in their bios:

  1. Why do they always talk about what schools they went to, even if the schools are not prestigious, even if the authors have PhDs and they're telling me where they got their undergraduate degrees, even if they've been out of school for 25 years? Look, if you're fresh out of school, maybe I care. If you've been twaddling around doing Real Things for a decade or two, it doesn't make the slightest bit of difference to me that you hold a BS in BS from the University of Southern North Dakota at Hoople.
  2. Why do they make me look for the important stuff? They should lead with it. Don't say something like this:
    Herkermer Biffelwogg received his B.S. in Electrical Engineering and his M.S. and Ph.D. in ComputerScience from the University of Fernquaffle in 1976, 1977, and 1979 respectively. He is currently a Senior Consulting Advisory Technical Staff Executive in the Chief Technology Office of the Frobozz Magic Technology Company, [...etc...]
    When I read that quickly, I first figured the guy was a professor at U of Fernquaffle. It's far more relevant to me now that he's a senior technical thingy at FMTC.

Write to your readers! If you've been around for a while, you surely don't need to include your whole pedigree on all your bios — tailor them to the presentation or journal at hand. If you're making a presentation about, say, computer security, focus your bio on your background in computer security and start off with the stuff that's most significant to that.

If I'm going to see you speak about a technical topic, biographical information about you is relevant to me in approximately the following order:

  1. What work are you currently doing in the area of your talk?
  2. How much time and depth have you spent in this area?
  3. Where do you work, and what position do you have there?
  4. What other expertise do you have? What relevant things have you worked on besides this?
  5. What other interesting things about you, your work, and your company might make me want to see you speak?
Finally, if there's room, you may add something about how much you love Icelandic music, spicy food, or bungee jumping, and how adorable your three-year-old is. But realize that it's not relevant, and save it for the end, if there's room.

And note that the bio of a technical speaker should look different from the bio of a journalist, which should look different from that of a politician. The journalist will want to highlight some major stories he's covered, or how widely he's travelled. The politician may indeed want to point out that she went to college here in the area, making her a “local girl”, and that she has a cute family.

Write to your readers — tell them what will be useful for them to know.

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