Should we call ourselves personal historians if we want clients to find us?
I have a problem with our industry. Namely, its name.
Let’s face it, the term “personal history” isn’t the greatest. A little stodgy. Worse, it doesn’t send a clear message to prospective clients—or the world at large—of what we do. I’ve struggled with this for years.
“What do you do?” someone will ask me.
“I’m a personal historian.”
Silence. Shuffle of feet. Change to new topic.
I gave up some time ago. Now my elevator speech includes the words “memoir writer” and “writing-life-stories-for-people-who-want-a-book-but-who-aren’t writers.” It’s a little less clunky when I’m in conversation with people, but honestly, not much. Thankfully, when they understand what I do, the terms don’t matter. The appeal of how flippin’ cool this work is overrides any fumbling with titles.
A recent conversation with colleague Peta Roberts (host of the wonderful Storyical podcast) showed me that I’m not the only one who thinks this way.
What I’ve discovered is that the only people who know what a personal historian is are…other personal historians. Not only that, but there’s a whole mess of people doing this kind of work who do NOT call themselves personal historians. Heck, they’ve probably never even heard the term.
Why does it matter?
Well, if you’re just starting out in the field, not having clear, understandable terminology can be a stumbling block.
Sure, if you’re talking to someone in person, you can either
- a) call yourself a personal historian, then quickly (before the eye-glaze) tell them what that is, or
- b) eliminate the term altogether, and opt for something else, like “life story writer,” “legacy professional,” “professional memoir writer,” etc.
But what’s fairly easy in person is much, much harder online.
As a new personal historian/life story writer (or videographer, or audio specialist, or web content creator, or tell-your-life-in-a-graphic-novel’ist…), one of your first steps will be to create a website. A place to hang out your virtual shingle. Or maybe you’ve got your business up and running and you want to make sure the people who need your help are finding you (something we talked about with Derek Lewis on our podcast).
So what do you call yourself?
In the copy of your site, you can explain your services, but what do you do for SEO? What keywords are you choosing to get your beacon blinking in the world?
ALERT: If you’re a diehard fan of the term “personal history,” go type it into Google. [Hint: Do it in incognito mode to avoid Google’s algorithms directing you toward sites you’ve already visited]
And the results are…
The first SEVEN results point to Katharine Graham’s memoir of the same name.
If this were a boxing match between Katharine Graham and us personal historians/life story writers/memoir professionals/etc/etc, it’d be a knockout in the first round. Before we even get our mouthpiece in, Katharine Graham wins. She won a Pulitzer for this book, people. We can’t compete.
Look a little further down the Google results page and you’ll see the National Cancer Institute’s definition of personal history. If Katharine Graham is the Muhammad Ali of personal history, then the medical field is Oscar De La Hoya (I know nothing about boxing)(note: better metaphors next time, Amy!).
Why is a medical site outranking personal historian sites?
Here’s why: The questions the nurse is typing into her laptop as you sit shivering in your mint green robe? That’s your personal medical history. Shortened online to, you guessed it—“personal history.”
It’s an SEO problem
Now go back to our question of what to call ourselves on our website, and what keywords to use for SEO, and the problem begins to show its craggy, snaggly self. We don’t want to help steer people to Katharine Graham (worthy though she is; if you haven’t read the book or seen the recent movie with Meryl Streep, you should), and especially not to the good folks at the National Cancer Institute. There are people out there looking for Katharine and the NCI, but those aren’t our people. Our focus is on those who need our help recording their stories. They don’t care what we call ourselves, just so long as they find us.
I’m wondering what my colleagues will think of this question. How many use the term personal history to good effect? I looked at some of my favorite websites from people in the industry and here’s what I found:
Voices in Time
A gorgeous, elegant website for Lily Shank and her team. They call themselves “historians.”
Real to Reel
I’ve had the good fortune of attending one of Gloria Nussbaum’s workshops. She knows her stuff! Her website tagline: “Recording personal stories.” She also starts her homepage by asking and answering the question, “What is personal history?”
Portraits in Words
Medium: Books and Video
Lettice Stuart has been creating stunning life story book since 1996. She’s been featured in the Wall Street Journal and TIME. She knows what she’s doing and she does it well. What does she call her products? “Private-edition personal history/memoir books and videos.”
