Unacustomed as I am to public speaking…

Tomorrow I have a terrifying task to perform. At 2pm I am to stand up in front of the WHOLE of Leo’s year at school and give a speech about what it’s like being a journalist. Nothing, not even my first appearance on Richard & Judy, or walking up the aisle, or watching Chelsea against Bayern in a penalty shoot-out has filled me with such fear.
I am terrified of letting him down. And I get the impression he is terrified too. “Two pm on Wednesday,” he keeps telling me. “Don’t forget.” This morning he even asked me what I’m going to wear. Good question. Do I go glam (trying too hard?), dressed down (slob mother), trendy (mutton mother) or sexy (slut mother)? It’s an utter no-win situation. And what to talk about?
Rupert’s idea was that I talk about the story I covered in 2005 about the world’s first face transplant performed on a woman who had her face mauled off by her pet dog while she was asleep. Methinks it might be just a tad too gory for 100 nine year olds. Can you imagine the questions? What happened to the dog being the first obvious one….
Anyway, here is my draft speech, advise and comments on this and outfit gratefully received:


In 2003, the year a lot of you were born, I was in Beziers, covering the rugby world cup for the Sunday Times. Beziers is the heart of French rugby country, and I spent a lot of time sneaking into bars undercover to watch the games.

This wasn’t exactly what I’d had in mind when I decided aged around 10 that I wanted to be a foreign correspondent. I had envisaged myself in war zones, heroically rushing from battlefield to battlefield in a flak jacket and helmet.

Actually a flak jacket and helmet almost came in handy when I inadvertently shrieked GO JONNY as our hero Jonny Wilkinson scored yet another try against the French and the whole bar went silent.

I managed to survive the wrath of the French rugby crowd, filed the story to London and the next day it was on the front page, my first ever front page story and a defining moment for me because I felt I had achieved what I set out to do.

WHAT DOES IT TAKE TO BE A GOOD NEWS REPORTER? So what it does it take to be a good news reporter. It’s been said that the attributes required by a Fleet Street reporter are: a plausible manner, a little literary ambition and rat-like cunning. In old films journalists were always portrayed with trenchcoats and hats, but I always found a pen and notebook a bit more useful.

WHY I WANTED TO BE A JOURNALIST As I said I decided I wanted to be a journalist when I was a little girl. I was inspired by the Tintin books, the brave little blond man and his dog setting the world to rights. Like many journalists I did have a little literary ambition, I always wanted to write, and journalism seemed like a natural path towards that. I kept diaries, wrote short stories and read lots. When I went to university I worked on the student newspaper, eventually becoming editor of it. When I left university I looked around for that glamorous job in journalism.

EARLY CAREER My early career was not illustrious. It is a very competitive industry, and despite interviews for the Sunday Times and BBC graduate trainee schemes I found the only way in was through financial journalism.

I started my career at a dreary magazine called Trade Finance magazine. You may well ask what trade finance is; to this day I have no idea, and certainly no interest in it. But I learnt to report, to write, to meet deadlines and I also picked up that invaluable journalist’s tool of pretending to understand what’s going on when you really haven’t the foggiest.

GOOD ADVICE One of my first news editors said that you should treat every story you cover as if you’re a police investigator. Try to amass as much information as possible from as many sources as you can, and don’t always believe that everyone is telling you the truth.

I gather you have been learning about the five Ws: who, where, what, when, why. And of course my daughter’s favourite: whatever. They are a great tool for writing an intro. Make it powerful; get their attention, especially in the first paragraph. Keep it simple and to the point, tabloid press are often criticized but they are brilliant at conveying the maximum information in the minimum  amount of words in the clearest manner.

MOVE TO FRANCE Happily I moved to France and left the world of financial journalism behind. I’m not sure who was more relieved, they or I. Traditionally this would have been a very poor career move. Historically newspapers were based in Fleet Street on the edge of London’s financial district. The journalists were all based there and the printing presses were underneath and offices. CHANGES But then the newspapers moved out to cheaper locations and because of new technology you no longer had to be physically there with a typewriter and a piece of paper. Now in the world of skype, mobile phones and emails you can be anywhere you want to. Just last week I wrote a piece for the Daily Mail about a political scandal in France, from here.

The world of newspapers has changed in other ways too. As a business they are in decline with people preferring to read their news on-screen. At one time everyone in Britain bought a daily paper, nowadays few people bother. However this doesn’t mean there are no avenues for those of you who want to become reporters. The medium may have changed but the message remains the same. The need and desire to tell or to hear a story will never go away. Our ancestors sat around camp-fires telling tales of their hunting expeditions, today we tend to go on twitter or facebook to see what everyone’s up to. We’re all journalists now.

BEST JOB EVER Being a journalist is, I think, one of the best jobs you can have. You are constantly learning new things; you meet fascinating people, along with extremely famous and less fascinating ones such as Prince Andrew and Dannii Minogue, both of whom I have interviewed.

I think one of the most incredible women I ever met was the daughter of an author called Irene Nemirovsky who shot to fame a few years ago when her book became a global bestseller almost 50 years after her death. Her daughter, the woman I interviewed, had carried the unpublished manuscript with her in a suitcase along with her teddy bear as a child while escaping from the Nazis in occupied France. They had arrested her mother and sent her to Auschwitz, where she died. I was also lucky enough to meet such sporting superstars as Tom Daley, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer.

Nowadays I do much more writing of books, features and opinion pieces than pure reporting, although I would be happy to go back to it if someone needed me to. Maybe for the next rugby world cup?

Meanwhile, I would love to hear your questions about journalism, news reporting or anything at all…..

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2012

2 thoughts on “Unacustomed as I am to public speaking…

  1. We all thought you were fab today and you looked lovely! Leo was so proud of his mum being in school. Thank you so much for sharing your experiences with us. I could have sat and listened for ages.

  2. Thank you Jill, it was good fun, they are a lovely bunch of kids, I was so pleased with the questions, they showed real imagination and curiosity.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Connect with Facebook