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Business, Politics & Society

Preparing for the Interview

Bob Woodward

Lesson time 12:27 min

There are several important steps you should take before formally interviewing a source. From determining the best location to meet, to deciding whether to send the questions ahead of time, Bob walks you through how to prepare for your interview.

Bob Woodward
Teaches Investigative Journalism
In 24 lessons, learn how to uncover the truth from the greatest journalist of our time.
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To ask for that interview sometimes can be difficult, because you're going to ask them uncomfortable questions. As a young reporter being sent to the hospital after some woman's four children died in a fire, I went to the hospital, and I thought, oh, I don't want to talk to her, 'cause she's experienced the worst day of her life. And I just went up and introduced myself. She wanted to talk. She wanted to express her grief. And there is often a reluctance to do that. It's quite terrifying to talk to somebody who has lost a loved one. And the first time you do it, first couple of times, you really wonder, is this proper? Is this an invasion of privacy? And often, people really want to talk. But you still feel terrified, and your emotions are, am I really doing this? Is this working? And what happens is people really want to talk. They want to share. And I think that there is a feeling, if this happens, that you're doing a service. You're letting people see and explain the existence of this person and what it meant to them. If you're the Assistant Secretary of Defense and I've set up to interview you, I come to see you, I haven't just googled you. I have gone back and found the article that you wrote 20 years ago in Foreign Affairs. And I'm going to ask you about it. I'm going to say, on page 36, you said the following. You're likely to think, I thought only my mother read that article. It's not a ruse. I want to know how this person thinks. Why? What the connection is, the writing and the thought, and then functioning as Assistant Secretary of Defense. The takeaway from this is you need to treat people, obviously, seriously, but it's central that you take them as seriously as they take themselves. People take themselves seriously. I have never met anyone in any position in the White House, the Pentagon, the CIA, the Treasury Department, the House of Representatives, the Senate, who doesn't take himself or herself seriously. If you come in and say, oh, yeah, what do you do? What do you do, where are you from, and so forth? But if you come in knowledgeable-- this is the article you wrote 20 years ago, this is what you're doing, this is what I understand you said in the situation room of the White House-- people are going to take you more seriously. I've had, over the decades, people come and interview me and not know that I'd written-- you know, they want to interview me about the military, and they don't know that I've written about six or seven books about presidents in the military and their decision-making. Don't unintentionally belittle someone. And you do that by not knowing their history. I remember a couple of times going to interview people, and it turned out to be their birthday. And so you don't want to be ignorant, so I would start the interview, happy birthday. Or, you turn 52 on Wednesday, happy...

Find the real story

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.

In this troubled times, it is comforting to hear someone talk about truth and admit that mistakes happen, but you must acknowledge them and keep going. The main stream media is crucial to our democracy. Thank you for this class.

Master Class instructors are inspiring, whether they are in your exact field of work or in a tangential field with only one brilliant point of resonant contact!

I have learned so much about how to find sources and then how to talk to them from these classes. I have also learned a lot about the Watergate story, which I had not known too much about before. Thank you so much Bob for saying what you say about Trump! Everything he does truly terrifies me.

Dear Bob... Thank you so much! I have gained incredible insight into what it takes to become a journalist. Thank you for shedding the light on Donald.


Arie H.

Would you know what voice recorder Woodward is using for his interviews? And do you have to tell the person you are interviewing that you are recording him/her?

Pamela K.

When they are being interviewed, most prominent people (it seems to be mostly a pol thing) will put a tape recorder on the table next to the reporter's device. Pamela Harriman used to do this. (So then now a whole slew of DC technocrats do this to show how important they are.) If I'm being interviewed (on the phone) I ask the reporter: Are you recording this, or taking notes? Because then I know whether I can speak slowly or my regular pace... If you're interviewing people, the main thing is to get people to trust you (because then they'll tell you everything), and then you have to do research and really know your stuff. Also, if YOU'RE being interviewed.... you don't have to answer a particular question if you don't feel comfortable with it.

book E.

Research. I'm reviewing this class preparing for a Zoom interview with author Susan St. John in October. Glad I cam back. I'll go into her blog to see what she writes about...her interests and how they may have influenced her writing of Mad Mischief. She is also bipolar. How does this affect your writing? Now, I'm beginning to conjure up some worth-while questions other than, "Do you lie writing?" bla bla bla...


As a fiction writer I truly enjoy interviewing people, and learning about them. I find that the knowledge that I obtain through my interviews help me create more realistic characters, and story plots.

Flor Martha F.

Please give the list of your books, if possible in links, so we can buy them. We are not in the USA so the list will be great. If possible digital versions so we can download it. At Amazon, kindles versions are easiest to buy. Thanks.


That was really important at the end: is there something I didn't ask about that I should have asked about? Excellent close.

book E.

Are you more or less likely to secure an interview when (if) you stick a microphone in someone's face?

book E.

My quandary about submitting questions prior to an interview: Won't this give the person time to program answers? Isn't spontantity better for truth?

Sunny N.

Sensitivity, patience and permission to record are valuable lessons in this module.

Mia S.

"My tendency is to bend over backwards for somebody who just comes out of the blue, who may have witnessed or somehow know about something that they are not a participant in. I normally try to set the ground rules first. Again, clarity, transparency, so there's no confusion. You'll always want to leave the interview time open-ended, and if you can stay for hours, stay for hours. After 50 or 40 minutes, this has happened to me, the reporter will say, 'I've got to go because I have another interview.' I've interviewed people for hours. I can only go about five hours; Scott Armstrong did one 16-hour interview with one of Nixon's aides, and then typed a memo that just goes on and on, single-spaced. It's a piece of art, almost. It begins at 8 in the morning and ends at midnight. I was astonished that he had the energy. What you need to do is have patience. The phrase is 'iron pants' - something weighty that will keep you in the chair, something so you're going to stay and not lose your sec ond wind or your third wind. This has to do with curiosity, which you should always bring to an interview, and it has to do with stamina. You should not be tired. At the end of an interview you always want to say, Well there are unanswered questions, I'm continuing my research. I would like to be able to come back and talk to you; is there something I didn't ask about that I should've asked about?"