Tom Corfman is “thrilled” and “very excited” whenever he receives a profile to edit as part of Ragan Consulting Group’s Build Better Writers Program.
Job changes and promotions are big moments in people’s lives and sometimes in the lives of their companies, yet corporate communicators routinely fumble these opportunities with boilerplate announcements.
The head of the company is usually “thrilled,” “pleased” or “delighted.” Sometimes, the CEO is even “excited” and “very excited” at the same time, which is a neat trick. Meanwhile, employees are “thrilled” too, unless they’re “honored,” “humbled and excited” or “delighted and grateful.” And that’s just examples from two days this month.
Everyone’s left guessing: What’s all the excitement about?
Communicators should treat these events as news outlets would — with a profile. Move down the job announcement. Move up the personal story. These biographical sketches humanize the employee, personalize the company and offer insights into how it functions.
To illustrate the elements of a good profile, we selected stories from The Wall Street Journal. We quote from the stories to give you a sense of the handiwork, but they deserve to be read in their entirety.
We picked examples from a single month, July 2023, and placed them in the classic organization of a profile: opening anecdote, nut graph, themes, background and the look ahead. Of course, every profile doesn’t have to have all five elements.
1. Opening anecdote
The classic way to begin a profile is a brief story that grabs the reader and illustrates the theme of the story. Take a look at how Alexandra Bruell of The Wall Street Journal began her profile of a senior executive at a rival newspaper, published July 9:
New York Times executive David Perpich woke up one morning last year and read a story about Wordle, the addictive word-puzzle game. He fired off a Slack message around 6:30 a.m. to a colleague who oversees the company’s games unit.
“We’ve gotta go buy this thing,” Perpich wrote. The Times did precisely that a few weeks later.
Perpich, a fifth-generation member of the Ochs-Sulzberger family that has long controlled the Times, has been a force in its expansion beyond news into areas such as games, cooking and product recommendations.
Now that strategy faces its biggest test: Will becoming a big player in sports-media, through the $550 million acquisition of the Athletic last year, pay off?
The opening is a fitting story for an acquisition exec, then touches on his family ties before turning to why we care: he’s led the expansion of one the largest newspapers in the nation and now confronts the challenge of making a $550 million purchase profitable. People care about big numbers.
2. Nut graph
In newsrooms, the paragraph or two that tells the story “in a nutshell” is called a nut graph or nut graf. In the newsroom of The Philadelphia Inquirer in the mid-1980s, it was known as the “You may have wondered why we invited you to this party” section.
The nut graph often will convey a point of view. In a profile, it should also express the essence of the personality of the subject of the story. And it should end with a strong quote. Consider the nut graph of Ellen Gamerman’s profile of Fran Drescher, published July 22:
The 65-year-old performer known for the ’90s sitcom “The Nanny,” who once talked about bringing glitz and glamour to her role as president of the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, suddenly finds herself in a very different situation. Now her uniform is T-shirts and leggings as she pickets in broiling heat with the rest of the union in its strike over a new three-year contract with studios.
Her next step may prove even more challenging: Holding together a union famous for its infighting if the strike drags on into the fall or even winter, as many expect.
“I’m not ‘The Nanny,’” she said in a recent interview. “I’m an activist on behalf of labor.”
The shift from “glitz and glamour” to “T-shirts and leggings” describes Drescher’s personality as much as her wardrobe, underscored by her quote. Picketing in the “broiling heat” paints a picture while Gamerman concisely describes Drescher’s twin challenges: winning a new contract while keeping her fractious membership united.
For corporate communicators, the nut graph is the place to tuck in news of the promotion or hiring.
The nut graph sets up the body of the story, where we develop one or two themes about the subject. Thorough reporting is crucial. Collect stories. Uncover relevant anecdotes that give us insight into your subject’s character. Always be mindful of answering these questions: Why are we writing this profile now? And why should we care?
