Research That Shows Exactly How To Improve Your Difficult Profiles

Recently, I’ve been reading a *lot* of profiles about incoming college presidents, chancellors, and heads of schools.

I have plenty of opinions on these profiles, but they could generally be summed up this way.

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These new leaders are clear-eyed about the challenges their schools face! They’re ready to listen to their constituents! They’re excited to help build a brighter futuuuuuuuuuuure!!!!!

In short, these profiles are…fine.

We all have to do them!

But if you’re ready to make that profile better — if you’re ready to make any profile better, I encourage you to think about adding one detail that can change everything.

Your profiles need to go beyond the talking points.

First, let’s just acknowledge that when you’re doing certain types of profiles — the big-deal donor, the new dean, the head of the board of trustees — you’re probably going to have to cover some topics that won’t exactly set fire to the page. Strategic priorities. Core values. Ideals.

But that doesn’t mean that you have to cover only those issues.

As an editor, as a writer, as a communicator, you must be an advocate for your reader.

Your reader might care about all of those priorities and values and ideals! (I mean, who knows?) You should of course include those pieces. But your reader could also read a white paper if that’s all they wanted to know.

Your job — as an advocate for your reader — is to help make the people you’re covering human.

And that means going beyond the numbers and strategic initiatives your profile subject is probably going to want to talk about.

Magnetize readers by illuminating human details.

I’ll give you one example of an alumni magazine presidential profile that didn’t want to make me die.

It was a 2018 profile George Washington University’s new president, Tom LeBlanc. In the lead, LeBlanc shares a story — to an audience of hundreds — about the first time he tried to log in to the university’s system:


The very first thing we learn about this guy is not that he’s smarter than us, more powerful than us, or that he’s got some super genius vision that’s going to change the world forever.

The very first thing that we learn is that he’s pretty much like the rest of us.

He’s human.

I am ready to read about this guy because even though he is smarter than me, more powerful than me, and has a super genius vision that’s going to change the world forever, he is also like me.

Research shows the benefits of sharing subjects’ human quirks.

I’m not sure that President LeBlanc enjoyed being referred to as “the hapless new guy.”

But psychological research suggests that the anecdote that kicked off the feature probably didn’t make readers think less of him.

In fact, research shared in the book Persuasion by psychologist Robert Cialdini suggests the opposite. “Mention[ing] a small shortcoming…can assure [people of a subject’s] sincerity,” he writes.

Showing someone’s human side — even if it doesn’t seem entirely flattering — makes people more likable. More important, it makes them more credible about the things that matter.

The unique power of human details in alumni magazines.

An alumni magazine is designed to share (mostly) good news and inspiring profiles. Often, we go too far in that direction, creating profiles that portray people in our communities as flawlessly smart and successful and generous.

That’s why it’s even more important to find these small details that can showcase your subject’s human qualities.

It’s okay to share that they have so many books in their office that they’re toppling off the desk. It’s okay to share their propensity to tear up every time they hear “Let it Go” from the Frozen soundtrack. It’s okay to share that they don’t always get their login password right. These are the kinds of details that you can divulge even (especially!) about the most successful members of your community.

What do you think? What profile subjects are on your list right now that could be improved with small details that highlight their humanness? Send me an email to share your thoughts.