How to tell your personal story (without making your readers eye the nearest exit)

April 29, 2022

Answer the following questions:

WHO are you?

WHAT do you do?

HOW do you think?

WHY should we care?

And here’s the last Q I’ve got for you: Do you answer all of these questions in your book?

If not, I want you to drop what you’re doing and start writing. And if so, I want you to revise what you’ve written so that it’s unmistakably clear and sounds sexy as hell. Because we, your readers and that friendly editor in Colorado (heyyyy), need to know these answers. It’s essential that your readers get a sense of who you are, and that means you’ve got to do some personal tale-telling.

Your book is not your diary

But here’s the thing: I’m not looking for the writerly equivalent of show and tell. I don’t want you to share anything. Share your story with your readers? No. Share your hard-won experience? Nuh-uh. Share the life-changing perspective that will make your reader feel like you just surprised them with puppies? Noop. I don’t want you to share. I want you to serve

Put your story, and anything else you choose to share about yourself, in service to your audience. That’s the key to talking about ourselves for other people. Say what you need or want to say about yourself, but then make sure you address the implied-but-oh-so-important question: So what? 

If you’re a pharmacist who wants to bring humanity back into the healthcare system and you choose to tell the story of how you started taking improv classes, so what? Because it taught you to be more adaptable in the face of the unknown and that when you stop acting like a robot you can connect with your patients and save lives.

If you’re a founder leading a movement to get kids outside as often as they’re on screens and you choose to write about your difficult first few months of motherhood, so what? Because parents exhaust themselves trying to over-plan and over-provide for their kids when they don’t have to, and time spent in unscheduled nature play can transform entire families for the better.

If you’re a book editor who chooses to write about your years tending bar, so what? Because too many service businesses lack good hospitality and you’re great at what you do because you prioritize the client as much as their manuscript. You make them feel cared for while making a difficult revision process feel like creative lighter fluid.

So you see, your story should serve your reader. Yes, it’s about you—but specifically, it’s about what your experience and expertise have to do with them. So let’s think about this differently. Instead of asking, What should I say about myself? And instead of dumping out your biographical purse, ask, What does my reader need to know about me?

Want some hints? Here you go:

They need to know why they should listen to you.

They might need to know that you’ve dedicated three decades of your life to helping others. That you’re formally trained and skilled in ways your competitors aren’t. That you’ve ventured into the shit and made it to the other side and so can they.

They need to know how your story—the history, experiences, people, events, and moments that shaped you—connects to the conversation.

They need to see the thread linking the stuff about YOU to the stuff about THEM, aka the promises you’ve made in your book. Share only what’s relevant and enriching to the read. That story about Aunt Bea’s lemon cookies needs to pay rent or it’s gotta go. 

They need to know how you’re different from that other person with a book.

They need to know why you’re sharing the ideas populating your pages. They need to know the things only YOU can tell them. If you aren’t showcasing your fresh ideas and unique-to-you perspective, you might as well send them to another author.

And that means…

They need to know your point of view.

Your ideas. Your perspectives. The narrative only you can share in your words. Pinpoint your POV, with nuance and specificity, and do not shy away from it.

So stop wondering what to say about yourself and consider what your people need to know. And should you venture into “sharing your story,” make sure the story is speaking to your reader’s needs. SERVE. And while this is one of those easier-said-than-done assignments, you’ll know you’re on the right track when you look at your story and realize it exists for somebody else.

So,

WHO are you?

WHAT do you do?

HOW do you think?

WHY should we care?

And DO you answer all of these questions in your book?

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  1. […] week, I talked about how the key to talking about yourself in your writing is to tell the reader why they should care. I opened the post with a series of seemingly basic but actually super important […]

  2. […] insight, I know. But it has several important jobs: it tells your reader why the book exists, who you are and why they should listen to you. And then there’s the job we’ll be talking about […]

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