From about us pages to blogs, feature profiles are used to communicate a business’ brand, but also to put a human face on a business. By creating a compelling story, good profile writers can benefit from this high-need area of freelance writing.
Profile writing involves disparate parts of the brain in order to produce an emotionally involving piece. An effective profile comes from thorough research, thoughtful interview questions and an ability to organize large amounts of information into a concise story.
How to write a profile of a person
Here’s how to write a profile story, in eight easy-to-follow steps.
1. Research your subject — a lot
For my first profile assignment, I interviewed a jazz great who enjoyed a five-decade career in music. Being young and unaware of his music, I asked him how long he’d been playing. The musician playfully laughed at me and replied that he had been playing most of his life. He then asked me if I knew anything about him. The feeling of embarrassment sunk the rest of my interview.
But from this defeat, I learned the importance of researching my subject.
Your goal should be to understand your subject’s point of view before the interview begins if you hope to capture that person’s journey.
Start by thoroughly reading their website. If the business or individual maintains a blog, you will want to read their posts to understand their identity. This will clue you into what’s important to your subject.
Then explore articles written about your subject in other publications. What’s the general angle of these articles? Is there any information that’s repeated again and again? This will help differentiate yourself from previous material written about the same subject.
2. Create questions that linger
When interviewing, the worst thing you can hear from a response is “yes” or “no.”
Try to focus your questions on material your subject is passionate about, and don’t ask questions that can be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.” Start phases with: “Can you tell me about?” or “Why did you…?”
This gives your subject the opportunity to go “off script” and share unique details about their story in a way that makes them feel comfortable.
3. Let your subject to do 90 percent of the talking
It may be tempting to interrupt your subject with your own commentary, but resist this at all costs.
Interrupting cuts into your subject’s flow, which will result in glossing over important information. Through digressions, subjects will often provide entertaining stories. These stories can further illustrate your subject’s unique personality.
Do not be afraid of pauses and silence. Sometimes this means your subject is thinking about your question, and giving them time will elicit more detailed answers.
For others, silence creates a bit of awkwardness, which they might be eager to fill by sharing a story they might not have otherwise shared.
4. Record your interviews
Handwritten notes are great, but it can be difficult to record every word a subject says. Mistakes in note-taking can be costly when it comes time to write the profile.
And you certainly don’t want to rely on your memory. Get comfortable with a recording app in advance to ensure you capture your entire interview.
5. Develop your angle
Profiles need an angle, or a specific focus to sustain the reader’s attention.
A unique angle will set your profile apart from the other material written on the same subject. Use an angle that’s newsworthy or contains the essence of the business’ philosophy. Profiles that are simply a list of things that happened are rarely interesting.
When reviewing your interview and notes, find a theme that links together the material. For example, if your subject talks about failures that led to their success, the theme of persistence in the face of failure can serve as a good angle.
6. Find pull quotes that move the story
Don’t use quotes just to fill space. Instead, lean on quotes to help tell the story. Using the subject’s words can be the most effective way to develop the profile’s main points.
Not sure how many quotes to use? Here’s a good rule of thumb: Each section of a profile should contain at least one quote that ties the material together.
Find pithy, meaningful quotes to provide maximum effect. Reserve the best quote that best encapsulates your angle and use this for your concluding paragraph. This leaves the reader with a clear picture of the main theme and takeaway.
7. Tell the story
Remember you are telling a story, so it needs a beginning, middle and end.
A scattershot piece with no clear timeline will confuse the reader.
Create an outline or storyboard so you can keep track of the direction of your story. In your outline, include quotes you plan to add to the story, so that you can shape your piece around your subject’s words.
8. Check your facts (and check them again)
Getting information wrong is an embarrassing moment for a writer, especially if you hear about it from your subject.
You’re responsible for presenting facts as truthfully as possible. If you are unsure of certain information, contact your subject and ask. They will appreciate the effort. Don’t throw away your credibility by failing to fact-check your piece.
Profile writing is a great way to flex all of your writer muscles in one assignment. Over time, you’ll develop a knack for interviewing, which is helpful for lots of writing work. With the right amount of preparation, organization, detail and practice, you’ll paint the perfect picture of your subject.