Breathing Life into Profiles: 5 Steps for Finding and Writing Exciting Personal Stories

January 31, 2014

While waiting for the dentist, you begin to read a magazine story about a couple’s search for a new home.

When your name is called, you’re so absorbed that you carry the magazine to the exam room. What happened? You’re not obsessed with real estate. You don’t know the couple. So, why were you so engrossed in their story?

For most people, the dry facts about a new apartment complex’s built-in storage systems and balcony features are about as interesting as watching paint dry. But wrap these same facts in the tale of a couple’s search for a home big enough for the husband’s “Star Wars” figurine collection and the wife’s pet canaries, and suddenly it has come to life.

Using the personal story, often referred to as a profile or case study, to showcase a service or product is a powerful PR tool. What could have been a boring pitch, press release or Web content turns into an engaging family drama.

A profile works for just about any product or service — from cars, to cosmetics, to investments, to insurance and more. For example, the health and medical communities often utilize profiles to illustrate the benefits of medical treatments and services. Following the saga of a person’s illness/accident, their search for a solution and discovery of a life-saving and changing treatment — against the backdrop of a gripping family story — is a tried and true way of connecting a human face to technical information.

The key to writing a compelling profile is incorporating the right mix of hard facts (statistics, concrete specs) and soft ones (the person’s social and emotional challenges, concerns). 

Here’s how:

Find the right people to interview.

The best profiles feature people with interesting stories/situations.

  • Develop contacts via your sales and customer service areas, or via sales meetings.

    Ask them for suggestions of people who have interesting stories and who could work as possible subjects to profile. Usually people on the frontlines who interact with the folks using the product or service on a day-to-day basis know who they are. If you’re working in the medical area, then reach out to physicians and their support staffs for possible candidates.

Get the story.

  • Familiarize yourself with the particular product or service that the person is using before the interview. 
  • Learn from a frontline contact about the candidate’s experience, so you enter the interview prepared. Your frontline connection should also provide a quote about how the product/service helped them solve the profile subject’s problem. You can work these words into the final writing of the story to add depth and highlight key messaging.
  • Craft a series of questions covering concrete details (person’s age, location, family status, occupation) and those about their reason for seeking out and utilizing the service or product. Include the amount of time their search took, how they discovered it, their expectations of it and their experience with it.
  • Remain open-minded during the interview without preconceptions of how it will go. Listen carefully and with curiosity. Be prepared to stray from your questions to ask ones that might naturally occur to you.
  • Take detailed notes. Don’t be afraid to ask the person to pause while you write down thoughts. Or, prior to the interview, request permission to record it.
  • Make sure that the interviewee signs an organization-approved release form.

Pay attention to details.

  • Spend enough time interviewing to learn about the person’s life. That’s where the color and emotion usually lie.
  • Focus on specifics of their search, including the options considered, who was involved in the search, what attracted them to the service or brand and how they first learned about it. 
  • Ask how they felt during each phase of their saga. This question often elicits what will become key quotes.
  • Double-check that you’ve covered all of your questions.
  • Ask if they’d like to add anything more. This often generates a strong quotation summing up the person’s experience. 

Craft the story.

  • Start with the problem to be solved in the lead and the solution in the nut graph. In the body of the story, follow the chronology of the person’s journey through their attempts to find a solution, and how they felt along the way.
  • Describe the service or product, presenting it as the possible answer to the person’s problem. You can reuse this section in a revised and condensed version as the story headline.
  • Quote the interviewee throughout the piece. Also include a quote from the frontlines contact about the product/service and the solution that it provides.
  • End on a high note with the problem solved and a quote from the interviewee about the level of satisfaction that he or she feels about finding this product/service.

1 Profile, 10 Uses

  1. Pitch a shorter version of the profile to key media and offer interviews with the subject.
  2. Feature it in press materials.
  3. Post the profile on your organization’s website with a photo.
  4. Include a version of the story in an e-newsletter.
  5. Tweet a link to the post on the organization’s website.
  6. Spotlight a brief version of the piece on your organization’s Facebook page with a link to the full story.
  7. Showcase it in annual reports.
  8. Utilize the story at organization meetings to build employee engagement.
  9. Highlight the profile in sales materials and feature it at sales meetings.
  10. Make it available to executive spokespeople for brand- and organization-building. 
Andrea Disario
Andrea Disario has 25-plus years of experience in PR and marketing communications. She is also an award-winning fiction writer, a published essayist and a teacher of writing. Contact her via Twitter: @adisario.


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