How Journalists Get Their Profile Subjects to Open Up

Seven Narratively writers lift the curtain on what measures they take to get their subjects to trust them, from coming prepared to being fully present to really listening. 

How Journalists Get Their Profile Subjects to Open Up

Having recently launched our first-ever Profile Prize (!), we’ve been thinking about profile stories a lot lately. In the first piece of this three-part how-to series, we started at the very beginning and shared how the authors of some of our favorite Narratively profiles found their subjects. For part two, we picked the brains of those same seven writers about what comes next. In other words, once you’ve chosen your subject, how do you get them to agree to actually chat with you? And once you do get a yes, what can you do to make them feel comfortable enough that they share real, meaningful information about themselves? Keep reading to hear what these intrepid writers had to say — and hopefully this advice can serve as inspiration when writing your own profile. (We’re accepting entries through April 14!)

Jordan Daniels, author of “America’s Next Top Male Model Wears Size XXXXL,” tracked down his subject, plus-size model Ady Del Valle, via social media and got a pretty easy yes. By the time Daniels, who had been a fan, reached out, he already had a clear vision for the piece, which he thinks helped. “Knowing that they wanted to break into fashion while also getting the opportunity to tell their story on a broader platform, I believe the pitch that I gave to Ady very much aligned with where they wanted to move forward in their journey,” Daniels says. 

To get Del Valle to open up, Daniels crafted intentional questions and encouraged Del Valle to answer honestly. Because they live in different places, their interview was conducted over the phone, and Daniels was careful to ask for consent to record the call, as well as to “probe deeper with any questions I had,” Daniels says. 

It also helped that the two of them were able to connect personally. “We were both very excited to have this story being told, especially as it’s a story that wasn’t being told at all through our lenses,” Daniels says, “and so I believe that created a comfort knowing that I, as a fat, queer person of color, was helping tell the story of another fat, queer person of color.” 

Sometimes it just comes down to the way a subject and writer gel together. “Us framing this as a collaboration,” Daniels says, “was the most beautiful way for this story to bear this great fruit.” 

Ivana Rihter, who wrote “Meet the Paranormal Moms Society,” about a group of ghost-hunting moms in the suburbs, didn’t know her subjects personally either. But after she tracked down their info and reached out, they all got back to her. Rihter’s approach when interviewing is always the same, “whether on the phone with a paranormal investigator or in person with a big celebrity,” she says. Beforehand, she does a lot of research and prep work, and then during the conversation, she tries to be fully present. She believes that approaching an interview like a genuine conversation and letting your subject lead the way allows everyone’s guards to come down. 

“I think the most important thing is to be a really active, empathetic listener. I always try to make people feel safe and cared for and understood,” she says. “I want everyone I interview to feel like their story is in good hands with me because I have not arrived with assumptions or ideas about them at the start.”

For Hallie Lieberman, the writer of The Deep South’s Dames of Dildos,” getting in touch with her subjects, three generations of women who co-run a sex toy store, was pretty painless. “People in the sex toy industry are some of the best people to work with on articles,” the sex and gender historian says. Lieberman thinks this is because people who get into this line of business are usually a compassionate, warm and funny bunch. Plus, they’re often “happy to get media coverage that isn’t making caricatures of them or presenting their industry in a horrible light.”

As is the case with many of these profiles, naturally, so much of it is about the person or people you’re profiling. “When I pitched, I didn’t know the subjects, but after I traveled to Florence, Alabama, I immediately felt welcomed by them,” Lieberman says. “The story wouldn’t have worked if my subjects hadn’t been so kind, generous, and friendly.”

Before meeting in person, Lieberman and her subjects had bonded on the phone over having sold sex toys — Lieberman had sold sex toys for an in-home party planning company years before. Once she arrived in Florence, they spent a lot of down time together getting to know each other. They went to dinner together; hung out at the sex toy store; Lieberman went with Christy, one of the main subjects, to pick up her granddaughter from school at one point. “I think all that helped,” Lieberman says. “But the main thing was that they were so welcoming and inviting.”

Of course, it isn’t always that easy. Once Dylan Taylor-Lehmam, author of America’s Most Flamboyant Private Eye and the 8,000-Mile Manhunt,” found his subject, he showed up at his office in a jacket and tie and pitched the idea of authoring an updated biography about his life and legacy (which he’s still working on, in addition to the profile he wrote). While he did eventually get his subject, private investigator Jay J. Armes, to agree to be profiled, it took some work. 

