The SCAM method to better personality profiles

Personality profiles are often heavy on the “profile” but lack “personality.” The ability to go beyond “So and so is not your typical college student…” takes effort, research and most of all observation.

The goal of a good profile piece is to have your readers able to see the subject in their mind’s eye. The ability to visualize the person both physically and beyond is crucial to understanding the individual and the value this person has as as profile subject.

One of my first professors taught me to work on observing a profile subject through the acronym “SCAM.” I have no idea where he got this or if it was original to him, so if you find the original source, I’d love to know it so I can give credit where credit is due.

Here’s what it means:

SETTING: Good writing appeals to the senses. To make that happen, you need to make sure you can explain what’s going on around you. What do the person’s surroundings look like?

  • If it’s a desk worker, how clean is that desk?
  • What type of information is on the bulletin board?
  • If you’re at a person’s home, what kind of décor are we looking at? Is it high-end quality furniture of antique vintage of is it three beanbags with duct tape on them and a giant wooden spool for a table?
  • Does the person have pets running around or is it very cold and empty? If they’ve got pets, what kind of pets are they?
  • What does it sound like? (What kind of music does the person listen to? Imagine going to meet the head of your university and all of a sudden that person turns on the radio, and out pours death metal or gangsta rap.) What sounds surround the person? (A drill in a dentist’s office, the clang of a construction crane)
  • What does it smell like around this person? (Cigarette smoke? Heavy perfume? Hog farm?)

CHARACTER: Who is this person you’re describing? In society we usually start with the physical.

  • What does your source wear? Shirt and tie? High fashion? T-shirt and jeans?
  • What is the height, weight, build of the person? Hair neat and simple or wild and stylish or is it utilitarian?
  • What do their eyes look like? Bright and engaging or do they look dead?
  • What do they drive? What do they own? What do they wear that tells you something important? (An important piece of jewelry?)

The internal stuff is a little harder to get at but is possible. How do they react to people who are important vs. people they view as subordinates? How do they act in public? How do they act in private? What type of language do they use? (prim and proper or cussing that would cause a sailor to blush?) Look for ways to help me understand this person’s inner-self.

ACTION: What does your source do? This can be as simple as tapping a pencil while he or she is talking on the phone or as complicated as explaining the painstaking precision of the bakers on Ace of Cakes.

  • How does your source move? Is it frantic or slow or smooth or ragged?
  • How does your source physically respond to certain things? (Do they always take things in stride or do they freak out?)
  • What kinds of things does your source do when speaking to you? (Do they sit still or are they doing other things? Do they attend solely to you or are you an afterthought?)
  • What actions do they take related to who they are? (Athletes who stretch or limp due to injury or action? People who are hunched from years of specific activities?)

MEANING: You need to make sure that these things matter. You mesh the character, action and scene along with quotes and reporting bits and suddenly you’ve got enough to reveal your source’s personality to the reader. Remember, as Freud once said, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, so don’t overreach for this. Look at what you’ve collected and make an intelligent statement about your source based on what you’ve seen and learned.

 

 

The “Smell It” Lab

Writing detail-oriented pieces, such as profiles or other bits of narrative journalism, requires detail-oriented reporting. In many cases, students struggle with this because they have learned to rely on only a few sense: They hear sources speak and they see the activity going on around them. When those students have to create a deeper or more nuanced “word picture,” they often lack the feel in their reporting and the nuance in their vocabulary to make it work.

To help students better attend to other senses and find better descriptors, I developed two labs: Smell it and Feel it. Today, my feature writing class did the Smell It lab and I captured key moments of it. I also recorded some explanation as to how to go about doing this if you want to give it a try in one of your classes.

The basic idea is to find a way to isolate the sense of smell from the other senses and then force the students to describe the tactile nature of what they were experiencing. Here’s a simple walk through:

Each year, I change up the smells. I try to find variations in terms of things being “heavier” or “lighter” in terms of the smell or “fresher” vs. “dirtier.” In most cases, I tend to pick something “industrial” from my garage (as long as it doesn’t say on the bottle that breathing it in will cause brain damage or something). I also like to pick between my woodcrafting stuff (wood oils, stain), my wife’s essential oils for the fall (spicy, cozy), cleaning products (citrus, soapy) and some sort of food product. I stick with oils or liquids, as I can’t hide the items well enough and still keep them in a plastic bag to use actual items. One year, I used beef jerky, which was great for the smell, but students kept saying, “This smells like beef jerky” because they could see it. A chunk of cloth with a bit of liquid on it works a lot better.

