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Business, Politics & Society

Conducting the Interview

Bob Woodward

Lesson time 11:38 min

Interviewing is one the most important parts of a reporter's job. Here, Bob details the best practices to follow as you question a source.

Bob Woodward
Teaches Investigative Journalism
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I've done interviews, joined interviews with other reporters and on a couple of occasions, the reporters will say things like, oh, I know you don't want to talk about whatever. And that's, you should assume people are going to talk and answer your questions. I even remember an instance doing an interview with somebody at the CIA and the other reporter said, oh, that's classified, so I know you can't talk about it. My presumption is that they're going to talk about everything, even maybe things they don't want to talk about. Maybe things that are classified. Because people will do that and as we know, there's classified and classified. And real serious reasons for classifying things. And things that it just gets the stamp automatically and people can talk about it or talk around that. You can't cover foreign affairs or intelligence issues and talk to people and not get into classified information. You're communicating just with your presence. And every aspect of what you wear, how you stand, how you shake hands, how you blink or don't blink, how you smile or don't smile is part of it. And you're trying to open a door for somebody to tell you something that's useful for you, and ultimately, in the case of the Washington Post, your readers. Nodding can be dangerous, because it makes it sound like you agree with everything someone is saying. So it's better, it's like quiet hands, quiet head, quiet face. But sometimes somebody is saying something or framing something in a way that you agree with or no one would disagree with, and so you probably instinctively might nod. But that's dangerous, and you don't want to nod when you think it's wrong or untrue or there's a body of immense contradiction. So much when you are trying to do something for the newspaper or a long project or book, turns on specifics. You need a narrative. And so what I do is develop a chronology to ask about things that happened at specific times. And generally do the interview in chronological order, and try to write the book that way. It's a way to organize what you're going to write and people live their life in chronological order. I haven't found anyone who's been able to do it another way. And people will wonder, oh let's see, did that happen before this? Or was that after I decided to go to war in Iraq? Was that after the congressional resolutions? And it helps the person you're interviewing fix their own place in time. The chronology will be major turning points, decision points. It will be some of the public information, but it will also be material that I've gathered from others. And that demonstrates to the person you're interviewing, look, I'm working on this. I've done some homework and I've got some new information. The order is generally chronological, but sometimes you're not going to save the really tough question for the end. I don't think tha...

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Bob Woodward was just 29 when he changed a nation. His Watergate reporting with Carl Bernstein helped expose the corruption of the Nixon presidency. Two Pulitzer Prizes and nineteen best-selling books later, the legendary journalist is teaching his first-ever online class for anyone who wants to find the truth. Learn to investigate a story, interview sources, and understand how the news is written. The next history-making story might be yours.


Students give MasterClass an average rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars.

I annoy a journalist but I do write and the honesty, clarity, and passion conveyed by Mr. Woodward are an inspiration. Thank you.

Thank You Bob for this thorough Education on Journalism!!!!!

Mr. Woodward is the master of journalism. I'm always interested in what he has to say, whether he's promoting his books or being interviewed.

He is great journalist he is ready with information with the pass and the present show so much dedication and preparation.


Pamela Martin O.

This lesson was so well done and included important thoughts about the interview. I find that people love to share things...especially about themselves. When you listen to what they are saying, you will have more questions.

Pamela K.

Follow up questions are FANTASTIC. It's difficult during current WH press conferences to get any real answers/information, as they don't allow follow up questions. You can ask very simple follow up questions, so it doesn't come across as "gotcha!" "What do you mean by that?""

Val M.

Stunningly helpful lesson. So many extraordinary take aways it felt like getting hit in the face with decades of experience. I'll treasure this lesson, and make great use of the ideas in it. Love this Masterclass!

Michael O.

Just read resource material recommended for this class: Sarah Stillman's article "Where are the Children?" New Yorker 2015. A stunning expose of the complex issue(s) of Latin American illegal immigration in the US, balancing a harrowing narrative between immigrant parents living in Trenton NJ and children heading to the US from Guatemala to join them. Did you know that if you survive a most dangerous journey brokered by coyotes who owe fealty to drug cartels, if you do make it make across the border you face detention in a medieval holding cell, as it were, operated by FOR-PROFIT US organizations; finally facing without citizen rights a hostile judicial system, resulting More than likely in your being shipped back to your home company, with a probability to face the criminals who abused you in the first place.


This was some seriously good stuff. I've been interviewing people for 40 years now and it was good to review in this segment those issues and tactics that work for Mr. Woodward. One thing that I do, (which I don't believe was covered) is to repeat answers to people in an effort to see how they react to hearing their own answer and to also repeat answers to assure that you record what they told you as accurately as possible.

book E.

Going into an interview prepared: questions, background on the person, etc...when asking questions, how far do you let the person go off topic before reigning them back in? Or do you just let them go hoping to pick up bits of information you might never have gotten with formalized questions?

A fellow student

I’ve sent people questions before, and they have literally typed out their answers and read them on air (radio). Some of these were very smart and accomplished people just trying to be well prepared but it sounded too scripted. I like his point about asking emotional questions. That’s what makes us human, is it?

Sunny N.

My takeaway: Make the question clear and ask for further clarification when necessary. And do not assume.

Jim B.

I've always worried about sending the Interviewee questions in advance. I'm afraid that they'll rehearse them and become wooden, self-conscious or go into flat zombie admin speak. I'll offerthem before an interview the range of topics we'll explore. I do mostly on-camera interviews so the rules could be different for print. I found that whats essential in a good interview is the bond or connection you've established in advance. For most people I want them to feel at ease and feel that the time we spend together is a conversation and not an interview. I'm thrilled to learn from Mr. Woodward's wisdom and I admire his emphasis on being genuine, transparent, neutral, keeping the questions simple and direct, pacing their intensity and most importantly being prepared. Its almost like being a dental hygenist who doesnt keep poking at the sore spot for too long but moves to less sensitive parts of your mouth and then circles back to it a few times until its cleaned. Horrible analogy, I shuddered as I wrote it. I wonder how many political interviews are done over a drink or two where the inhibitions are loosened and the words flow more quickly. I also find that giving minimal encouragers and occasionally paraphrasing what the Interviewee says reassures them that I'm listening and understanding what they are talking about. I find that if can stay concentrated on listening and thinking what you are going to ask next keeps the content on a deeper and often emotional level. I still stop every now again to check my notes to see if I've covered all I need and give us both a chance to breathe.

Mia S.

"It's important to let the silence suck out the truth. Be silent. You feel a compulsion to fill the void, and that is human. Sometimes it takes you down a road you may not get if you're piling on the questions. There's always a cadence to an interview. 'Quick round of questions, give me your sound bite.' I don't think that really reveals much. You need to be a very active listener in an interview. Know your questions. You can look at a list, but you have to be listening so you can do follow-ups."