The very first biography

What do we know about the first biography ever communicated? Actually, not anything!

It wasn’t written, but simply conveyed from one human to another in some primitive spoken, drawn, or sign-language format.

It might have been two cave people telling their individual stories around a campfire. Or it could have been in memorial form…a tribe speaking about another tribesman who had passed away.

Whatever the case, we think it contained three elements: (a) the person’s ancestry, life chronology, and progeny; (b) the person’s skill or specialty; (c) how other tribespeople can benefit from knowing that person.

In the many centuries since then, we’ve made entire professions out of history, biography, and sociology, which give us a better understanding about human nature and the complexities of society.

But what interests me most is an often upspoken element: what special message can each of our life stories provide to others?

The secret: Each time you read a biography or a memoir, ask yourself what special message that person has left for future generations.

Why read biographies?

The philosopher George Santayana said “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” I feel the same way about biographies, with two important additions.

1 Biographies can address not only past performance, but current performance as well. We can read about famous historical figures, and also about our contemporaries. Each type gives us insight into successful ideas and innovative problem-solving.

2. History is often written in chronology form, and discusses how one event leads to another. Biographies can be presented chronologically, as memoirs (references to highlights in a person’s life), or as a flashback (where the story begins well into a person’s life, and then looks back at the early years).

Since the beginning of recorded history, people have passed along information in the form of stories…both factual and fictional. Virtually all those stories discuss how a human solves a program.

The secret: A dedicated biography reader — using only a library card — can absorb instant information from the greatest minds who ever walked the earth. That education is free…and at the same time it’s priceless.

America’s first social worker?

Jane Addams has been called the “Mother of Social Work,” She was one of the first to focus on the many concerns of mothers and their children, and improving the lives of many unfortunate people.

She and a friend are probably best known for creating Chicago’s Hull House in 1889. It helped many immigrants get settled in this country, and provided residents lots of information and social services. It also hosted art and education programs.

Their innovative programs prompted tremendous growth, and by 1911 there were 13 buildings. There were almost 500 settlement houses in this country by 1920.

Ms. Addams addressed many timely issues, including public health, sanitation, and the special needs of mothers and the care and education of children. In addition, she encouraged middle class women to work as volunteers to improve their own communities.

She also pursued such other worthy causes as tenement house regulations, eight-hour women’s workdays, workers’ compensation, and factory inspections. In addition, she became a charter member of the NAACP.

IDEA: Do what you can, where you are, to help those less fortunate. Jane Addams, through her charities, helped thousands climb out of poverty and into a better life.

Informal biographies

Over the last four decades I’ve written well over 500 short biographies. Because I do this so much, I created a simple format I follow nearly every time.

So I’m constantly surprised when parents or grandparents tell me they’d like to tell their kids about the “early years,” but don’t know how to get started.

One way I recommend is that the writer recall her earliest vivid memory, and begin the story from that point. In my case, it was sitting on the couch with my Mom or Dad when I was three or four, and having them read children’s books to me.

What “first event” jump-starts your memory? Is it getting your first dog or cat, or interacting with a sibling? I find that after you get the first few sentences down on paper, the writing gets much easier.

Take a look at Rix’s new book: How to Sell Ideas With the Minute Message.

Chronology or memoir?

If somebody asked you to write a biography tomorrow, how would would begin?

Most of the ones I’ve read begin in one of three main ways. They are (a) chronology, (b) flashback, or (c) memoir.

The chronology begins on the day the main character was born, and follows her forward through her life. There’s no skipping forward or backward. It’s kinda like writing by following a calendar. There’s no rewind.

A flashback might start with an award being received or an accomplishment celebrated. Then, the story flashes back to earlier events in the person’s life than brought him to that high point. (I’ve seen many movies use that technique.)

A memoir is typically episodic. It often skips around, discussing major events that affected the person’s life. To me, it’s the most entertaining to read. It allows the writer the freedom to move forward, backward, or anywhere in the person’s life that provides entertainment or makes a point.

Take a look at Rix’s new book: How to Sell Ideas With the Minute Message.

What the heck is a micro bio?

Biographies come in all sizes. I’ve seen some that are only a few paragraphs long. Other bios of famous people can run over 1000 pages.

But my special interest has always been micro biographies. What are they?

I don’t define them by length, but by what the tell. To me, a micro bio points out the primary skill or achievement a person is known for.

My Dad often told this story. He was at a graveside funeral service one day when one particular tombstone caught his eye. It gave the person’s name, birth and death dates, with this description underneath: “He grew peaches.”

A man’s lifetime profession and accomplishment summed up in three words. What words might we apply to Aesop (wrote famous Fables) or George Washington (first American president)? My Dad’s summation: Many of us would like to be remembered for one special skill. What is that?

Take a look at Rix’s new book: How to Sell Ideas With the Minute Message.

Different lengths of biographies

Many of us think of biographies as long-form books…15,000 words or more.

But short biographies — those in the 100-500 word range — are very useful. Here are a few reasons to create your own autobiography:

== Use it as part of your resume’.

== It’s helpful when you are appointed to a new business position, or if you change industries. It can tell readers or potential clients about your skills.

== If you write an article for a professional publication, a very short bio (50-100 words) can briefly describe why you’re qualified to write that article.

What to put in your own autobiography? I nearly always include (1) my education, (2) my areas of specialization since graduation, (3) why I developed the specialties I did, and (4) the specific ways I can assist my clients.

Take a look at Rix’s new book: How to Sell Ideas With the Minute Message.

Curiosity transitions?

Many of us can get a story started with a powerful first paragraph that prepares the reader for details to follow.

But the hardest part is the middle paragraphs. How do we keep the reader emotionally involved with the story as we lay out details which will be relevant later?

I’ve found that the easiest way is to build some level of “curiosity” in every paragraph’s final sentence. Below is a sample from Goldilocks and her encounter with the three bears.

“In the bears’ living room, Goldilocks sat in two large rocking chairs, but found them uncomfortable. Then she noticed a smaller one, just her size.

“She sat down in it, and noticed the arm rests were perfect for her height. She rocked for a moment, then noticed the stairway. What was on the second floor?”

Most readers start each story because they are curious. Can you keep them that way until your story or biography reaches the conclusion?

Take a look at Rix’s new book: How to Sell Ideas With the Minute Message

Start with a problem…

Experienced writers have all sorts of ways to begin a story. They can start with dialog…two people talking to each other.

Or, they might begin the by describing a scene, like a “large barn just outside of town that the old-timers say is haunted.”

But here’s a really simple idea I learned from an advertising copywriter. “Don’t waste time,” he said. “Announce the story’s major problem in the very first sentence.”

After he told me this, I started paying attention to more print ads. Many of them actually stated the problem in the headline. Example: “Would you do more walking if your feet didn’t hurt?”

Practice today on how you might begin the biography of a fictional character. Example: “Little Red Riding Hood left her house to take cookies to Grandma, but her path led through dense woods full of dangerous animals.”

“The elevator pitch”

Do you know what this is? It’s a way to help sales people focus on what they sell, and why customers should buy that product.

Here’s the concept: You get on an elevator with someone else, and in one minute you need to tell them what you do, and why they should do business with you. What do you say?

A biography can be created this same way. Start with you own biography. You meet a complete stranger, and you want that person to know more about your accomplishments…and what’s important to you.

When I’ve been asked to do that, I tell the listener (1) where I’m from, (2) my specialty, and how I discovered it, (3) how i can help others improve their lives, and then (4) I offer a reason why that other person should work with me.

Try this. It’s good exercise for both the student and the experienced professional.

Take a look at Rix’s new book: How to Sell Ideas With the Minute Message