by Kelley Lindberg
Recently, I was asked for some tips on writing a profile. When it comes to writing for magazines, profiles are my favorite projects. A profile is a story about a particular person and their life, their passions, their inspirations, and their contributions.
It can be a little intimidating to interview someone for a profile, though. After all, a human being’s life is a pretty broad topic. Where do you start?
To begin, think about the goals of your profile – are you going to focus mostly on their body of work, their personality, their inspiration, a particular project, an interesting hobby, or a unique angle (such as overcoming a disability or personal challenge)? A good profile might have a sprinkling of all those types of information, but will devote the bulk of the story to your top-priority goal.
Profiles in magazines tend to focus on a particular aspect, like “here’s Joe, a great gardener, who is going to tell us about heirloom tomatoes.” The article might profile Joe, describing why he’s a great gardener (his background, credentials, experience, particular gardening loves), and then it will transition into his specific how-to tips for heirloom tomatoes. It may mention his family, where he lives, and how he learned about gardening, but it probably won’t mention his other hobby of fantasy football (unless he gets clients from his league – that’s a fun fact that relates directly to the article’s goal!).
Earlier this year, a newspaper ran a series of political profiles of candidates. To me, some of the profiles seemed a little off. They focused entirely on making each candidate seem like a super-nice, regular ol’ guy or gal. That’s great, but I also wanted the article to tell me what their political viewpoints were, since I’m not voting for them because they volunteer at their kids’ dance performances or soccer games. I’m voting for them because of what they plan to do while in office. So while the writer spent a lot of time with each candidate and did a bang-up job of giving us an idea of how nice this candidate would be as a neighbor, it left me clueless as to how he or she would perform as my representative in Washington D.C. So I think the editors should have thought a little more about the goal of that series.
After you’ve established your profile’s main goal and narrowed the focus, do a little research on your subject. Don’t waste time for both of you by asking questions that are easily answered elsewhere, such as in online biographies or resumes. You can get a ton of information about a lot of people on their Facebook pages, blogs, company websites, or wiki pages. If they are influential in their field, they may have published articles or been the subject of other profiles. Look them up and get their background information ahead of time, so that you can concentrate your limited time together on the unique and interesting aspects that will go into your article. Then write a list of questions that you couldn’t find answers to online, questions that interest you, and questions that you think will get to the heart of your profile’s main goal.
Then, when you’re finally interviewing the person, try to find the story they want to tell. Anecdotes tell us so much about a person – how they handle problems, how they celebrate successes, how they become inspired or frustrated. Encourage them to give you specific examples, such as a specific example of how they helped mentor a younger person, or how they got interested in their career or hobby, or what they did when faced with a huge obstacle.
And finally, write down or record everything they say. Try not to paraphrase, because their direct quotes are so important and will breathe life into your story. Ask about everything, take copious notes, then know that as you begin to write, you will pare away the less-important and unrelated info and bring up the more-interesting stuff. Sometimes I don’t know what will bubble to the surface until I do the interview. For example, I had no idea singer Klea Blackhurst would be so funny until I interviewed her, so I tried to show a little of that in her profile when I wrote it (“Saying Yes,” Continuum, Fall 2011). I couldn’t plan for that ahead of time, obviously. But it was a happy discovery.
If you’re writing a profile of someone, whether it’s for publication or for a school assignment, the number one thing to remember is that it should be fun! Everyone, and I mean everyone, loves to talk about their passions. The person you’re interviewing will be excited to know someone else is interested in learning about whatever it is that defines and energizes them, whether it’s collecting stamps, raising children, curing infectious diseases, or volunteering for a charity. They can’t wait to share, and you can’t wait to learn. With that combination, how can you go wrong?