Writing Biographies & Profiles: Navigating Around the Self-Modesty Mask

Deep down, most people are more than happy to talk about themselves, often at great length.

But that is so blatantly self-absorbed, few are candid or courageous enough to acknowledge this common human tendency.

Instead, most of the time when I begin interviewing someone for a profile piece, or perhaps a biography, they slip on their best false-modesty mask:

“Aw shucks,” they might say (although `shucks’ usage faded with the demise of the Happy Days television series). “I’m really not that interesting, what’s the fuss all about?”

Rather than calling someone on this veneer, it pays to play along.

For example, don’t come straight out and ask your subject to recount three to five wonderful traits about himself. Instead, plumb for those same details indirectly:

“If I were to ask a cross-section of people who know you best to describe you, which of your traits would they most frequently talk about?”

Sometimes, I even choreograph what I’m doing with a remark that prefaces the above query: “Here’s your chance to brag about yourself. I’m giving you permission, since it’ll help me do my job.”

It’s a simple tactic–and it simply works wonders in navigating around that armor of self-modesty.

Of course, don’t settle just for a list of wonderful qualities–among other follow-ups, be sure to ask them to illustrate how and when those characteristics have shown up in their life.

Not that someone as self-actualized as you would ever fall prey to such self-absorption, but by heeding this simple step, people who know you best would summon some enviable words to describe you and your work.

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