To make the process fair, I have three bags and 15 students, so there are only five slots per hole. This means that every “smell” will have five students who are all working independently and then collaboratively to come up with what they smelled in the bag. Here’s how it works, with a few edits:

 

Once the students get done smelling, they need to come up with a list of 10-15 descriptive words that capture their experience. I allow a few short descriptive phrases, but I try to keep them at single words when possible to have them better focus on the specific sensation:

IMG_4932IMG_4931

Once they have their own lists, they meet up with the other folks who had the same bag and they try to come up with a list of 20-25 words upon which they agree. They will need to compile that list for everyone else to see:

The students then list all their words on the board under their bag’s number:

IMG_4936

Once it’s done, we debrief. I reveal what was in each bag and we go through the list of the words and determine how well those words align with the material that was in the bag. (In this case, it was a splash of a hazelnut-vanilla liqueur, a dose of 2-stroke 50:1 motor oil and a sampling of doTERRA (an essential oil made of citrus and spices/herbs).

Once the students are done with this, I have them write up about a 1/2 page to a full page that includes those words as part of their description of the tactile experience. This is the outcome element I use to assess the entirety of the process. If you want to try it, feel free to include the write up as graded, or a check-off item or something else.

The “Feel It” Lab

Writing detail-oriented pieces, such as profiles or other bits of narrative journalism, requires detail-oriented reporting. In many cases, students struggle with this because they have learned to rely on only a few sense: They hear sources speak and they see the activity going on around them. When those students have to create a deeper or more nuanced “word picture,” they often lack the feel in their reporting and the nuance in their vocabulary to make it work.

To help students better attend to other senses and find better descriptors, I developed two labs: Smell it and Feel it. Today, my feature writing class did the Feel It lab and I captured key moments of it. I also recorded some explanation as to how to go about doing this if you want to give it a try in one of your classes.

The basic idea is to find a way to isolate the sense of touch from the other senses and then force the students to describe the tactile nature of what they were experiencing. I do this with what has lovingly been deemed “The Box of Doom.” Here’s a simple walk through:

 

Each year, I pick various things for the holes. I try to make them varied in texture, ranging from dry and gritty to wet and sloppy. I usually shop for groceries shortly before the lab, so I look for stuff that’s got an interesting tactile nature (as well as stuff that’s cheap and on sale). I have used peach pie filling, mincemeat, applesauce, sugar, sand, salt, baby formula, powdered milk and a dozen other things to make the holes change from year to year. I also like to mix them up so that the students don’t tip each other off from year to year. The one year a kid was told to go for Hole 3 because it wasn’t bad, he got a surprise: I changed the order around.

 

 

To make the process fair, I have three holes and 15 students, so there are only five slots per hole. This means that every “hole” will have five students who are all working independently and then collaboratively to come up with what they felt when they put their hand in the hole. Here’s how it works, with a few edits. I made sure to include at least two students experiencing each hole:

 

Once the students get done cleaning up, they need to come up with a list of 10-15 descriptive words that capture their experience. I allow a few short descriptive phrases, but I try to keep them at single words when possible to have them better focus on the specific sensation:

IMG_4881IMG_4882

Once they have their own lists, they meet up with the other folks who had the same hole and they try to come up with a list of 20-25 words upon which they agree. They will need to compile that list for everyone else to see:

 

The students then list all their words on the board under their hole:

IMG_4889

 

After we get all the words on the board, I reveal what was in each hole and we go through the list of the words and determine how well those words align with the material that was in the hole.

 

Once the students are done with this, I have them write up about a 1/2 page to a full page that includes those words as part of their description of the tactile experience. This is the outcome element I use to assess the entirety of the process. If you want to try it, feel free to include the write up as graded, or a check-off item or something else.

As always, I learn something from every experience like this. Today’s lessons include:

  1. Never buy generic dog food.
  2. Watch out for things in which the smell will create a big problem. That dog food was atrocious.

Hope this was as enjoyable for you as it was for me and my students. If there’s one thing they always say they remember, it’s the “Feel It” Lab.

Mr. Scott beamed them to a hospital (or why jargon is killing our writing)

Some of you reading the “Dynamics of Media Writing” will go into the news business, where you will end up digging through press releases, trying to find information of interest to your audience. Others of you will go into public relations or marketing and spend time writing press releases and other material intended to pique the curiosity of the news media.

