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Tips to master the art of interviewing

By Jessica Ravitz and Christina Zdanowicz, CNN
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iReport Boot Camp: Interview tips
  • Interviews are key to telling stories well, and how you approach people matters
  • Listening, not interrupting and asking open-ended questions make a difference
  • Do homework but don't over plan; the interview may take unexpected and useful turns
  • Rephrase questions when needed and respect subject's expertise, words, feelings

Editor's note: Interviewing is the cornerstone of good journalism, and the stories you tell are only as good as the information you get. Eight CNN anchors, correspondents and writers share their top tips for conducting successful interviews. Watch the video, read their tips and head over to CNN iReport to interview a person you think is interesting.

(CNN) -- The stories you tell, whether in text form, by way of video or through audio, are only as good as the information you gather.

Beyond the research you might weave in and the color you may include from your own observations, there are the all-important interviews -- the insights and perspectives you get from people. And we're talking all different kinds of people, with all different kinds of personalities.

Whether you're sitting down with an official to discuss a suspected coverup, meeting with someone who just lost loved ones in a natural disaster or trying to draw out information from a 4-year-old child who's become a web sensation, CNN is happy to offer tips to help you get the most out of your interviews.

The iReport team sat down with various CNN anchors, correspondents, writers and producers to give you some guidelines.

Make the subject comfortable: Before you turn on the camera or the recorder or start writing in your notebook, try to establish a connection and level of trust with the person you'll be interviewing. Putting him or her at ease before the questioning begins can make a big difference. And while interviewing people, if you can, have them in an environment that keeps them comfortable. Talking to a fisherman while he fishes may be more fruitful than plopping him down at a conference table.

Do your homework, but don't over think: Not every story will necessitate extensive research, and in some cases, you just won't have time. But when you're treading into a complicated or controversial discussion, and sitting down with someone who may have an interest in avoiding certain topics, you and your audience will be best served if you have your head around the issue and are ready to ask the tough questions. At the same time, no matter how complicated or controversial the subject matter, you should approach an interview as you would any other conversation. Your basic curiosity should drive your questions. Jot down some notes going in, key ideas you want to be sure to touch on, but don't have a typed-out long list of questions. That'll only distract you.

Respect who you're talking to: Politicians, business leaders, Hollywood stars -- these sorts of people are not strangers to media. But most people have never been interviewed or quoted before, so it's important -- even a moral imperative -- to keep that in mind. If a guy on the street blurts out something that you think might put his family in danger or cost him his job, for example, you may (a) want to keep that out of your story, especially if it's not relevant to what you're covering; or, if his words are connected to what you're doing, (b) talk to him about what he's saying, make sure he's comfortable putting those words out there or see if there's a way to incorporate his sentiments without endangering him -- assuming he doesn't want to be endangered.

Listen, listen, listen: You may be prepared going into an interview and have a list of questions you want to ask, but listen carefully to what you're being told. An interview may take you in directions you didn't see coming, and you don't want to miss out on opportunities for follow-up questions. And actively listen. Look at those you interview, show them you're engaged with a nod of the head, your eyes, your smile when appropriate.

Ask open-ended questions: If you're looking for good quotes or meaty answers and descriptions, stay away from questions that'll elicit one-word responses. Say, for instance, that you're interviewing someone who witnessed a disaster. Don't ask, "Were you scared? Did you run away?" The better questions would be along these lines: "What do you remember seeing, feeling and thinking? What could you smell or hear? Tell me what you did."

Allow for silences; don't interrupt: Most people need some time to grapple with their thoughts and formulate responses. It's on you to give them that space. You don't know what memories or ideas are going through their minds, and if you jump in too quickly, you might miss a gem. By carefully watching the person you're talking to, you can see if someone's deep in thought or ready to move on. Another advantage to silences is that they can make people uncomfortable and push them to speak.

Reword or re-ask, as necessary: There may be a very important piece of information you're going after. If the person you're interviewing doesn't answer the question the first time around, you may have to rephrase it or come back to it later. Don't hesitate to revisit what you need.

Admit what you don't know: You can be as prepared as possible, but you can't pretend -- nor should you pretend -- to know everything. An expert will respect you more if you don't act like you are one yourself. Someone who is a leader in his or her field, or someone who simply observes a holiday you don't, is generally happy to explain what you and others should know.

Keep tabs on your own emotions: There are times when interviews may move you to tears or near tears. You are human. But as a general rule, as hard as it may be, you should hold yourself together. There are ways to show sympathy or empathy without falling apart. You can't always know how the interview subject will view your tears if they come. There are those that might clam up, not wanting to hurt you. Others might get annoyed or even offended, because who are you to act like you know what they feel? You can cry all you want once you walk out the door, but in that space, your job is to let them say and feel what they need to say and feel.

Invite the last word: A great way to end interviews is to ask those you're speaking with if they have anything else they'd like to add or if there's any question they wish you or others in the media were asking. An angle may exist that no one is touching. This is a good tool to get those tips and can sometimes reveal the most useful material.