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5 tips for personal stories in blog posts

Personal information puzzleWhat kinds of personal stories should you share in a blog post?

It’s a tough call.

You want to be honest and real—authentic. And in some niches, like personal development, readers want you to get personal. They want to know how you lost 100 pounds, how you’re paying off debt, or how you finally found peace after a loss.

But what if your story goes deeper?

If you’re Penelope Trunk, you don’t worry too much about it.

If you’re Jon Morrow, you tell the really moving parts that inspire people, pump them up, and make them think “if he can do it, I can do it.”

If you’re Chris Guillebeau, you share your limitations and tidbits from your past to show how anyone can achieve remarkable goals.

And if you’re me, you mention certain experiences when they fit the article’s purpose and audience.

But how do you decide what to tell, what not to tell, how to tell it, and when?

Here are a few guidelines to avoid potential problems.

1. Will your story hurt your family or friends?

If your post reveals personal information about family members or close friends, and if it implicates them or might embarrass them, think twice.

Let’s say your drive to succeed came from years of watching your dad’s brainy business schemes flop. If your dad is still in business—skip it. He might not care, but his customers will.

If your story is about your awful marriage or bitter divorce, skip the nitty-gritty, especially if you have kids. Even if they’re too young to read (for now), your ex or the new flame might be reading, even if you’re using a pen name.

Most of us don’t want to hurt people we care about, but we don’t stop to think. Or we’re angry and upset, and we don’t care.

So if you want drama, go for it, but you probably don’t need a slander lawsuit, custody issues, an unemployed dad, confused kids, and other complications.

2. Will it hurt anyone, whether you know them or used to know them or not?

I could tell you some stories from my years of working in restaurants and retail. Here’s an article idea: “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Management Styles to Admire, Avoid, and Run from Like Hell.”

But as much as I hated working with one particular manager, I’d have to be careful. Would she ever see my article? How would she feel? She wasn’t all bad, after all. Could I disguise the situation enough?

If you don’t care about hurting someone’s feelings, think about this: hurt people get angry. And angry people usually want to hit back.

The same applies to mentioning other bloggers (named or unnamed), social media acquaintances, and specific groups like a forum.

Would anyone recognize the person or group? You might be surprised how the smallest details immediately give things away.

And if your blog post includes bashing anyone specifically or making someone look bad, just skip it. It’ll make you look bad, and it will probably only cause trouble.

3. Can the information hurt your blog/online business, your day job, or your neighborhood/school reputation?

If you were a smoker and overweight, like Leo Babauta was, you’ll inspire millions and earn respect by sharing your story.

That’s because smoking cigarettes—and quitting—is socially acceptable, and losing weight is something lots of people want to hear more about.

But what if you used to steal cars? If you’re Chris Guillebeau, and if you did that stuff as a kid but now lead a productive (read outstanding and awe-inspiring) life as an adult, it’s an intriguing peek into the life of an amazing person. It makes you more real, less perfect, more like everyone else.

What if you write a post about your days as a drug dealer or how you used to seriously neglect your kids—as an adult?

That’s different.

Anything that’s distinctly “not socially acceptable” should sound an alarm.

Depending on your niche, the lessons learned, and how the information helps your readers, it might work, but you’ll probably want to tone it down. A lot. Drug dealing and child abuse stories are too much for a lot of people, even if there’s some good point in telling them.

Most of our stories are somewhere in the middle of “ordinary struggles” and “stuff your readers might be troubled by.”

Will your story inspire your readers? Or is it something your readers, customers, boss, kids’ teachers, and neighbors probably don’t need to know? How could revealing them hurt you?

4. Is your personal story relevant to your blog’s focus, or will readers just appreciate your candor?

I’ve seen plenty of blog posts called “15 things you didn’t know about me” or similar. And I’ve never seen one that reveals anything particularly surprising or deeply personal.

They’re not usually tied in to the purpose of the blog; they’re just something different in between the serious stuff. I’m not sure how valuable they are, and I wonder if they’re just an easy “filler” sort of post. It all depends on your style and your readers.

But it’s fun to know a blogger a little bit better—do you know I love music? Or that I’m a huge Bowie fan? (His latest releases are just incredible.) That I recently gave up a car in favor of a bike? That I’m pretty geeky, especially when it comes to biology and meteorology as well as tech stuff? That I talk to animals and named the alligator in a nearby pond “Isaac?”

Well, maybe you don’t need to know that I talk to animals any more than you need to know that I go topless on Mediterranean beaches.

GASP.

There, there now. Most everyone does. It’s not a big deal like it is in the states.

On most blogs, personal information isn’t all that relevant except in context: does it illustrate your point? Will it help your readers achieve their goals or solve their problems? Will it help them relate to you more easily?

If your readers are used to getting facts, figures, and solid information, personal information posts without a relevant point might not be welcome, so consider the benefit or potential cost.

5. Will you regret it?

People in general, and your readers in particular, have more interesting things to do than mull over something personal you wrote about. They won’t spend much time on it since they have their own crazy lives to deal with.