A profile doesn’t always have to start with an anecdote. See how the lede, or first sentence, headline and teaser work together in this profile by Miriam Gottfried, published July 14:
“Bond King, Felon, Billionaire Philanthropist: The Nine Lives of Michael Milken”
The former financier is putting $500 million into the Milken Center for Advancing the American Dream
Michael Milken wants to live forever.
At age 77, the billionaire is thinking about his legacy, Gottfried writes. After his conviction for securities and tax violations in 1990, he went on to establish the Milken Institute think tank and his Prostate Cancer Foundation and become an influential figure in medical research and philanthropy. Now, he’s planning to open a museum to capitalism and social mobility in Washington, D.C.
What makes Milken run? Gottfried writes:
Milken, who has three children and 10 grandchildren, has already cheated death once. Shortly after his release from prison in 1993, he received a diagnosis of terminal prostate cancer and was told he had 12 to 18 months to live. He survived thanks to a relentless pursuit of the latest treatments and a dramatic change in diet. Longevity is one focus of the Milken Institute.
Developing themes takes thoughtful reporting, Washington Post profile expert Geoff Edgers says. Start by interviewing outside voices, people who know the subject but aren’t obviously in their corner.
Spend as much time interviewing the subject as possible. Consider tagging along while they work.
“To ask a really high-yielding question, you need to have done your homework,” Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Jodi Kantor of the Times says.
4. How did your subject get here?
Profiles aren’t resumes, but readers want to know how your subject got here. On July 9, the Journal published, “The Professor Helping Guide Billions in Climate Spending: Jesse Jenkins’s ZERO Lab says faster upgrades for the power grid are essential.”
Scott Patterson’s profile has an unconventional start. It doesn’t begin with an anecdote. Jenkins isn’t mentioned until the third paragraph. The profile begins by explaining that we should care about his group because of its influence on federal climate change policy. Here’s how Patterson neatly sums up Jenkins’ career:
Jenkins, 39, an assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Princeton’s Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment, studied computer programming at the University of Oregon and got his Ph.D. in engineering, with a focus on energy systems, from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
A course at Oregon with physics professor Gregory Bothun, who also studies climate change and sustainable energy, “opened my eyes to all these challenges that would be fun to solve and societally important,” Jenkins said in an interview in his Princeton University office.
Jenkins moved to Princeton in 2019 along with his wife and two children. His wife’s ability to take on full-time care of their children gave him the freedom to dedicate himself to his projects, he said. Over the last four years, his lab has landed nearly $6 million in funds from nonprofit foundations, federal agencies, Bill Gates’s Breakthrough Energy and corporate giants such as Google and General Electric. “I got to build my own think tank,” he said.
There’s just enough detail to explain how he got to where he is today.
5. Look ahead.
What’s next? In the classic formulation, profiles end by looking forward. What’s the subject’s future? In a corporate profile, this may provide some insight into what your subject wants to accomplish. Just beware of the generic, “moving this company forward” and “harnessing the talents of our excellent workforce.”
Emily Bobrow profiled Simu Liu, who’s in this summer’s blockbuster “Barbie” movie. He also played the title role in the 2021 movie “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” Marvel’s first Asian superhero. The story was published July 19.
His career would seem to be hot right now, yet one of the themes Bobrow develops is the shortage of opportunities for Asian actors. Liu has a business degree and briefly worked for a Big 4 accounting firm before starting his acting career. Bobrow ends her piece this way:
As actors join Hollywood writers in striking for better pay, Liu acknowledges that he is now among the few who can make a living from acting. Yet he notes that it is still rare for him to read a script with a lead part he can play. He now finds himself “flexing his B-school muscles” by partnering with producers and writers earlier in the process to develop stories with Asian roles. “There’s no ‘made it’ for someone who looks like me,” he says. “There’s still a mountain to climb.”
How to Start
Writing a profile might seem like a tall order after reading this analysis of each of the elements. But every profile doesn’t have to have all the elements. Moreover, solid reporting makes the job easier.
“If you have a story, it is not hard to tell,” Ernest Hemingway wrote in 1949 in a letter to the publisher Charles Scribner. “Maybe people won’t believe it. But you can tell it straight and true.”