One of the world's most famous historians has a crucial piece of advice on interviewing: 'Shut up!'
- Historian and journalist Robert A. Caro is most well-known for his seminal work "The Power Broker," and more recently for his series of books on former President Lyndon B. Johnson.
- Caro has won two Pulitzer Prize awards for his work, which is famous for its meticulous research and thoroughness of reporting. He's also known for writing very long books.
- In 2019, he published an uncharacteristically short book detailing his own process - and one particularly brief chapter contained a brilliant piece of advice that everyone could use.
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The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "The Power Broker" and "The Years of Lyndon Johnson," Robert A. Caro, is known for his meticulously researched, thoroughly reported biographies.
His voluminous works are celebrated, as is his dedication to his craft: Caro and his wife Ina have outright moved their residence multiple times in service of his books, so that they could experience the world as the subjects of his books might have. Collectively, they've spent tens of thousands of hours poring over documents, conducting interviews, and much more - all in the service of thoroughly, accurately portraying the lives of his books' subjects.
Which is why Caro's latest book, "Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing," is so particularly fascinating.
In "Working," for the first time ever, Caro details the fascinating process behind his work.
The book is tremendously useful if you're at all interested in the process of researching and writing non-fiction, but there's one particularly useful piece of advice for anyone: "Interviews: silence is the weapon, silence and people's need to fill it - as long as the person isn't you, the interviewer," Caro writes in a chapter titled "Tricks of the Trade."
Caro likens his own interviewing process to those of fictional interviewers Inspector Maigret and George Smiley, at least in one distinct way: All three "have little devices they use to keep themselves from talking." In the case of Maigret, Caro says, he cleans his pipe. And in the case of Smiley, he cleans his glasses.
Caro does something far more pedestrian: He writes reminders for himself to shut up.
"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," Caro says. "If anyone were to ever look through my notebooks, he would find a lot of 'SUs' there."
Whether you're interviewing a subject or interviewing a job candidate, the same logic applies: Shut up! How that person responds to silence could speak volumes.
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