In fact, they’ll probably forget about your revelation within minutes, though it will shape their opinion and perception of you.

If you consistently provide valuable content, most readers won’t unsubscribe or get unduly upset over something personal you divulged and feel embarrassed about, for whatever reason.

Even so, regret isn’t fun. And if you’re worried you might regret sharing personal information, then skip it. The world (and your readers) won’t suffer if you don’t share that experience you’re just dying to tell.

Here are a few additional tips to help you decide whether personal information should or should not be mentioned in a blog post:

  • Does the information hint at or suggest more than you intend?
  • Could readers infer something that you wish they wouldn’t?
  • Can you handle potential criticism, misunderstandings, or well-meant but unwelcome advice?
  • Is the information so important that the blog post can’t be written without it?
  • Is it really so important that it deserves a post of its own?
  • Is this a big part of your identity that readers should know about? Maybe it’s your lifestyle, a physical handicap or learning disability, your sexual orientation, or some other defining characteristic that’s important to you.
  • Could it be a permanent blurb on your About or Welcome page rather than a post?

Your decision to include personal information on your blog has more to do with your own comfort level than anything else. The more comfortable you are with it, the easier it is to find the right time and place for it.

 But it’s important to consider relevance and how your readers will benefit—or not.

And when it involves others, assume they (or someone they know) will see it. The Internet’s public, after all, and it’s a very small world.

If you have doubts about what or what not to share, play it safe. Just skip it.

How much personal information do you share on your blog? Do you hold back and wish you didn’t? Have you regretted anything? Share in the comments.

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2 comments… add one
  • Hi Leah,
    Thank you for your very timely and situation appropriate post. I am still in the early stages of setting up my blog (WriteInSync). And I don’t mind being addressed by my first name, it does make your email more personal, and it endears me to you, as I feel, (totally inappropriate feeling of course, as you don’t really know me, but it is friendlier than just Hello, Hi reader, or Dear Subscriber! or even Hey there!) that you are directly writing to me, almost like a personal letter. It is a good move, more work I know, but worth it I feel, as blog subscribers don’t like to be thought of as just another number.
    About your post, the information hits home, and touches on a very valid point. My mom used to say that familiarity breeds contempt, which has some truth to it, if you dislike people. It all really depends on how Emotionally intelligent you are, your perspective, which we know varies from one person to the next, depending on so many factors.

    She also told me all men were dogs ( (and she disliked animals as much as she disliked humans) but I refused to believe that and had to prove her wrong.
    I understood her pain, her regret, but just because she was hurt, she should not poison a child’s mind. Luckily I was an intuitive indigo kid, and had to find out the truth for myself. This came at some cost, a great cost, which I could have avoided, but it was worth it to find that love, compassion, understanding and discernment still exist, in spite of all the naysayers and the state of this world.

    Regret as you mentioned is not nice to live with, but saying too much can have immense consequences, just as saying too little can, so it is all a matter of balance. I really enjoy your posts, and please do not stop sending them, as they are informative, well written, insightful, and very humane.

    You are so right when you say that what we say and how we say it says so much about us. Thank you once again, and yes it is okay to call me by my name, I am comfortable with it, and you have a fellow geek here, who loves talking to animals as I understand their motives, their instincts and their reactions.
    I love the sea, and the beach, and the wonder of marine life, and still find things to marvel at in this world, as every day is an opportunity to find out something new about the world. My granddaughter Riley, a fellow geek, music and dance lover, and a great animal lover, won a prize at school for her project: Understanding the Language of Animals. She is only eight, a brilliant child, and the light of my life. It is good to be geeky, we are good peoples, as we love the world. My mom’s bitterness taught me to find my own truths, which I have taught my children too.

    By the way, I have loved Bowie ever since I first heard him, as Ziggy Stardust, This is ground control to Major Tom. But my passion in music is the Beatles and Bob Dylan and the Hollies. I know, all from the sixties, but I love Amy Winehouse too, what a waste of such talent! And soul, blues, rock, reggae, even opera. Music feeds the soul, just like writing does.

    Have a great Christmas, Leah, or Hannukah, as Leah sounds Jewish, and McClelland is Scottish. Blessings and great joy and a wonderful festive season to you and yours.

    Reply
    • Hi Theresa,

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment! Nice to “meet” you, and thanks for the feedback about the first name in emails (I had a bunch of other positive responses in email, which is great). Glad you like it!

      I like how you’ve wanted to find out the truth for yourself–that’s a good quality to have, and we should all have a bit more of it no matter our backgrounds or experiences. We get “fed” so much from so many sources and don’t even realize it’s not our own truth sometimes.

      I agree it’s all about balance, and that goes for most things as well as what we say or write. And your granddaughter sounds like a very special girl. I’m sure you encourage her a lot.

      Well it seems like we have a lot in common, and I’m glad to have you on board. Thanks for the compliment about the posts, and yes, they’ll keep on coming. I’ve been a bit off schedule, to put it mildly, but I’m getting back on track and shooting for at least twice monthly now if not weekly.

      Thanks again for reading and sharing your thoughts!

      Reply

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