Regardless of which side of the release you are on, good writing and clear communication matter, which is why you need to do your best to eliminate jargon, also known as “cop-speak” or “industry-speak” or just B.S.

Let’s start with the release writers. You need to keep your audience in mind. In most cases, you aren’t filing a formal report, but rather an explanation of what happened in a way that makes sense to people not in your field. One of the best ways to see if you are doing this is to read your work and ask if it sounds like anything you would ever say to another human being outside of work. Consider some of these taken from actual press releases:

“The deputy made contact with an adult female in the vehicle.”

“Hey Jimmy, how was your date last night?”
“Excellent! I made contact with the adult female in her vehicle. I then escorted her to a local alcohol-provision establishment!”

“The body was located in the area of a flowing well which is adjacent to the road West of Kutz Road.”

Well, that really cleared things up…

As reported in our recent earnings briefing, IBM continues to rebalance its workforce to meet the changing requirements of its clients, and to pioneer new, high value segments of the IT industry,

“How was work today, honey?”
“Not too good. I got rebalanced…”

As a PR professional, honesty and transparency remain core values for you. Jargon muddies the water and makes you look like a weasel. Say what you mean and say it to the best of your ability.

The same is true for news writers. When jargon slips into the releases you use to tell anxious readers what company will be cutting jobs or how bad the fire was at the local restaurant, you need to cut through those thickets of verbiage and let reality shine through. This is particularly important when it comes to phrasing that makes no sense. Consider this stuff taken from releases that often weaves its way into stories:

[The fire] was determined to be electrical in nature.

As opposed to what? Electrical in spirit? Did it go to fire college, hoping to be a forest fire, but it couldn’t pass botany, so it went with what it always knew it needed to be: An electrical fire.

He was transported to a nearby medical facility.

First, unless something like this was happening, no he wasn’t…

Second, would you ever say that to somebody if you got hurt? “Mom, I think I broke my ankle! I need you to transport me to a nearby medical facility!”

“Two armed gunmen entered the store…”

Do unarmed gunmen just carry pistols in their mouths? 

A leader of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals told a group of University of Wisconsin students Thursday that abstaining from meat cannot only alleviate global hunger but is also healthier and can save innocent animals from unnecessary suffering.

As opposed to all those guilty animals and that necessary suffering?

When it comes to writing for any branch of the media, go back through your piece and see if you are overwriting, using jargon or in some other way making a mess of things through word choice. Simplify and clarify are the watch words of a nice, clean edit.

Are gnomes in your underwear drawer planning to murder you? (or why rhetorical questions undermine journalism)

When you write for the media, embrace simplicity. When I need to remind myself of this, I go back to a book by William Woo, the first person outside of the Pulitzer family to edit the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, called “Letters from the Editor.” Woo frequently mentions his first editor, a man named Ray Lyle who ran the city desk at the Kansas City Time and who fit the crusty, grumpy editor stereotype perfectly.

Lyle’s edict to his young reporters was simple: “Write what happened.”

I thought of this when I got an alert on my phone today about a special report from one of my favorite publications:

Are all-inclusive resorts in Mexico drugging tourists with tainted alcohol?

My first thought: Good God, I hope not.

My second thought: Don’t ask me. Tell me.

The use of rhetorical questions is a threadbare device that has become all too common in today’s writing. In a quick look through my Twitter feed, I found these from major media outlets:

WSJ

APQuestion

Of course my favorite question headline/promo is this one:

Shoes

The story about the all-inclusive resorts wasn’t done asking questions either. “Extortion?” “Was it robbery?” “Sexual assault?” And then this:

Could it be what the attorney for the Conner family alluded to in his report: All-inclusive resorts using cheap, bootleg booze to cut costs?

The story is an intensely reported piece from a journalist I have long admired. The depth of the digging demonstrates how hard it can be to get at the core issue of a complex international topic with limited access to almost non-existent official reports. However, each rhetorical question undermined what the reporter actually had: A number of people reporting similar incidents, having similar outcomes and finding little in the way of answers.

Journalism is about getting answers for readers and providing them in a simple and straightforward way. This is one of the reasons to avoid rhetorical questions in your writing.

Or to paraphrase Ray Lyle, just tell me what happened.

