Few hard and fast rules exist in journalism, but one I would bet the house on is this: If Bob Woodward says something works, it probably does.
Woodward first came to national prominence in 1972 when he and fellow Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein dug deep into the Watergate scandal. Historians and journalists largely attribute much of President Richard Nixon’s downfall to the reporting of Woodward and Bernstein.
(Here’s a neat fact: Woodward only had about two years of professional journalism experience when he caught this story of a lifetime, working first at the Montgomery Sentinel before getting a job at the Post in 1971.)
In 40-plus years that followed, Woodward became the consummate political reporter, digging into daily work and writing books that profiled presidents. He was the standard for all other reporters, even as his name became less of a cultural touchstone for younger generations.
Woodward is back in the news these days for his book, “Fear,” which looks at the presidency of Donald Trump. As Post releases excerpts of it, Woodward is making the talk-show rounds to talk about his book and his experiences writing it. Last night, he sat down with Stephen Colbert on “The Late Show,” to talk about what he found and how he found it.
Normally, these interviews between authors and talk-show hosts center on humorous anecdotes, some vapid chatter and a hard plug for the book. Woodward, however, gave all of us a beautiful look at how he goes about his job, especially when it comes to conducting interviews. Within his conversation with Colbert, Woodward provided beginning journalists with at least five solid interviewing tips that anyone can use:
Conduct deep research on your interviewee: One of the tenets outlined in both textbooks is to research your subject before you interview him or her. The idea of entering an interview without a full grasp of who the person is and what that person might have to say should scare the heck out of you as an interviewer. Woodward explains that he researches his subjects so well that he can even surprise them with information he found:
“Let’s say your an assistant secretary of defense and I come to interview you… and I say, ‘Oh, you wrote this article in 1986,’ and you’re going to think, ‘Oh, only my mother read that article!’ … You don’t just Google them.”
His point was that the more you know, the more you feel like you are ready to do the job and the more your source will respect you. If you walk in looking like a kid who lost his mom at Walmart, you’re not going to get very far.
Enter the lion’s den: One of the biggest mistakes young journalists make in conducting interviews is to avoid contact with the sources. Text interviews, email interviews and phone interviews have replaced the face-to-face encounter. Woodward talked about how he would go to his sources’ homes and knock on their door, even when he felt uneasy about the potential outcome:
“I remember going to one general’s house, and he opened the door. We didn’t have an appointment. I was afraid I might get shot and he looked at me and said, ‘Are you still doing this (expletive)?’
Woodward hits on three key things there:
- He went to conduct a face-to-face interview. Eventually the general let Woodward in and they talked, but if he had called or emailed the general, he could have much more easily ignored Woodward. If you are present, it’s hard to ignore you.
- He went into the lion’s den. Many beginning journalists will attempt to meet a source at a neutral location, such as a coffee shop or a restaurant. Even worse, the writer might ask the source to come to the newsroom. If you are willing to go where the source is, you show strength and conviction. You also put the source in a familiar environment where he or she will feel more comfortable and thus will be more likely to be open to speaking.
- He was afraid. Bob Woodward is 75 years old, has written 19 books, covered every president from Richard Nixon to Donald Trump, was instrumental in bringing down Nixon’s White House, contributed to two Pulitzer-winning journalistic efforts and won nearly every conceivable journalism award available. Still, he was afraid when he went knocked on the general’s door. He didn’t hide it or bluster past it in the Colbert interview. He was honest. Fear (the emotion, not the book) happens, and if it can happen to a journalist like this, it’s perfectly acceptable that it would happen to a college-age, cub reporter. You need to do what he did: Accept the fear and push past it to get the story you want.
Silence is golden: I always tell students that silence is a vacuum and nature abhors a vacuum. When both the interviewer and the subject are silent, it gets awkward and there exists a desperate need to break that silence. You need to use silence to your advantage in an interview by staying quiet once a source completes an answer or offers only a little information at first.
The longer the quiet lingers, the more likely your source is going to want to jump in and add something. I never knew what Woodward explained was the source of this “silence as a tool” approach to interviewing:
“In the CIA they teach people let the silence suck out the truth, so just be quiet and people want to talk.”
If you can feel confident enough to let the silence do the heavy lifting for you, the source will usually come around a bit and give you a little more than you got at first.
Explain why the source matters: Woodward explains his ability to get people to talk comes from his ability to help them understand why they matter to him. In many cases, sources will view themselves as inconsequential or having “nothing really to say.” Thus, they turn down interviews, seeing no benefit in putting themselves in a position where they can see nothing good coming from talking to the journalist. Woodward noted that he never tells people that he’s going to write the story anyway, so they might as well talk. Instead, he tries to show how he’s taking them seriously and how they matter to his work.
As a writer, you will run into sources who feel like they are way too important to waste time talking to you. On the other hand, you will run into people who think they have nothing to contribute. Neither extreme is true, so a big part of trying to get sources to talk to you is to have them see why you chose them for an interview and what it is you think they can contribute to the bigger picture.
Get documents and support: The sheer volume of people who have lied to Bob Woodward throughout his career must be large enough to populate the state of New Jersey at this point. In addition, I’m guessing more than a few people remembered things inaccurately or got confused while sharing information with him. To that extent, the ability to find documents and notes matters a great deal to him and it should matter to you as a writer:
“What you want to do is say do you have any documents or notes… and they say no, no and about the third visit, they say, ‘Oh yeah maybe I have something upstairs,’ and then they come down with three boxes of documents. And documents and notes make it authentic.”
People have an uncanny ability to shift reality while documents codify what really happened. If you can get notes people took at the time or documents that support their memories, you can write a much better piece. In addition, you can use that data to question other sources later from a much stronger position.
Woodward also noted that he often has to go back multiple times to get the goods from people who might have been initially reticent to share things. Although he said daily reporters often can’t do the “ninth interview” with a source, nothing says that reporters can’t go back at least one more time. A “no” now might become a “sure, why not?” later.