Tips on writing a profile essay

Writing a profile on someone can seem daunting at first. Where do you start? What do you include? What do you leave out? It all depends on who your audience is and who you are writing for. As a Communications Specialist, the profiles I write (close to 30 this past year) are about our staff, board members, community partners, etc. I work for a library with 39 branches dispersed over a large geographical region, so I know the people I am writing about have unique experiences in unique communities. Also, for a library, folks are a little more down to earth than say, the corporate world.

Once you’re set on figuring out your audience, there a few other things to keep in mind.

Research

Do some digging ahead of time. Google is great for that. What can you find out about your subject? Do they have a LinkedIn account? Find out where they have worked before, what committees they may be on, everything basically. Make some notes. This will help you figure out what questions to ask.

Interviews

If you’re writing for a newspaper or magazine, you’ll likely interview them in person, or virtually these days. Unless you are quick with shorthand, you’ll want to record the interview to ensure accurate quotes and facts. 

In my position, I know staff are busy. They want to participate in being profiled, but are often busy working the frontlines helping customers and prefer to answer questions on their own time, so I email them ahead of time. This also gives them a bit more time to reflect and provide more thoughtful answers (and most of the time, hilarious anecdotes).

A couple of things to keep in mind during interviews:

  • Don’t ask questions you already know the answers to (or could find easily find out, remember the research phase?) You only have so much time during your interview.
  • Dig for gems by asking things outside the box. Don’t get them to describe in detail what the specific duties of their role are. Ask for the highlights, but also ask what the challenges are. Have they always seen themselves in their role? 
  • Throw them some curveballs to get a sense of their personality: what do they watch on Netflix? How would their coworkers describe them? If they were trapped on a deserted island, what book would they take with them?
  • Depending on your word length, you’ll want to keep your interview questions to a minimum so pick the best ones and allow time for follow up questions.

Check out my Interviewing 101 post for more tips.

Starting

For myself, I like to have all their answers in front of me. I start by reading through them, sometimes twice if nothing jumps out at me. You should start to pick up on a theme. Something should stand out at you. Maybe it’s a great quote, maybe they emerge as a person who is all about safety, or a person who loves adventure. That’s your theme and that’s what you’ll lead with, and likely end with.

Try to start with an impact. “Cindy never wanted to work for company X…” something that will grab the reader’s attention or something descriptive like “Tarot Reader, Sherry Miles opens a fresh deck of cards, shuffles them briskly and tells me to choose one carefully.”  

What to leave out

Know that you don’t have to include everything in a profile. Remember your reader and think to yourself, does what I’ve written encompass what I am trying to reflect? Does this hit the theme? Is this an accurate representation?

Also, sometimes people being interviewed say things that are not always appropriate or don’t reflect a company or person in great light. If you’re working for the New York Times, this would be a juicy nugget you’ll likely be leading with, but again, think about who you are writing for and use discretion in your writing.

What to include

The more time you spend writing profiles, the easier it gets to quickly decipher what is important and what isn’t. If your subject isn’t giving you much, or you’re in desperate need to spice things up, consider including quotes from other people: their manager, a neighbour, a teacher or a coworker. If it’s a business owner, what do their customers have to say?

Review

Finally, and again, if you’re writing for a newspaper or a magazine, there’s no need to have your subject review the profile you’ve written for them. In fact, be cautious of this as the subject sometimes likes to take the reins and could end up rewriting your entire piece. If you’re not confident, have the subject read over only their quotes to ensure accuracy.

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