 

 

You earn the fungus on your shower shoes

The 1988 movie “Bull Durham” features Tim Robbins as an up-and-coming phenom pitcher and Kevin Costner as a weathered, veteran catcher on a minor-league baseball team. Costner has been brought to this tiny outpost in Durham, North Carolina to teach Robbins how to become a major leaguer. This involves more than which pitches to throw or how to control his fastball. Life lessons are peppered throughout the movie, including this bit of wisdom:

In other words, when you make it to the pros, you can do things that you can’t do when you’re still learning the craft. Once you figure out how everything should work according to the rules, then you can start breaking them if you have a reason to do so.

The same thing is true when it comes to writing for various media outlets. One of the biggest complaints beginning writers have is that they have to attribute everything, write in the inverted pyramid, use descriptors sparingly and stick to a bunch of really strict rules. Meanwhile, when they read ESPN, the New York Times, Buzzfeed or a dozen other publications, they see everyone out there breaking the rules. In some cases, the writers shouldn’t be breaking those rules and thus they end up in trouble for not nailing things down, attributing and telling the story in a more formal manner.

However, when writers do break rules and it works, it is because they know what the rules are. In the Dynamics of News Reporting and Writing book, award-winning journalist Tony Rehagen makes this point clearly:

Another aspect of writing like this is to understand that rules exist for the benefit of the writers, he said. Even though he knows he has more freedom as a writer, he said he doesn’t believe in breaking rules for the sake of doing so.

“Well, first of all, you sort of have to earn the right to break a rule,” he said. “If you want to lead with a quote, it had better be a damn good quote. If you want to bury the nut or (gasp) not have a nut graf at all, you had better have complete command of your story and have structured the hell out of it. That takes skill that even veterans don’t possess on every piece.”

To break a rule, you have to know what the rule is, have a reason for breaking it and break it in a way that improves your overall story. That’s something excellent writers like Rehagen earn over years of improving on success and learning from failure.

Start with the basics and master them before you start looking for other ways to do things.

You have to earn the fungus on your shower shoes.

 

 

A horrifying and mesmerizing narrative opening

In Chapter 4 of the Dynamics of Reporting & Writing, we talk about how a narrative open can be valuable to putting the readers in the right frame of mind or helping to draw a “word picture” for them. The goal is of any one of these things is to make the readers feel like they are right there, seeing what the words are describing.

The example we created for the book pales in comparison to this real narrative opening that Tisha Thompson and Andy Lockett wrote in “I Just Wanted To Survive.” Give this a read:

Niko Kollias watched his blood swirl down the bathtub drain. There was so much. And it was coming from so many places. His head. Both of his legs. And the gaping cuts where they had sliced the webbing between his toes.

Even more blood was coating the clothing iron sitting on the sink. He didn’t know where they’d put the hedge clippers; he was just glad they were gone. He could still see the roll of duct tape nearby, covered with the bloody fingerprints they’d left behind when they taped his hands and feet together before slamming the rebar and heavy metal pipes down onto him, over and over again. His khaki pants and ripped University of Rochester Football T-shirt sat crumpled in the corner, the blue and yellow of his college colors turning brown as his blood began to oxidize in the fabric.

Kollias wanted to take off his ACL brace, the one he’d been wearing after knee surgery for a recent football injury. He wanted to clean it and his skin underneath. But he worried that if he pulled the brace apart, his leg might actually fall off. His femur was shattered; he’d felt it explode after they shot him there when he tried to run. He didn’t realize they’d also shot him in the calf of his other leg. He could no longer feel that leg and couldn’t see it because so much blood kept pouring into his eyes from his scalp, over which they had smashed a long, fluorescent lightbulb. It was only then, when the blood just wouldn’t stop from that last blow, that they halted their attack and threw him in the shower.

He could hear the men in the room next door, laughing, smoking weed and maybe still wearing those terrifying plastic masks.

But who were they? Kollias didn’t know. He could see only their eyes through the masks when they attacked him. He couldn’t even see their mouths move as they screamed for revenge. As he sat in the folding chair they’d put into the grimy shower, Kollias, a 6-foot-1, 215-pound University of Rochester senior defensive end, realized he had no idea where he was, who the men were or even what they wanted from him. All he knew was that they had shot and then beaten him for more than three hours.

As he sat there in the shower watching his blood pour down the drain, Kollias had no idea that it was all connected to his football team. And he had no way of knowing that the torture had only just begun.

To finish reading this story of survival, head here.