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.

Four types of short print features

For many years, print publications have produced a variety of long and short news stories and features. A reader could flip through several pages, and decide how much time to spend in each section.

Here are four types of short features. How many of them do you read daily…in either print or electronic form?

= COMIC STRIPS — These generally tell a story in four or five separate little drawings.

= CARTOONS — These present an entire message in a single picture.

= QUOTES AND SAYINGS — These are only a couple sentences long, and often carry the wise thoughts of famous or historical people.

= QUESTION-ANSWER FEATURES — These are often self-help columns, and are some of the best-read features around.

What these brief stories have in common is: they each express a single theme in only a few words or pictures. In this writer’s opinion, presenting single-theme features is the best way to get them remembered.

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

Write your Minute Bio today!

A friend whose parents recently died told me she wished she’d ask them more questions about their early lives.

“They grew up during the Depression,” she said, “and struggled hard just to give their children a better life. I do wish they’d written something down, so we kids would know more about the schools they attended, and the early jobs they had.”

No matter what your age, you can begin writing a “mini-biography,” a 200 to 500-word story of your life thus far. It’s something you can gift to children, grandchildren, and friends who’ve helped you along the way.

Don’t worry getting off to the perfect start. Just start writing down what you remember. You can move paragraphs around later.

Answer these questions to help you get started: What’s the greatest day of your life? What’s the first memory you have? What do you remember about elementary school? What do you like most about your career?

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

A paragraph’s last sentence?

Seriously, how many articles have you read about the LAST SENTENCE in any paragraph? What’s so important about that?

Everything! That’s because readers won’t read the following paragraph if they’re not given a compelling reason.

So, think about it this way. To get folks interested in the next paragraph, create curiosity in that last sentence. Here are a couple of last-sentence examples:

“Where was that strange music coming from?”

“When I saw my report card I was absolutely astounded.”

If the last sentence is powerful enough — and creates a question in the reader’s mind — the reader should be excited to find out what happens in the next sentence.

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

Repeat performance

Imagine yourself in an elevator. As you step aboard, you hear some old song. When the door opens again, and you walk out singing it.

Why is this? Maybe because (1) it’s simple, (2) the chorus repeats, and (3) it either surprises you, or tells you a memorable story.

Now, think back to some of humankind’s “greatest hits”…the timeless messages people repeat to one another. Want examples?

Edgar Allan Poe’s enthralling poem “The Raven” ends several stanzas with the line “Quoth the raven, ‘Nevermore.'” Or listen to some radio commercials, and hear how many repeat a phone number or web site.

Repetition can build memorability. But…I’m repeating myself, right?

Got a question for Rix? E-mail him at

“Meet and greet” opening words

I’ve been told that the “most natural” way to start a feature, e-mail, or essay is to pretend you just met your reader at a party. If that happened, how would your conversation begin?

  1. Ask a question — “What do you think this hotel will look like when it’s sold to the new owner?”
  2. Flashback — “As we drove up to the hotel today, I suddenly remembered the first time I was here…when my cousin got married five years ago.”
  3. Start with dialog — “As I walked into the party, the host greeted me with a puzzled look, then asked ‘Didn’t we go to high school together?'”
  4. Who, what, where, when, why, how — Just answer one of these words about your future story to get the writing to flow. Example: “I asked myself how I’d been selected to receive this award, and then I remembered the wonderful high school instructor who taught me so much.”
  5. Take a look at Rix’s new book: How to Sell Ideas With the Minute Message

Problem, effect, solution

An old reporter once said that good stories require three things from the writer:

  1. Problem — He or she must define and describe the dilemma.
  2. Effect — What effect does the problem have on the principal character, so that the character will have a reason to solve it?
  3. Solution — How is the problem addressed, and how it is solved…or not solved?

In 30 years I’ve been assigned news stories, features, biographies, and question-answer columns. Nearly all of them required that I address a problem, explain the effect it had, and conclude by either pointing out a solution or presenting the main character’s plan to develop a solution.

Even humorous stories often begin with a problem. Have you ever noticed this when you read comic strips.

When you’re assigned to write a story, e-mail, or essay, do you first start out by defining the problem?

E-mail me how you discovered or defined a problem, and how you solved it. My e-mail address is

Turn on your radio…

Question: Where can you find examples of captivating, brief writing?

The best place to hear powerful writing is on radio. Sure, music, talk, and interview shows abound. But next time you listen, pay special attention to the advertisements.

Here’s the reason. To be effective, a radio message must make strong, instant impressions. It can reach only your sense of hearing. It cannot be reinforced by a vivid photo, an inviting smell, or by touch or taste.

Good radio writing engages you immediately. Even if you don’t write for radio, we encourage you to pretend that you do. The best wordsmiths don’t fear their words being spoken. Accomplished writers in pre-radio times knew the power of sound. Says Abraham Lincoln scholar Charles Strozier, “Lincoln wrote to be read aloud.”

Rix Quinn’s new e-book:

Idea notebook?

I heard two comedians discuss how they came up with humor bits. One said he kept a pocket-sized notebook and a pen with him at all times. If a potential comedic idea or joke passed through his head, he wrote it down.

The other comic noted that “I write down anything funny I’ve just seen or heard. Maybe I can’t do anything with the material right then, but at least it’s an idea-starter.”

Are you in the newspaper or magazine or content-development business? If so, the “notebook idea” might be worth thinking about. The thoughts you develop might be serious or historical or comedic. But capturing the idea as it races through our brains is important.

And since most of us carry cell phones, we can simply speak the idea we just thought about into the phone’s memo function.

Rix Quinn’s new e-book: