How to write a good profile
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. For Student BMJ, 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 your ideas haven’t already been covered in the publication and run them past the appropriate editor.
Get in touch directly
Try and 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 their career and biography details will probably be online. Check details you’re unsure about, but don’t waste the interview getting information you could have read beforehand or 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 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 and 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 you won’t be able to focus on getting the best out of your interviewee. Most smartphones have a voice memo function on them, or you could even take along a laptop to use. Test it first, and check 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 might have missed something or the interviewee might come up with an unexpected anecdote or piece of advice which might end up being 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 material that you found most fascinating and relevant. Talking to other students 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.
Profile highlights from the Student BMJ archive
Advice from David Moore, inventor of an award-winning test for detecting active tuberculosis
Remember that your experience is unique, so if you are wondering why no one has thought of it before, it may be because it is a brilliant new insight that simply hasn’t occurred to anybody else . . . So just try it.
Lodge K-M. Student BMJ 2006;14:353, doi:10.1136/sbmj.0610382
Outspoken neuroscientist Susan Greenfield on early inspiration
I have a small brother, who’s 13 years younger than me. When I was 16, I once brought a dead rabbit from a butcher’s shop, and we both attempted to dig out its brain in our mother’s kitchen. When we came to removing its eyeballs, my brother said, “When the rabbit was alive he could see with the eyeballs. Now that he’s dead, he can’t, can he?” That, I thought, was quite profound for a 3 year old and set me thinking deeply.
Ravichandran B. Student BMJ 2007;15:89-132, doi:10.1136/sbmj.0703116
Getting personal with Nobel prize winner Barry Marshall
How did your family feel about you ingesting the bacteria to prove they cause gastritis and ulceration?
Glynn RW. Student BMJ 2007;15:169-212, doi:10.1136/sbmj.0705198
Ex health minister of Mozambique Francisco Songane’s thoughts on the link between clinical practice and public health
In Mozambique I found it absolutely necessary to consider health in a public health context . . . I had to tackle the social determinants of health—vaccinations, nutrition programmes, and so on. You not only have to solve the problems, but you must also think about the sources.
Pandey KR. Student BMJ 2007:15;133-68, doi:10.1136/sbmj.0704157
Daren Francis, general surgical advisor for Holby City, on medicine on the box
It’s not trying to teach how to do cardiopulmonary resuscitation or a certain operation correctly. It’s a drama. But Holby City does set its standards for medical accuracy high, and they take it seriously.
Chellaswamy R. Student BMJ 2007;15:293-336, doi:10.1136/sbmj.0709312
Correspondence to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Competing interests: None declared.
Provenance and peer review: Commissioned; not externally peer reviewed.
Cite this as: Student BMJ 2012;20:e2951