These 6 techniques will transform your profiles

Nobody knows packaging better than Coca Cola.

I was reminded of this fact when I stopped into a gas station this past summer to pick up a soda. In a single refrigerated case, there were SIX DIFFERENT kinds of regular Coke: 12- and 16-ounce cans, 12-ounce glass bottles, and 16-, 20-, and one-liter plastic bottles.

The point is not that Coke is crazy: it’s that there are lots of different ways to offer what some might say is essentially the same thing to your audience. And they’ll love you if you do it right. (I, of course, was furious that they didn’t have a 12-ounce plastic bottle for sale, because I am insufferable. But I guess packaging really does matter.)

Anyway, experience got me thinking about profiles — the heart of many alumni magazines. So often, we’re tempted to tell profiles in the same one-size-fits-all narrative format (I include myself in this group). But some stories may be better told by breaking things down, building them up, and reshaping them in interesting ways.

Over the past couple months, I’ve spent hours collecting samples of magazine profiles that are told by using unique formats and frameworks. Six of them are below.

Format: The Opening Quote
Source: Runner’s World Cover Contest
The details: This format launches the story with a tiny bio and an incisive quote before digging into the narrative.
Why it works: For a package of profiles on similar kinds of people, differentiation is key. Instead of committing to an entire story, readers can scan the quotes to find the profiles that resonate with them most.
Use it here: Got a package of profiles on a half-dozen professors who just got tenure? Ten alumni who are changing the world of technology? This approach is fantastic.
Other examples: HHMI’s “Indispensibles.”

Format: The Dossier
Source: Vanity Fair’s What You Should Know About…
The details: This format mixes quotes and narrative packed into easy-to-read chunks.
Why it works: You don’t need to rely on a super-quotable source, and the format doesn’t demand a clean beginning, middle, and end. This quick read packs in lots of information.
Use it here: Need to cram (what should be) a 1,500 word story into half the space? Drop the transitions and go straight to the best details. This format is also perfect for a wide-ranging interview that would feel too scattershot if confined to a strict narrative.
Other examples: Jason Segel got the VF treatment here.

Format: What Shaped Me
Source: Entertainment Weekly’s Books of My Life
The details: Discover an artist through the works that shaped them.
Why it works: It’s tough to tell compelling tales about authors, since so much of their work happens inside their heads. Sharing the books that have influenced an author often can reveal more than a typical narrative profile. Smart questions, like the ones in this Entertainment Weekly piece, make all the difference.
Use it here: Author profiles are an excellent place to try this format out, but also consider anyone whose art is difficult to capture on paper.
Other examples: More “Books of My Life” stories here.

Format: What I’ve Learned
Source: Esquire magazine’s Tony Bennett: What I’ve Learned
The details: This format is a Q&A without the Q. The sharp quotes demand incisive and often strange questions by the interviewer, but these stories are so popular that Esquire once did a whole issue in this format.
Why it works: Somehow, even the most vacant celebrity sounds like a sage using this format. If you’re prepared to spend lots of time asking questions to get the ideal responses, this kind of packaging is addictively readable.
Use it here: I love this idea for just about anyone. And you can even reverse-engineer some of the Esquire answers to figure out what kinds of questions get great responses.
Other examples: Check out Esquire’s vast archive of What I’ve Learned Stories, organized alphabetically and by profession.

Format: [TK] Minutes With…
Source: New York Magazine’s 190 Minutes with Tinsley Mortimer
The details: This approach isn’t so much a form of packaging as framing: the reporter spends a specific amount of time doing some activity with the source: strolling around town, taking a cooking class, playing pinball. It takes the reader (mostly) chronologically through that event while interspersing it with relevant details about the subject’s past, coming work, and interests.
Why it works: Celebrity stories all start to sound the same after awhile, but dropping a source into an activity and reporting on their real-time reactions, rather than sifting through the same old stories that have been told for years, ensures that there will always be a unique tale to share.
Use it here: For any source that’s been featured endlessly in your magazine, this kind of profile can be a great way to put a new spin on a familiar topic (assuming, of course, that you’ve got in-person access).
Other examples: You can see more of the “[TK] Minutes With” stories here.

Format: The Closing Quote
Source: Details’ Hollywood Mavericks
The details: Much like the opening quote format, the closing quote approach offers separate, called-out quote that gives readers a different entry point to the profile.
Why it works: This format works for the same reason the opening quote sibling does. But even better, it allows you to include a dek to give a short synopsis. For writers, these profiles can be tough to keep short and sharp, but they’re fun to read.
Use it here: Again, this is perfect for feature packages that includes many mini-profiles of a few hundred words or less.