Write for You Life Stories
Kathy Evans is my hero in the world of life story writing, and, to a large extent, in the world of life. She’s one of the big reasons I’ve made a go of it as a life story writer. Everybody should have a mentor this good! How she describes her books on her website: “memoirs.” How she describes herself: “personal historian;” “writer of memoirs, autobiographies, and biographies.”
Bind These Words
Stacy Derby’s beautiful website asks, “Who will tell your story? You will.” She refers to her company as a “family biography firm.”
Pat McNees, Telling Your Story and Writers and Editors
Pat McNees has one of the most thorough websites on personal history and other forms of writing I’ve ever seen. It’s practically an encyclopedia in and of itself. Her masthead: “Pat McNees, writer, editor, ghostwriter, personal historian.”
Family Legacy Video
Medium: Video and Audio
Steve Pender starts his home page with: “Your life stories are your legacy.” He advertises his products as “personal video biographies” and “personal audio biographies.”
Tree of Life Legacies
Medium: Video, App
April Bell’s StoryCather app allows people to create their own life story projects simply and quickly. She also offers full-service video productions for businesses and families. Her homepage promises “elegantly guided video storytelling” and “family legacy videos.”
Modern Heirloom Books
Medium: Books and More
Dawn Roode goes well beyond the usual with products ranging from “milestone books” to “bespoke travel albums” to “Instagram Annuals,” as well as “personal history books” and “family history books.”
Family History Films
Founders Paul Hurley and Jon Bell took the guesswork out of what to call their projects: It’s built right into the name of the company. You can’t beat “Family History Films” for clarity.
The Memoir Network
Medium: Books, Coaching, Editing
If my Story Scribe business is a boutique shop, Denis Ledoux’s Memoir Network is by comparison a full-service department store. He offers everything from coaching to editing to full-blown ghostwriting, with plenty of work for himself and four additional editors. Personal historians on his site are known as “memoir professionals” and their products “memoirs.”
Dhyan Atkinson is our industry’s favorite marketing guru (listen to our podcast episode with her here). Her website mentions “personal historians, oral historians, video biographers, family story writers, genealogists, memorial, anniversary, birthday or special event filmmakers, photographers & storywriters, photobook or narrated slide show creators, photoshop & photo restoration professionals, digital transfer experts, scrapbook professionals, professional organizers” Whew! And to sum up all those specialties? “Memory saving professionals.”
Why should we care how everybody else is doing it?
Because the more we get on the same page with our terminology, the more the search engines will find us.
“Personal history” has been our go-to term for a few decades now. I respect all the hard work that’s gone into building up the industry, and I’m incredibly grateful to all those who did the heavy lifting.
But I think it’s time we re-thought the term “personal history.” Is it recognizable to the wider public, or just to personal historians?
Consider this: If you knew nothing about the field, if you had never heard of the (sadly, now-defunct) Association of Personal Historians, but you wanted to find someone to help you record your story or that of a loved one, what would you type into the search bar?
That’s the question we need to ask ourselves when we’re creating our business plans, our sales talks, our presentations, and yes, our websites.
I am VERY interested in hearing what others think about this. My views aren’t set in stone; I know there have been some stories in the media that use the term “personal history” for our industry. Is there a general upward trend with this? If we stick with it longer, will it become part of the public consciousness?
Yet, I keep going back to the question of how people find me online. (With the caveat that, yes, much of my clientele has come from the real, not the online, world). I’d love to hear arguments in favor or against the term, and ideas for new or different ways of naming ourselves and our products.
Till next time, happy writing/recording!
p.s. If you want to read about how I define personal history, look here. Or listen here.
Pat McNees says
I totally agree, Amy. The term “personal history” is not a client magnet. Indirectly, the term may have been “coined” by the New Yorker, which used it as a category for certain types of pieces. Early on, Marty Walton and Linda Lyman ran an ad in the New Yorker for their “personal history” business and got no bites from potential clients, but lots of bites from potential personal historians. With the demise of the Association of Personal Historians, local chapters are re-forming and in addition to mentioning the phrase “personal historians” are also considering o phrases like Life Story Professionals, which may have more “curb appeal.” Thanks for linking to my Writers and Editors site, Amy. There are also lots of links to more specific help (e.g., tips on interviewing, finding vintage music, video tributes, oral histories, timelines, etc.) under “Telling Your Story” on my personal website, here:
Telling your story
Pat, I agree, Life Story Professionals seems like a more fitting term, something the average person may type into Google. And I’m happy to hear there are locals chapters forming of…there I go, about to say “personal historians”! Anyhow, I hope to hear more about groups coming together. We briefly had a Kansas City/Midwest chapter several years ago. Would love to see that again.
