The Art of The Interview – Interview Tips

Steve Rowland

“For 25 years I have been working in radio, video and now the Web, using the music and the arts as a window to explore issues in American History, society, race relations, human creativity, spirituality, aesthetic beauty, the nature of ‘change’ and human possibility.”

Steve Rowland, MBA is an oral history practitioner who uses interviews as the basis for large-scale documentary projects.   Focusing on music, the arts and on business, he has interviewed hundreds of artists, writers, directors and producers, including: Bob Marley, John Lee Hooker, Ahmet Ertegun, Lionel Pincus, Stephen Sondheim, Smokey Robinson, Joni Mitchell, George Clinton, Dionne Warwick, Quincy Jones, Mstislav Rostropovich, John Lee Hooker,      Fela Kuti, Betty Comden, Adolph Green, Carlos Santana, Marin Alsop, Dizzy Gillespie, Leon Fleischer, Oskar Eustis, Marjorie Garber, Dominic Dromgoole, Martha Henry, Johnny “Guitar” Watson and many, many others.

Rowland has produced over 50 hours of radio documentary work since 1987. All of his projects are based on extensive oral histories.  For the past 6 years he has been involved in the world of Shakespeare and has conducted over 240 interviews with Shakespeare artists, educators and scholars.

He produced the 11-hour documentary “Leonard Bernstein: An American Life” which is narrated by Susan Sarandon.  It is based on over 100 exclusive interviews Rowland conducted with colleagues of Bernstein.

He also created the acclaimed 8-hour “Miles Davis Radio Project”, narrated by Danny Glover, a 5 hour documentary on John Coltrane called “Tell Me How Long Trane’s Been Gone” narrated by poet Michael S. Harper and individual documentaries on a number of American icons, including:

“Carlos Santana: Music for Life”, narrated by Edward James Olmos;

“Patti LaBelle: Gospel into Soul”, narrated by Whoopi Goldberg,

“Frank Zappa: American Composer”, narrated by Beverly D’Angelo, and

“Hip-Hop 101: On the Road with the Roots”, narrated by Chuck D.


His work is in the permanent collections of The Library of Congress and the Museum of Television and Radio.  He was one of the first teachers at the Columbia University Masters Program in Oral History, and has lectured widely.


The Art of Interviewing

Steve Rowland

May, 2013

Interviewing people can be very easy, or it can be very stressful and difficult.  It is, in many ways, like a dance.  You have to extend your hand, with kindness and dignity, to another person, and ask if you can sit with them, inside their ‘bubble’ and get to know them a little bit.  You have to establish some rules for the conversation quickly, and quickly, you have to establish trust.

The interviewer has to have a clear idea of where the conversation is heading, and guide it there, but has to hold the tiller with a very light hand – being responsive to changes in the wind, and able to improvise on a moment’s notice.

One has to lead, and be lead.  Offer structure and be able to work with no structure or a changing structure.  It is a dance, not a march.

There is one quality that all interviewers must share – and is the most important thing of all – and that is to be a good listener.   You have to listen carefully and deeply.  You have to think about what is being shared with you, in that moment. You have to care about it.  And you have to quickly assimilate it, fold it into your conceptual framework and be able to follow up and have the subject tell you more.

The listening must come before the questioning.  And the listening must be accompanied by thinking, and by caring.  There has to be some reason for the interview to be taking place, and the interviewer must care about that  — and care about the outcome.

The interviewer’s job is to provide context and a platform for the conversation and to engage the subject and to enable the subject to open up and talk freely and with some depth about life, about ideas, about the world – and to talk honestly and with passion, telling stories and sharing their own conceptual framework.

The best interviews will be based on very simple, open questions, and will have the subject speaking about 90% of the time.  This is their time to talk, not yours.

It is your time to listen.  And to be thoughtful.

There are many types and styles of interviews including:

  • Quick ‘evening news’ style interviews – designed to get very short, factual answers
  • Quick, ‘entertainment tonight’ style interviews –designed to get short gossipy bits of insight
  • A health practitioner’s interview, designed to know medical facts and perhaps to form a diagnosis
  • A police interrogation, designed to elicit a confession or the identification and sharing the name of a suspect
  • Job interviews
  • Residential applicant interviews
  • Long, two sided, television or radio interviews
    • Bill Moyers, Studs Terkel, Terry Gross, Barbara Walters,
  • Oral History interviews
    • These interviews attempt to learn about many key aspects of a person’s life, to put them into historical and social context and to look for patterns that are related to key events.
  • Celebrity Interviews
    • Oprah Winfrey, Jimmy Fallon, Howard Stern

Oral History interviews are the kind of interviews that I prefer to conduct and the ones that seem to yield the best material for research and especially for media work, like documentaries.

Interview techniques

  • Do your research, be as well informed as possible
  • Write up a list of questions before the interview
  • Think about what you are really after – what it is you are hoping to learn from this person (different than what you want them to say)
  • Be clear about this direction
  • Be clear about the length of time you have for the interview.
  • Be familiar with your questions, and put them to the side.
  • Try not read the questions from a list.
  • Try not to take notes during the interview. Just listen very carefully.       And think.


Types of questions

  • Start off with questions about family and early life. Ask for names of mother, father, siblings, location of childhood home, early education and early memories.
  • This material will come in very handy as you progress
  • For media interviews (audio and video) it is imperative that you keep silent while the subject is speaking. Do not constantly nod your head and say “uh huh, uh huh”.  Just nod your head.  And also look the subject directly in the eyes.  This is very important.
  • Make sure to ask follow up questions. Do not read from a list.  If someone tells you something unexpected, follow up.  If they give you a very truncated answer, follow up. Ask very simple questions like:
    • Tell me more.
    • Oh really?
    • Why?
    • When?
    • How come?
    • Please elaborate.
    • How did that make you feel?
    • Why was that important?
    • What else do you remember?
  • It is important to keep follow up questions spare and open – you basically just want to let the subject know that it is OK to talk in more detail.
  • Use silence as another way to encourage more talking. Just look subject in the eye and do not say anything.  Make them feel you are listening and interested.

Remember, the subject doesn’t know how much you want to hear and how long the answers should be.  This encourages them to go into more depth.

On the other hand, if you have limited time and have to move on, you just move on – and in some cases you can interrupt and change the direction or the flow.

  • I do not recommend taking notes during an interview. It is very distracting to the speaker and actually indicates that you aren’t really listening.
  • At the start of the interview establish roughly how much time you have
  • Think about what information you are really after and make sure you get to that in plenty of time.
  • The early parts of the interview are important to help you formulate ideas, new questions and to consider paths along this person’s journey. But keep focused on what you really need to learn.
  • Think about difference between anecdotes and concepts – both can be important.


Technical Considerations:

  • Microphones
    • some of the easiest to use are simple and sturdy omni-directional mics.
      • Beyer M-58, EV RE-50, EV RE-635 are good examples
    • lavs, or lavalier mics can be good too
  • Quiet the environment, as you can
    • stay away from air conditioners, fans, refrigerators, open windows, if you can.
    • get the microphone in close.  The closer the mic is to the mouth, the quieter the background will seem in comparison.
  • hold the mic in your hand (don’t let the speaker hold it) and listen on headphones.
  • a great option is to use a mic stand with a boom-arm