John Palcewski has enjoyed a long and eclectic career as a newspaper reporter, music/drama critic, magazine editor, UPI photojournalist, fine arts photographer, poet, and fiction author. Writing a personality profile on Miles Davis launched him on his professional writing career, and he says profiles have always been his favorite thing. "I regard writing profiles as a "kind of journalistic/psychoanalytical process," Palcewski says, "I try to get to know the person as much as possible."
He studies his subject, and gets to know them through research in the library, as well as through their personal friends and family. He advises using the Internet and various search engines to gather everything that has been written about the person.
Note same or similar biographical elements appearing in various sources and also note elements that you can personally relate to.
Don't rely on just taking notes, be sure to also keep a record of the URL where you found each piece of data as you might never locate the source again. Remember, technology is not fail safe -- don't find yourself relying on the Internet without taking valuable notes. Both are important.
Interview as many of the subject's friends and relatives as you can and ask each to describe the subject in 25 words or less (the length of a good newspaper lead!). Gather input as well from the subjects'colleagues, especially those who are critical of him/her.
After you've assembled a nice big pile, very slowly and carefully read it over several times.
"Then sit down and start writing out a list of questions. These questions should flow naturally from the material you've already assembled. Compose questions relating to the contradictory things you've read, and also about other biographical episodes.
"Then arrange for an interview. There is a lot of debate about location, whether it should be on his/her turf, or in a neutral place. Much of it depends on to what extent the subject wants to cooperate. But it's essential to get as much time as possible, and ideally arrange in advance some follow-up meetings or telephone calls.
"Start the interview with thanking the subject for granting the interview, and make it emphatic! And then begin your questions with all the positive things the subject has been involved with, allow him/her to revisit pleasant experiences.
"As you are conducting the interview, it's essential to make the subject know that you are truly INTERESTED in what he/she is saying. That means sitting on the edge of your chair, leaning forward just a bit, and keeping eye contact. People know when you are receptive, or when you are just going through the motions.
"The fact that you have spent the time doing your homework will soon become apparent to the subject, and body language that reinforces your interest will create the best possible climate.
"If there are controversial questions, like a history of drug use or other negative things, save them for the very end. The whole idea is to fashion the interview in such a way that the subject naturally starts revealing personal things. And it will happen only if a feeling of trust has been established.
"If the subject objects to certain questions, you can say, well, look. I'm a journalist, and I'm sorry to be so intrusive, but readers ARE curious about these things. Another way to frame difficult questions is to say: "Many people would say that..." followed by either silence or "What would YOU say to them?"
"I usually use a tape recorder for two reasons. One, you have something that is "proof" beyond question of what was said. Two, you must spend a lot of time transcribing the tape. This gives you further time saturating yourself with the subject. The idea here is to "master" the material. Doing so not only brings a fuller understanding of the subject, but it also makes the writing easier."A favorite aphorism of John's is: "Master the content; form will rise to meet you."
Other professional writers offered these tips
- If the subject can't talk when you contact them, find a specific time frame that suits both your schedules, and allow set the date to set aside time to be interviewed. It will less pressured and they'll feel more in control.
- Letting the person take the lead is essential to having a good laid back interview.
- If you are interviewing by phone, start to wrap up the interview before the person gets tired and is ready to quit. Often the interviewee comes forward with good information at this point--many Interviewees have specific things they want included. Or, make sure you ask, "Is there anything else you would like to add?"
- Be prepared. Make a list of questions and them hone them down. Don't have too many, and allow room for spontaneous conversation.
- Do research before you go. If there are things from other articles or promotional material you want to use, be sure to ask if it's correct. You'd be surprised how many times you'll be told, "no, actually...."
- If possible, interview the person in a place where they feel most comfortable, and don't forget to build rapport and identify with them.
- Most people, particularly older/retired individuals, are often quite humble; they don't see anything spectacular or unusual about their lives. Chatting a bit before the interview often helps you to identify a theme-focus if you're interviewing them cold.
"What works best for me is to create a comfortable environment. I let them choose the place, their home works great.
"Then I begin by just chatting and finding a familiar ground. Maybe we have children the same age or we both eat too much chocolate or something like that. Usually if you can find a common thing, a person will open up more.
"To me it isn't about asking all the right questions, but more about drawing lots of goodies out of them. I probably break all the rules of interviewing ... I don't make any lists of questions UNLESS I am interviewing over the phone -- it's best to have a list ready when phoning."Find out about their involvements and interests i.e. member of Rotary Club, quilter, retired Air Force, Vietnam vet, mother, La Leche, etc., church. This gives you not only different aspects to investigate or ask about, but sometimes it gives insight into what kind of person they are. It also opens more markets for a profile article.
Kim Pawlak, who wrote 'Notables,' a textbook author profile advised requesting the author's curriculum vitae or resume. It contains the statistics, numbers of books published, awards, success of the books, etc. In addition to researching documented material, she also talked to professors in the subject's field who shed light on the author.
Karen Blue, freelance writer who retired to Mexico where she wrote extensively about the benefits to single women who relocated there, says
- Take notes about body language. (Chewing fingers, blowing smoke rings, etc.) to make your profile more personal.
- Always have a general idea about where the interview is going, but encourage them to go off on a tangent if it seems more interesting than the stock questions you had prepared.
- Take pictures, you'll forget after a while what some interviewees looked like. And have a backup recorder and batteries.