Denis Ledoux says
Interesting article that points to the need to speak to the client’s needs—actually pain. They come because they know they cannot move ahead without help. As one man said, “I couldn’t get beyond a collection of paragraphs. You have helped me make my words into a memoir.”
As you note, I do not use the label “personal historian” as it seems to mean nothing. I consider myself and the coaches and editors who work for me to be “memoir professionals.” Clients seem to understand that concept when they come to my website looking for a “professional” to help them vs. their “sister-in-law who teaches high school English and is real good at grammar.”
The key words in my blog articles and on website all focus on the word “memoir” plus the words “coaching,” “editing,” “ghostwriting” and “publication”—or variations thereof. I also do Google Adwords, and these are my terms there. I never use the term “personal historian”—other than as an occasional synonym once I have used many other words.
The packages I offer to train people to do this work is called “The Memoir Professional Package.” Becoming a professional in the memoir field is what people who buy a training package want. They want to get away from the taint of doing work for free or for low fees. The want to be professionals who earn professional incomes.
Thanks for the stimulating article. It was a joy being interviewed for your podcast.
Denis, thanks for the feedback. I like how you’ve managed to clearly delineate your services for those who want to do their own memoir (with assistance), and those who want to learn how to do other people’s memoirs. “Memoir professionals” is to the point.
I stuck my toe in the water with AdWords but didn’t know what I was doing. I can see how it can extend your reach for finding clients you can serve via phone or online; less sure how fitting it is for getting in front of local clients.
Looking forward to publishing our podcast episode. Memoir expert PLUS business savvy. You were so gracious to share!
Steve Pender says
I have to agree with the other comments here. When it comes to SEO, “personal historian” as a search term for what we do is worthless. In years past I did try introducing myself as a “personal historian and video biographer” – but then I’d always have to immediately explain what a personal historian was. I think I’m much better off using terms in SEO and in one-on-one encounters that more clearly state the nature of the services and products I provide and that draw in and entice folks. There’s always some further explanation involved, of course, but unless you can kindle some excitement off the bat, instead of muddying the waters with vague terms, you may never get the opportunity to continue a conversation.
Family Legacy Video, Inc.
Steve, in your in-person conversations, do you call yourself a video biographer?
Steve Pender says
Yes, I do call myself a video biographer. But I always follow up with a nutshell definition, usually a variation of: “I work with individuals, families, and organizations to create personal documentaries that help them preserve, celebrate, and share their life stories on video.”
Dawn Roode says
I have long considered the term “personal historian” to be somewhat irrelevant, and rarely refer to myself as such. It feels old-fashioned and stodgy, and as others have echoed here, has zero SEO value. I have conducted my own SEO research and try to optimize my site for things our prospective clients may be searching to DO (e.g., “preserve memories” or “write a family history book”) rather than for the PERSON WHO MAY DO IT (“personal historian”).
While many of us have been working in some capacity in this industry for many years, the industry still does not exist as a self-identifiable market segment (for anyone interested from a business standpoint, Geoffrey Moore talks and writes about this engagingly). This poses various challenges, of course… Thank you for raising these questions intelligently and thoughtfully here.
Our New York/New Jersey “personal historians” are often in meaningful conversation about this, and we are in the process of establishing our regional group more officially, to be called the Biographers Guild of Greater New York. “Biographers” is a term that we determined has both SEO value and an overarching inclusiveness to what we all do, regardless of the medium in which we do it. Stay tuned for website in coming months!
Dawn Roode, Modern Heirloom Books
Dawn, agreed, the market flies pretty much under the radar for most of the public. I was talking today to someone just getting into the field and she asked if it was waning. My guess is that it’s growing, but without some centrifugal force like the APH, and with everyone using different terminology, it’s harder to make our presence known. (Not that it’s ever been easy!) Thanks for the recommendation on the reading. And I’m looking forward to hearing about your regional group!