You'll find it smack bang on the first page of countless drawing tutorials: draw what is in front of you, not what you believe to be there. A great work starts, and ends, with modest observation. The world is a mess of line and colour; your brain fills in the gaps.

It doesn't matter whether your gestures are exaggerated or faithful. Your interpretation succeeds when people can recognise something of their own world experience in it. Whether you're a Ronald Searle or a Rembrandt, your images should resonate with the people that view them.

All art is valid, but in "realistic" representation you have to discipline yourself to cross-check repeatedly and correct as you go. It's common practice to make numerous studies before fully realising a composition - you evolve ideas through practice and enquiry.

The same could be said about drafting buyer personas. Marketer and cartoonist Tom Fishburne makes light of marketers' susceptibility to persona idealisation in a few of his pieces, and that is what inspired this post. 

To deliver a close likeness, you have to prioritise key features and be realistic about what's in front of you. No two trees are identical, houses aren't squares with pointy hats, and your eyeballs lie halfway down your head. Understanding is necessary for accurate portrayal. This is true for buyer personas too. When working with semi-fictional representations, it is all too easy to idealise (and alienate) your customer base. However, projecting qualities that don't exist compromises the value of your personas. 

The same is true of guesswork and superfluity.  Jodi Harris from Content Marketing Institute advises: "If you don't have a specific way to turn a particular data point into an actionable customer insight, it's best to leave it out of the persona."

Accurate descriptions enable you to plan and manage your content in a deliberate, constructive way. If you are able to state a persona's problems in specific terms, as Marcia Riefer Johnston suggests you do, you'll be better positioned to offer meaningful solutions. 

If you're not thinking about a drawing as you go the mental disconnection is visible. Andy Warhol's tracings are a great example of this - see Still Life, (1975). Literal as they are, the lines show barely any relationship to each other. Taken out of context it feels sparse, looks automated, and creates a similar impression to photographs that have been processed for faux-paint effects. In this case, the intention wasn't ever to be figurative in the traditional sense, and that is clear. However, tracings always remind me of the sheer attention to detail some drawing demands.

Buyer personas should be more than a generation process.

So how do you start? 

  • Base them on market research
  • Look at your existing customer base
  • Research related forums
  • Ask for feedback from the sales team
  • Keep them up to date

Treat your buyer personas like a work of art. What I'm getting at is this: look, look and look again. Ask questions, test, compare. Use real customers as your reference. Buyer personas will only be useful to you if they reflect your customers as they are. 

Download: The Insider Guide to Developing & Using Buyer Personas