Monday, September 12, 2011
Writing a profile about someone who is interdisciplinary can be challenging but is a lot of fun and an incredible learning experience. Recently, after several people asked me how I go about it I stopped to think about the process. I write these types of profiles in several venues so there isn't a one size fits all answer. No question: there is always lot of data gathering. For every line written, many lines go unwritten and you have to decide what to put in and what to leave out. However, the starting point always includes knowing who your audience is and what their expectations are. Audience understanding leads to what questions to ask in an interview, how you ask them, and then as you write, and those all-important decisions about tone, depth, and overall profile structure. Compare the approach in two very different outlets: a blog post and a book.
Blog Profile Guiding Principle: Be part of the process and keep the information to one, or at most two, points. When I write a blog post I assume my audience expects a fairly short, punchy profile. I have to get to the point rapidly. There will be a computing component and another field (discipline) component. I assume a broad computing audience that may or may not have experience in the non-computing field. When I conduct the interview (and there is usually only one interview) I can share related experiences as I strive to learn about the other person's work as rapidly as possible. You can only keep someone on a Skype call for so long before everyone's brain wears out. When I write the blog post I can share my own insights from the interview which helps the audience relate to what I am writing about. In fact, they expect to hear my voice and thoughts – both directly and indirectly. In a sense, my audience and I learn together.
Book Chapter Profile Guiding Principle: Step back and tell a story with many related topics under one major theme. The profiles in my upcoming book on socially beneficial computing are chapter length so you know there is going to be a lot of information which has to be spread out and logically tied together. As in a blog post, there will be a computing component and another field component; my audience is highly unlikely to have experience in the non-computing material. Therefore I know that unless I want to lose my readers at the starting gate I have to provide an engaging yet structured presentation with a clear set of goals. There is time to deepen and broaden the material. My readers do not expect to hear my opinions and insights. Thus when I conduct the interviews (usually there are many interviews extending over many months) I have to pay particular attention to not interjecting my experience and perspective into the conversation. If I don't stick to this interview approach, we will never get to all the complex technical and non-technical information about their work and how it has evolved. Given how often I talk to each person who is part of one of these extended profiles, and the time they make in their crammed schedules to speak with me, I must make every minute count. It's not about me, it's about them.
You can try something I periodically do to keep on my toes: read a profile someone wrote and try to figure out how they structured the interview(s).
Here are links to some of my prior profile posts. What do you think I did to prepare for each interview and what questions did I ask?