This month’s Journalism Workshops on Producing a Personality Piece were taught by Gina Chen, a veteran newspaper journalist who is studying for a communications Ph.D at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University.
She has worked at newspapers for 20 years, including the past 15 at The Post-Standard. Since 2007, she was Family Life editor there and blogged about being a mom for the newspaper’s Web site. She currently blogs at Harvard University’s Nieman Journalism Lab.
Gina explained that a personality piece is a profile — a story about a person. It is about someone you want to write about and someone who has done something interesting.
Gina provided several tips for those interested in writing a profile. She suggested to think of why you want to cover your profile subject; what makes them interesting, and why would they be interesting to The Stand’s readers. Good profile subjects are “people who have had an impact on the community or have affected the community,” she said.
Next, jot down questions about what you want to know about that person and what other people may want to know.
She reminded attendees that there are two types of questions:
Close-Ended Questions and Open-Ended Questions
Close-Ended Questions are one that get a yes or no answer. For example if you asked someone, “Do you like dogs?” Then they could respond with either “yes” or “no.”
Better questions for interviews are Open-Ended Questions. These provide more information and more details and are usually joined with follow-up questions and lead to even more questions. And it’s easy to transform a Close-Ended Question into an Open-Ended Question: you can add the word Why to the end of your question. Or ask the profile to describe what they saw, how they felt, why they did something, etc.
Other good questions are to ask people to think of their Most Interesting Moment, Favorite Activity/Project, etc. This forces them to think of something specific and then describe it.
A final technique Gina mentioned was Reflective Listening. If while you are interviewing someone and they say something you didn’t quite hear or understand, you simply ask: “Can you repeat that last part?” Or if you are taking notes and listening, but are not sure you understood something clearly, you can ask: “So what I understand you to mean is ______?” The person being interviewed should not mind this, because they will appreciate that you are doing everything you can to get correct information.
Now after you have finished your interview, you must pick and choose the most important and interesting points to highlight and write about. To think of a lead (start of your story), it is best to think, if I was telling my friend about what this story is about, I would say: _____. That most interesting point that you want to share with your friend will likely also interest The Stand’s readers.
Gina said that a profile is like sculpting: “You have to cut away everything that is not important and leave the most descriptive details to provide the best representation of that person.”