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How to write a good profile

Authors: Harriet Vickers 

Publication date:  09 Jun 2012


Harriet Vickers offers tips on how to interview someone for publication

Writing a profile is a great excuse to meet some fascinating people, and learning how to get the most out of an interviewee is an essential skill for budding journalists.

Pick a good one

It seems obvious, but choose someone your audience will want to read about. In medicine this could be someone who’s had a high level position, pioneered a successful intervention, worked through an interesting time in their field, or is in the public eye. Check that your ideas haven’t already been covered in the publication, and run them past the appropriate editor.

Get in touch directly

Try to get in touch with people directly. Usually you can find contact details on the web. However, if not, press officers of institutions, such as universities or sports clubs, can help. Send interviewees a couple of short paragraphs on what you want to talk to them about and propose times and dates; people won’t have time to read an essay. Be formal but personable.

Do your research

Most of the interviewee’s career and biography details will probably be online. Check details you’re unsure about, but don’t waste time in the interview getting information you could have read beforehand or could follow up by email after the interview. It’s the interviewees’ anecdotes, motives, and personal insights that will draw readers in. Was there a particular patient that got them into a line of research? Or an incident or failure that set them on their career path? What challenges did they experience, and how did they overcome them?

Go in with a clear idea of what you want

For a profile you have a maximum of 1000 words; you won’t be writing a lengthy biography. Focus on a few areas you’re most interested in, making sure that you have enough background information to contextualise the stories or ideas. What led up to them making an academic leap? In a changing political climate, what are their fears for the future of their specialty?

Write key points you want to cover rather than questions you want to ask

You want it to be a conversation rather than an interrogation, and having key points means you can check them off when you’ve covered them.

Is there a news angle?

Is there anything topical they’d be well placed to comment on? Have they been blogging, tweeting, or writing about current health related events?

Interview in person

Try to do the interview in person rather than over the phone, if possible at their office or clinic. In this setting it is easier to get a better sense of the interviewee and their work and to foster a relaxed conversation. An hour is plenty. Software such as Skype is good for someone international. Email interviews are best avoided.

Unless you have good shorthand, use a recorder. Scribbling notes is distracting and means that you won’t be able to focus on getting the best out of your interviewee. Most smartphones have a voice memo function, or you could even take along a laptop to use. Test it first, and check that your interviewee is happy to be recorded. Keep an eye on the specific timings in the interview and make a note when something interesting was said—you can then fast forward to this part when transcribing, rather than listening through the whole recording.

Keep it focused

You might find the details of their vinyl collection fascinating, but readers won’t. And don’t be afraid to interrupt; give them time to finish thoughts but do steer them back if they’re rambling on about something you won’t include.

“Is there anything else you would like to add?”

This is always a good question to ask at the end of your interview. You may have missed something, or the interviewee might come up with an unexpected anecdote or piece of advice that may become the most interesting or revealing part of your interview.

See if they’ve got a headshot you can include with the article.

After the interview

Don’t be afraid of calling or emailing after the interview to check or ask them to expand on comments. They’ll be as keen to get it right as you.

Transcribe and start writing up the interview soon after the event, while ideas are fresh in your mind. Work in the material that you found most fascinating and relevant. Talking to colleagues about the interview is a good way to gauge what to include.

Often interviewees will ask to see the piece before you publish. Send it to them to check facts, but make it clear that structure and style are your prerogative. They’ve already agreed to the article being published by agreeing to be interviewed.

Competing interests: None declared.

From the Student BMJ.

Harriet Vickers assistant multimedia producer, BMJ

 hvickers@bmj.com

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