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How to do a great interview

By Elizabeth Landau, CNN

CNN's Elizabeth Landau interviews musician Ozzy Ozbourne at the TEDMED 2010 conference in October 2010.
CNN's Elizabeth Landau interviews musician Ozzy Ozbourne at the TEDMED 2010 conference in October 2010.

Editor's note: This piece is part of a series about storytelling and reporting skills called iReport Boot Camp. Elizabeth Landau is a Writer/Producer for's health section and the CNN Light Years science & space blog. Read up, then give Landau's advice a try in this week's iReport Boot Camp challenge.

(CNN) -- This is it, your big moment: You've found a really interesting person you can't wait to talk with, and the piece that you produce -- whether it be audio, video or text -- will be heavily riding on that person's answers to your questions.

The pressure is on! How are you going to get this person to open up to you on the things you want to know about?

Fear not, boot campers. With practice, interviewing can come naturally, but it's important to know the basics.

Here are some of my tips. If you have any questions, feel free to ask in the comments section, or join us for a round-table discussion of this iReport Bootcamp topic on Thursday, September 1.

Know your subject

No matter who you choose as an interview subject, whether it's a janitor or the mayor of your town, you need to know how to spell the person's name and find out his or her preferred title. A lot of times, academics hold multiple positions, so you should identify your subject in a way that is most relevant for your piece.

Do your research

Even if your subject doesn't have a devoted fan website or Wikipedia page, you can often do background research through social media. Check Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn to see if your subject uses these platforms to talk about himself or herself. You might find unexpected entries into conversation if you find that your subject has an unusual hobby, even if that's not the particular focus of your interview. And, of course, a simple Web search can reveal all sorts of things about people.

Make sure the subject knows what this is

Academics, politicians and movie stars speak publicly all the time, but a lot of people in the "real world" aren't used to talking to the media. As a health reporter, I often talk to people about very personal issues ranging from diet to sex habits to drug use. Some people don't want their names or photos publicized in connection with such sensitive matters; it's important that you find out what the person's privacy preferences are as soon as possible. When setting an interview date, disclose the media organization you are affiliated with (i.e. CNN iReport) and in what medium the person will appear.

Choose a good location

I confess that because of the quick turnaround time for pieces, I do much of my interviewing on the phone. But when I go out into the field, as you absolutely should, location can be key to success.

You may be able to meet your interview subject at a local coffee shop, but it's always best to interview a person in a place that's part of his or her life, such as a home or workplace. This makes the person feel comfortable and also allows you to pick up on details you might have missed otherwise. For instance, I had spoken to Linda Scruggs at length on the phone about the HIV advocacy work that she does. When I visited her office in Washington, though, I got an even deeper appreciation of what she has been through and her dedication for the cause just by asking about some of the items around her office.

Have some questions, but be prepared to ask others

Jot down some notes about things you'll definitely want to ask about, but don't feel obligated to stick to a script. Once you get people talking, you'll be inspired to ask follow-up questions.

If you have time: Start broad, and listen

When I have the luxury of sitting down with a person whose story I want to tell, I usually begin an interview with open questions. If it's a profile about the person, I'll try to start with early life experiences that might have contributed to why they're interesting. For instance, video guru Brandon Ancil and I recently interviewed a man in Portland, Oregon, who has tattoos to represent his HIV positive status. Before we interviewed him on camera, we chatted over lunch with him and his partner about all sorts of issues to give us a sense of what we might want to use for the text and video.

If you want to talk about a particular event the person experienced, let them tell you what they remember before asking for details. I like to first have people tell stories in their own words, in the progression of information that makes sense to them, and then home in on specifics.

If you don't have time: Be concise

Sometimes you want to include the voices of people in a piece who have limited time to talk to you, so you should make the most of that time. At the TEDMED in October I saw Ozzy and Sharon Osbourne speak about the results of an analysis of Ozzy's genome. I really wanted to speak to them, but I'd been told they had a plane to catch. I politely but swiftly moved past a crowd of admiring onlookers, introduced myself to Ozzy and asked a couple of very pointed questions about his health habits before he and Sharon had to run. It definitely made the piece.

Silence isn't a bad thing

Especially when dealing with emotional, sensitive subjects, your subject may need a moment or two to collect his or her thoughts. Don't interrupt that moment. This is, after all, a conversation, and you don't want to be rude or disrupt the person's thought process.

Ask deep questions, and be persistent

If you're interviewing someone about an important event that he or she experienced, it's important to get a sense of the person's inner thoughts and feelings. Often when telling a story of an event, people give you an overview of what happened, but you need more than just a timeline. How did he or she feel about it? What was he or she thinking at the time? What does this event mean to him or her? It's OK to keep asking questions until you get a good sense of the person's relationship to the event.

Don't be afraid to double-check

Being a good journalist means being sure of your facts. If you realize something that your subject told you is unclear, it's OK to ask about it again, and reframe the question until you're sure you understand exactly what the person meant. A good technique is to jot down a question so that you can let the person continue to talk, but come back to that topic later. I used to be embarrassed about admitting to not understanding something. But it's a lot more embarrassing to publish an article that has incorrect information.

"Is there anything else you'd like to add?"

Whether I'm writing about Steve Jobs' health history or primitive black holes, I always ask the person I'm speaking with if there's something that we didn't cover that we should. Sometimes your interviewee will surprise you with a really emotional or well-put summary of the entire conversation, or add a tidbit of information that makes the whole story that much more interesting.