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Podcast Show 2024 - Kirsty Young
Podcast Show 2024 - Kirsty Young

The BBC's Kirsty Young was interviewed at The Podcast Show 2024. Image: Screenshot, Twitter



The Art of the Interview: Tips from BBC Veteran Kirsty Young

From cosmologists to screenwriters, milliners to footballers, the BBC journalist Kirsty Young has faced them all.

Famous for her ability to disarm even the most hostile interview subjects, over the years she has developed a reputation as a national treasure, a grande dame of interview in the UK.

Among the hundreds of interviews she has conducted are journalists, oncologists, novelists, tech gurus, athletes, politicians, and poets. People such as Bill Gates, Dame Judi Dench, Tom Hanks, and Billie Jean King. Somehow she manages to get all of them to open up.

Partly, perhaps, that was due to the much-loved nature of the program she led for many years, Desert Island Discs, in which a famous guest is cast away on a fictional desert island, able to bring only eight songs, a book, and a luxury item with them. Along the way, they talk about their childhoods, relationships, careers, and their biggest traumas. The format works so well that the show has been running since 1942.

As an interviewer Young brings “warmth, empathy, and steel,” said Richard Knight, the BBC’s director of audio, who interviewed her at the The Podcast Show 2024 in London earlier this year.

Young, who now hosts Young Again, also on the BBC, has an uncanny ability to get a subject to speak candidly about mistakes they’ve made or their role in scandals and crises — and to be frank and honest about their feelings.

She doesn’t class herself an investigative reporter, but a candid interview is often at the heart of any story. So here are her tips on how to carry out an effective interview, featuring lightly edited summaries of questions asked by Knight and the audience.

What makes a good opening question?

Kirsty Young: Rather than a question, I think it’s tuning in to where that person is at. Just to try and get the texture of where they are, and the fact that you are meeting them that day. I think whatever clever thing you are thinking of [asking them] it’s to try and tune into them as a person on that day. The interview you will get will be different to what you would get on another day. That’s what I try to do, and to make that part of whatever the exchange is.

Do you have a process, and how much research do you do?

KY: Desert Island Discs was a very specific thing — it was the culmination of someone’s life — and because it’s so heavily formatted, you can’t miss the point where they won their medal at the Olympics or got their Oscar. But perhaps the best and most effective answers were when they were not those points.

But I do do days and days of prep. I always do too much preparation, that just makes me feel safe. And it’s interesting — it will be sort of an education for me. I prefer to overprepare and then let it fall away.

When someone does open up — or cries — is it awkward?

KY: It’s definitely not awkward. At that moment I’m thinking, great, you feel you have really got to the truth of somebody… That’s why it’s important to do your research.

How do you create space during interviews?

KY: That was something I learned on the job. I had come from news, where things are very tightly timed, you have three minutes and 20 seconds. You’re live. I think for me, in good interviews, space is your best friend. I just sit in an uncomfortable moment. People don’t like silence and they tend to fill it. If you are willing to sit in silence, it would be rare for someone to say, ‘I’m not going to answer that.’ You have to get to a point where they are comfortable, but then the chances are the person will open up and something very worthwhile will come out. If it doesn’t, there’s always the edit.

How do you handle difficult moments?

KY: There have been a few. The one time we had to stop recording that was because of me, interviewing Ben Helfgott, later Sir Ben Helfgott, a survivor of the concentration camps. He was 15 when he was liberated, he thought he had lost all of his family, but was later reunited with his sister. Because I had to stop [recording] I felt unprofessional. I felt that I did not have the right to be upset. But I was completely overcome from hearing it face to face from somebody.

Can you be friends with interview subjects?

Headphones, recording studio, interview

Image: Shutterstock

KY: I think it’s a real assumption to think you will become friends with people, and when things are too cozy, and self-reflecting, it’s a bit annoying. You should be on the side of the listener. Your point is to be on the side of the listener. I think you need to be affable, warm, and considerate, but if it’s too ‘in’ it’s a lot to expect the listener to want to be there.

How do you feel about podcasting?

KY: I think it’s changed our ears, how we perceive audio. It’s a big moment of intersectionality. You get more from people, it’s more granular. The interactions are more like life. More normal, more undone. It sounds like now. Radio to me sounds like you had to put your good shoes on or your heels. Podcasting is much more of a cultural reflection of how we live now.

How did you become an interviewer?

KY: I got started in the business of news and documentaries. As a runner… But I always found people interesting. People are endlessly fascinating to me. People’s stories are. I think their experiences, motivations, hang-ups, the tapestry of what they have been through, it’s endlessly interesting. That’s why it’s a great job.

What advice would you give?

KY: I would have a few: do your research, that’s obvious but it will always serve you well, if you don’t need it, that’s fine. Some people have amazing stories and they are not so good at talking, if you have done your research you can fill in the grouting between the tiles. I think having a sense of humor is good, and tonality, having a sense of tone.

Make your plan, then be prepared to chuck it over your shoulder when you are going in a different direction. Trust your instincts. Don’t get too hung up on the clever questions you are thinking of when you are doing your research… Understand the rawness of most people’s experience, whatever their background.

Laura Dixon GIJN Associate EditorLaura Dixon is a senior editor at GIJN. She has reported from Colombia, the US, and Mexico, and her work has been published by The Times, The Washington Post, and The Atlantic, among others. She has received reporting fellowships from the International Women’s Media Foundation and the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting. She is based in the UK.

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