Perhaps due to the nature of the work he does or his suspicions about people trying to profit from his legacy, I had to prove to him I was serious about telling his story and capturing his voice accurately,” Taylor-Lehmam says. Which he did. He showed Armes other pieces he’d written that portrayed complicated people fairly and even empathetically, and shared things with Armes that he’d uncover in his research process as he went, which helped. 

Taylor-Lehmam took other measures to make his subject feel comfortable. He let him answer questions or tell stories uninterrupted and tried to be “as sincere as possible about my interest in learning more about his life,” he says. He also believes that checking in regularly and keeping Armes updated about where the story was going “helped keep the relationship fresh and the opportunity for further conversation possible.”

“Still, there was always some amount of distance that made it hard to know where I really stood with him,” Taylor-Lehman says. “But then again, always being slightly on guard with a subject made for a very interesting dynamic that at times (gladly) made me feel like I was personally in some kind of detective story.”

The writers behind Revolución on the Cookie Factory Floor,” Facundo Iglesia and Sofía Kuan, also had some work to do before getting their subjects, the workers at a troubled cookie factory, to agree to speak. The workers had taken over running the factory after their bosses stopped paying them, so they were going through legal issues when Iglesia and Kuan first reached out. Because of their precarious circumstances, speaking to the media wasn’t exactly at the top of their agenda. 

“It took a lot of calls from our side to let them know that we would not interfere in their processes and that it would be safe to speak to us,” Kuan says. Once they got an eviction notice, though, they were much more open to speaking about what they were going through. 

Iglesia also believes that meeting face-to-face changed everything. “We had been speaking over the phone for a while since they didn’t want the media to visit the factory back then,” he says, “but at one point, they organized a protest at the factory after months of not speaking with the media, and I showed up,” Iglesia, who traveled 500 miles to get there, says. “I think that was a defining moment for our story.”

Iglesia and Kuan let the workers’ experiences guide their reporting, allowing them to better understand, and ultimately tell, their story. “We paid attention to their words and tried to honor them and, by doing so, we think the story turned out to have a lot of heart,” Kuan says. 

When Amanda Bloom first moved to New Haven, Connecticut, she met Sabir Abdussabur, the subject of her profile, Inspired by Black Lives Matter, This Masked Man Patrols Under the Cover of Darkness,” while he was on duty. Soon after, they ended up being members of the same co-working space, so getting in touch wasn’t hard. “He was generous with his story and his time,” Bloom says. 

She recalls interviewing Abdussabur once or twice at The Grove, their co-working space, but the rest of the time she joined him on his patrols, spending several hours with him cumulatively. “That was probably the key to the story — getting out of bed at odd hours of the night and tagging along while he rode the streets,” she says. “I had the opportunity to observe, take notes and ask questions when he had downtime.”

When phrasing her interview questions, Bloom likes to word them carefully so she’s not assuming anything about the subject’s experience. “I also try to feel out what questions are appropriate at what times,” she says. “The more time I spent with Sabir, the more comfortable I felt asking deeper questions.”

That kind of dedication and hours logged shows in her profile, as it does in Joe Henley’s story, “Meet Ladybeard, the Crown Prince of Japan’s Strangest Music Scene.” Henley’s subject, Richard Magarey, a cross-dressing death metal musician who goes by the name Ladybeard, had been an acquaintance for years. (They had met on tour.) So, getting in touch was just a matter of shooting Magarey a DM — he agreed to be profiled immediately. 

Still, whether you’re meeting an interview subject for the first time or you’ve known them for years, Henley believes it’s important to establish some sort of rapport. “If they’re not comfortable with you, it’s going to show out in their answers, and ultimately reflect in the quality, or lack thereof, of the profile,” he says. 

For Henley, establishing a rapport begins with research. “You have to know where the common ground is, or what sort of topics you might broach to break the ice. I think it’s important that the subject doesn’t see themselves as a means to an end, or a mere product,” he says. 

With Ladybeard, it was easy since they both came from a music background, but if they hadn’t, Henley says he would have searched for some kind of common ground to use as a starting off point. He believes in “not just diving into the questions like it’s all business,” but rather starting an interview off with a bit of conversation to set everyone at ease. “No matter where we might come from as writers, there is always something of ourselves to see in our subjects,” Henley says. “That’s the challenge. That’s the goal.” 

Feeling inspired to go out and find your own subject to profile? We hope so! Through April 14, you can enter your own completed story in our first-ever Narratively Profile Prize, judged by renowned journalists Gay Talese, Lisa Lucas and Rebecca Traister. 

The grand prize winner will receive $3,000, and the two finalists will receive $1,000 each. In the meantime, check out this page, which has all the details on how to submit.