How Can You Make Your “Difficult Profiles” Amazing?

Today I’m excited to explore one piece of “common knowledge” about profile writing that is 100 percent wrong for higher ed communicators.

I’ll start the story in one of my favorite places: writers and editors conferences.

When I was younger, my favorite part of these conferences were the keynote talks.

Amazing writers — Susan Orlean, Jacqui Banaszynski, Malcolm Gladwell — would stand in front of packed rooms to share the incredible stories of the people they’d met and written about, from professional athletes to explorers to world-renowned artists. (For starters). Their profiles had won every possible award.

They’d talk about the weeks they’d spent with a subject, in person, to grab that one precious detail that could make the lead irresistible. They’d talk about working with an editor on dozens of drafts to hone the structure. They’d talk about the careful work that the fact-checker did, correcting the tiniest details to ensure that the finished piece was completely bulletproof.

Listening to them talk felt magical and enchanting. I would float out of that keynote talk overjoyed with possibility.

girl mouthing "boom" and signaling with her hands the there mind is exploding with surprise

And then I would look at my own real-life to-do list.

  • I had a 45-minute call scheduled for the following Thursday with a donor who was a sales manager at a medical device company, and who I’d be writing a short profile about for the annual report.

  • I had to write interview questions for a faculty member whose work was so opaque that I barely even understood her bio.

  • I had to address two pages of “suggestions” that the president had added to his one-page Q&A.

WHERE’S MY KEYNOTE OFFER FOR THAT, HUH?

Maybe you’ve been there and know what I’m talking about.

Keynote advice probably doesn’t apply to your profiles.

The reality is that the inspirational stories and tactics we hear from top-tier journalists and writers don’t usually apply to our profiles in higher ed communications.

We don’t have weeks to spend with a subject or the budget to fly out to see them. We can’t go through a half-dozen drafts. We don’t have dedicated fact-checkers.

I love the work that I get to do for schools, but in all of those keynotes, I never heard much advice that felt like it applied to me.

So I spent years cobbling together my own list of successful approaches and tactics for the profiles I was responsible for on a day-to-day basis.

The reality is that some of the best things I’ve learned over the years are the exact opposite of advice offered by the gurus giving the keynotes. (I’ll share one example below.)

Slowly, I figured out how to tell some of the most difficult profiles.

I’m not talking about the ones that are so electric that they basically write themselves.

I’m talking about those “must-do” stories about the incoming president, the boring donor, the brilliant-but-not-super-articulate student.

I learned how to write difficult profiles that earned praise like this:

And this:

Here’s one example of advice you shouldn’t follow.

For years, I hung onto advice I got from top journalists about keeping my questions close to the vest.

Here is advice from a journalism website that encourages exactly that approach:

If you’re a certain kind of journalist — interviewing media-weary celebrities or CEOs with something to hide, for example — this advice makes perfect sense!

But I encourage you to put yourself in the mindset of the typical person you’re interviewing. They probably haven’t done a ton of interviews. They’re probably not working for hours with publicists to craft quotes and position themselves.

They’re regular people who are scared that they’re going to say something dumb and end up looking silly in front of their classmates and friends and colleagues. They’re worried that in the moment of the interview, they’ll forget something important that would have made the story better.

They probably just want to prepare so they can do a really good job for you.

Let them!

Yes, they might start off stilted, but it’s almost always easy to nudge people beyond their talking points, especially when they understand that you’re both aiming at the same thing.

Giving sources the opportunity to prepare by sharing my questions in advance has never made a single one of my interviews worse — and it has made a whole lot of them way better. It requires me to do smart preparation well in advance. And at the end of many of these interviews, many sources will ask if I want their notes, or if they can say one more thing that they wanted to mention.

OF COURSE I WANT THESE THINGS. You should, too.

You’ll do lots of difficult profiles over the course of your career. When anyone offers you the chance to make one of those profiles easier, LET THEM.

Over the years, I’ve learned – the hard way! — many different tools and tips to make difficult profiles easier. These are just a few of them. Do you have your own tips you’ve learned along the way? Let me know.

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