One well-paid niche many freelance writers aspire to get into is writing business profiles. But often, when writers try this niche, they discover a problem.
The piece reads more like a press release for the company. This business owner is awesome! Their product is amazing!
One writer recently asked me:
“I’m interviewing a local businesswoman tomorrow that I pitched to my editor. This piece will appear in the business section of the newspaper. The editor asked that I not make the story too advertorial. My question is, what should I ask to help balance the story?”–Janet
Great question. Because too many writers turn in pieces that end up getting killed because they aren’t balanced, hard-hitting business profiles — they’re more like “puff” pieces or thinly disguised PR work.
The editor might start to wonder if you’re secretly on that business’s payroll and just posing as a journalist. That’s why badly done business profiles die.
How can you please business editors with your profile? Here are my tips:
Don’t drink the Kool-Aid
When you’re talking to the owner, they will be spouting their company’s PR line about their own greatness. It can feel like you’re caught in a heavy snowstorm and can no longer see the outlines of the buildings — or the real story.
Remember that your job is to come at this skeptically. You are not part of this company’s sales or PR team, and your story doesn’t exist to help boost their sales (though many owners imagine that’s the point). Don’t just nod your head and write down what they say.
You’re here to get the whole story — not just the glowing high points.
Get facts and figures
When a business owner tells you their sales are booming, find out by how much. If there have been layoffs, how many people were let go? How many new customers have they found this year?
Owners love to be vague about revenue numbers, but the details are what make your story credible — and not a PR job.
In particular, many privately held companies won’t want to tell you their annual revenue. But you want to make them. They’ll say they don’t disclose it — but ask them if a sales figure has ever appeared in an industry trade journal, at a conference, anywhere. If so, you’d like to include it. At worst, get them provide percentages, as in “sales rose 200 percent compared with last year.”
Once you’ve got your facts and figures, let those tell the story. Nail down every assertion you make about the company’s success with proof. Don’t make the reader take your — or the owner’s — word for it.
Decipher the jargon
Every industry has its own shorthand, and the owner will likely babble along spouting these terms. Unless you’re writing for an audience of only other people in that industry, be sure to get the owner to translate it all into English.
Companies also often have their own buzzwords for how they do what they do. Don’t be shy about asking for further explanation if it’s not obvious to you — because if you don’t get it, readers won’t either.
Ask the hard questions
Good business profiles usually touch on the dark side of the business in some way. Was last year the worst ever? How did they turn that around? Did a competitor put out a better product recently? Did the owner face a health crisis?
Find out what the biggest threat is to this business. Are costs rising? New competitors entering the market?
One way to snap owners out of their PR spiel is to ask them what they do all day, hour by hour. Often, that will touch on the problems they’re dealing with.
Ultimately, what makes this business truly stand out in the marketplace? What does it have that’s unique? Don’t leave the owner’s office without the answer to that one.
Remember that as a reporter, your opinions are not part of the story. So if you bond with the owner and decide she’s the most good-hearted person ever, her charitable work is impressive, and you want to be best friends, that’s all swell.
But none of that should appear in the article. Don’t editorialize. If the owner’s character is truly outstanding, get someone else in the story to say that. Speaking of which…
Talk to others
There’s nothing more boring — or one-sided — than a business profile where the only interview is with the business owner. Dig deeper to learn in more depth about this business and where it sits in its competitive landscape.
Other people who could share useful insights on a business include:
- A customer
- A line employee
- A competitor
- An angel investor
- Neighboring business owners
- The owner’s mentor
- An advisory board member
- A colleague in a professional organization with the owner
In my days as a staff writer at a regional business journal, we were never allowed to file a business profile without at least one customer interview. Customers are the only ones who can tell you in a hype-free way exactly why a company’s products or services are succeeding — or failing — in the market.
Try to get customers the company doesn’t give you, if possible. I have stood outside hardware stores in the rain and taken to social media to turn up unbiased customers to get their opinions. It’s worth it.
If you turn up bad news in talking to others, remember to circle back and give the owner a chance to respond. Remember, you’re not there to make the owner like you. Your job is to bring back a fascinating, fully fleshed-out story about something innovative or fresh, and make the world of business come alive for the reader.