The power of silence

Craft Lessons

Using a tape recorder has taught me my most important lesson of interviewing: to shut up. It was a painful learning experience, having to listen to myself stepping on people’s words, cutting them off just as they were getting enthusiastic or appeared about to make a revealing statement.

There were far too many times I heard myself asking overly long and leading questions, instead of simply saying, “Why?” or “How did it happen?” or “When did all this begin?” or “What do you mean?” and then closing my mouth and letting people answer.

People hate silence

It took a long time but eventually, I learned an important lesson: people hate silence. It makes them uncomfortable. And when they’re being interviewed, they’re especially sensitive to a reporter’s behavior. They’ll answer your question and then wait for the interruption that almost always follows. If you don’t butt in, they will keep talking.

There’s a great scene in the 1976 movie, “All the President’s Men,” when Robert Redford, as Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward, is asking a Republican businessman how his $25,000 check ended up in the Watergate money trail. It’s a dangerous question, and the source is skittish. “I know I shouldn’t be telling you this, he says.

Woodward remains silent; you can almost see him praying, “Tell me, please.” But he restrains himself and, suddenly, the man blurts out a damaging truth and then can’t stop. Before long, he’s implicated a top Nixon campaign official in the coverup. The moral here: To get people to talk, we need to learn the power of silence and master the art of listening.

Effective writers know they need to get their sources to reveal themselves, to provide the information they need for their stories, and, most important, to offer the human voices that bring a narrative to life.

“Silence opens the door to hearing dialogue, rare and valuable in breaking stories,” says Brady Dennis, of The Washington Post.

Two types of quotes

James B. Stewart in “Follow the Story: How to Write Successful Nonfiction” draws a distinction between “contemporary quotes — the journalism staple, spoken in answer to a reporter’s question — and “narrative quotes,“ uttered as dialogue or snatches of a character’s speech.

Contemporary quotes have their place. In many cases, the only way reporters can get a quote from President Donald Trump is to ask a question and capture his shouted response over the din of whirring helicopters of Air Force One.

Narrative quotes are much more revealing and require a reporter’s listening ear that is capable of snatching the butterfly of dialogue as it floats through the air. Good stories combine the two types.

In a story about a two-car collision that killed two Alabama sisters traveling to visit each other, Jeffrey Gettleman of The New York Times used simple quotes that illustrated what the Roman orator Cicero called brevity’s “great charm of eloquence.”

“They weren’t fancy women,” said their sister Billie Walker. “They loved good conversation. And sugar biscuits.”

Just 11 words, in quotes, yet they speak volumes about the victims. That’s a powerful contemporary quote, but Gettleman also listens for narrative ones, too.

As the service closed, relatives walked slowly back to their pickups. Gettleman captures a four-word narrative quote that reflects the region’s dialect and the minister’s concern for his flock.

”Y’all be careful now,” the pastor said.

Learning to listen

“Learning to listen has been the great lesson of my life,” David Ritz wrote in The Writer.

“You can’t capture a subject or render someone lifelike, you can’t create a living voice, with all its unique twists and turns, without listening. Now there are those who listen while waiting breathlessly to break in. For years, that was me.”

Ritz learned to embrace the idea of “patient listening, deep-down listening, listening with the heart as well as the head, listening in a way that lets the person know you care, that you want to hear what she has to say, that you’re enjoying the sound of her voice.”

That’s what an effective interviewer learns to do.

Shut Up!

For decades, historian Robert A. Caro has been convincing people who knew and worked with the notoriously private President Lyndon B. Johnson to open up. His secret: silence.

“In interviews, silence is the weapon, silence and people’s need to fill it,” Caro writes in “Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing,” his illuminating book about the reporting methods behind his magisterial biographies of LBJ.

Caro employs a strategy other interviewers would be wise to adopt.

“When I’m waiting for the person I’m interviewing to break a silence by giving me a piece of information I want, I write “SU” (for Shut Up!) in my notebook. If anyone were ever to look through my notebooks, he would find a lot of “SU”s.”

During your next interview, ask your question. Then:

  • Shut your mouth.
  • Wait.
  • If you have trouble, count to 10.
  • Write “SU!” in your notebook.
  • Make eye contact, smile, nod, but don’t speak.
  • Let your sources do the talking for you.

You’ll be amazed at the riches that follow.

May the interviewing go well.

Comment question: How do you get your sources to open up?

Photo by Ocean Biggshott on Unsplash

Adapted from News Writing and Reporting: The Complete Guide for Today’s Journalist,” by Chip Scanlan and Richard Craig.

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