Sunday, October 18, 2015

Profiles and Dumb Questions

Occasionally I write profiles of people and companies. Haven’t made it into The New Yorker yet, but I have been featured in Air Conditioning, Heating, and Refrigeration News and Paint and Coatings Industry  -- so there.

There are (or used to be)  publications like those for every industry. Usually there’d be two or three in each, because someone in the business is the CEO, someone else is the technical expert behind the product or service, and there’s a purchasing agent and the marketing department, even if it's a one-man company and they’re all the same guy. You could slant the writing to the interests of each in the publication that catered to each. Enterprising business writers traditionally made their living emphasizing different aspects of a basic story for different audiences. I guess they’d call it “repurposing” now.   

For reasons I have to think back about to explain, I’ve always preferred writing for trade publications like those rather than consumer publications. Pay is less and exposure is nil, but it just seems there’s something more …solid…about it. Those business book editors gave you specific assignments and expected pertinent information back. You weren’t going to slip a wad of “content” past them.

The profile assignment would usually be someone selected for his or her reputation in the industry or maybe for something newsworthy they’d done. It’s where one of my specialties, the dumb question, comes into play. 

Dumb questions are the secret behind being able to go, with nothing but scribbling ability, into an interview in a business or a technical operation you may know nothing or very little about and come out with a story. I’m good at asking dumb questions. The skill part of course is asking the right dumb questions. At the end, you organize what you’ve learned, consider your audience, decide on the “voice,” et voila -- your article.  

Those assignments are the easy ones. It’s trickier developing a profile about someone undistinguished or an “average” business. You have to believe -- I do -- there’s a story in every business. Maybe you can see what it is going in but, then, maybe it only emerges at the end, and when it’s finished and it’s good you feel like you’re reading it for the first time yourself. 

It’s a good feeling all around. Your editor is happy (you’ve met the deadline); the interviewee is delighted (he sees himself and his business reviewed, to the envy of his peers); and for a writer, it’s knowing you were skilled enough to find the story where maybe not everyone could. Very satisfying.