Using silence is a powerful interview tactic

A good interview is a surprisingly tricky thing. It has to work on two levels. From the point of view of the interviewee, it’s a conversation – a natural, spontaneous exchange just like any other. But from the point of view of the reporter, it’s an interrogation, consciously designed to extract specific chunks of information. What that means is that the reporter is in charge, almost manipulating the exchange. And it can be hard work, because it involves constantly thinking on both levels.

If it is to work as a conversation, the reporter ideally needs to understand why this interviewee might be willing to talk and to keep pushing at that motivation. And it’s fine to reinforce that with all of the normal social signals which humans naturally use on each other – body language, tone of voice, accent, humour, even flirting.

In an ordinary conversation, these are instinctive. Here, they are conscious tools.

If it is to work as an interrogation, the first essential is for the reporter to be very clear about the information which they want. It helps to map it out in advance, to know that there are, say, four key areas which you have to cover and to plan the order in which you hit them. The trickiest area almost always comes last. (It is a total disaster to go in with a long list of questions and then keep interrupting the conversation to read it.)

As the trickiest area approaches, the reporter needs to set aside some normal human feelings. For example, if you find yourself feeling embarrassed about asking a particular question: ask it; it’s almost certainly where the emotional hot spot is. If the interviewee says something so surprising that you want to yell ‘What!?’– don’t; you’ll almost certainly shut them up.

If the interviewee resists you, a surprisingly powerful tactic is silence. It’s very unnatural for two strangers to sit and say nothing.

If you can force yourself to stay quiet, you may well force the other person to talk. (I count up to 50 in my head.)

Woodward and Bernstein, in their account of the Watergate scandal, All The President’s Men, are very interesting on this kind of tactic. They would make deliberate errors, hoping that they might provoke a revealing correction. On one occasion, they staged a pre-scripted argument in front of a source, successfully provoking her into giving them information to stop a fight developing.

They also did something which I’ve seen police officers do – creating a false ending to the interview by sitting back, putting down their notebooks, relapsing into social chat and then, without warning, banging in a killer question.

Finally, if you are in an interviewee’s home, it’s always worth trying to open a line to other family members. The interviewee is the one who is most likely to feel nervous about the consequences of talking; the family member may well know the whole story and be more confident about telling it.

Nick Davies is special correspondent for The Guardian and teaches one-day masterclasses in investigative reporting. His investigation of falsehood, distortion and propaganda in Fleet Street, Flat Earth News, is due to be published by Chatto and Windus in February 2008.

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