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  • Oonagh Cousins

Meeting a Top Presenter

Updated: Jan 21, 2019

I’ve just been comprehensively Alex’ed (not real name). Meeting one of the country's great current affairs presenters this morning, I hear them before I see them, instinctually spinning on my heels at the familiar tone of their voice. Summoned to attention. I’m uncomfortably aware of my lateness, which feels like a sin in meeting a news broadcaster. They deliver reports on the state of the world on the hour, at the strike of Big Ben, not 5 minutes later because their bastard East London train was cancelled. I can’t help but feel a news presenter is never late.

It’s 9:30am and Alex has already addressed the nation several times. Meeting a person who’s job it is to publicly present the issues of the day, every day, is a short sharp splash of cold water to the face. At first it’s a bit of a shock, you’re not quite sure you’re ready for this. Your mind sputters into action, a shiny 1.4 litre Nissan Micra facing off a well-oiled 4-litre Jaguar. Let’s face it, you don’t stand a chance. Her smile is warm and gaze so direct you wonder if it cuts through the occasional wall. I tower over her and try not to leave one of my lanky limbs behind as we plough off out the revolving doors of the BBC to a cafe, because the BBC lobby queue is tedious and we all have better things to do - like report on the state of the world. Well some of us do. I’ll just be pleased to keep up.

This shock of cold water to the brain is a sensation not a threat. You clap into gear. This is a person who interviews everyone from royals to refugees and is no stranger to the methodical early morning grilling of politicians. How does she operate? Who delivers news to the nation and what is she like? I am surprised to note that despite my careful preparation for this meeting she has me immediately on the back foot. I had penned questions and even memorised notes from her own book. Forget it, there’s no doubt who’s in charge of this conversation. At first I am amazed by her instant ability to grasp the reigns of the situation. Then I check myself. It is her job. She is a highly respected member of her industry. How could it ever have been different. Once I’m over the shock it becomes exhilarating.

I sought her out for advice. I am currently co-producing and presenting my first-ever BBC radio documentary. Having carefully hidden myself behind lens and laptop as producer or director, a shadowy figure in the background of documentary film and TV, I am stepping into a new world of visibility. It is a different discipline and I’d like to do my best. I find advice from peers very valuable, so I seek out the opportunities. Through the struggle of shunting a career along I’ve learned to take every chance I can get. On CVs we call it being “self-motivated”, a “self-starter”, but while making documentaries on the illicit drug trade and gangs in America I recognised this mentality as, “the hustle”. More on that another day.

The meeting begins with a burst of short, direct questions fired squarely at me. They are followed by the immediate silence and steady gaze of total attention. Perhaps that is part of the shock and exhilaration, it’s not common to be the subject of such complete attention. I get the impression with every answer that thorough analysis is being passed through an efficient modem. What’s noticeable is the attentive listening, followed by another clarifying question. In short shrift Alex has grasped my situation and any relevant surrounding factors. She’s now ready to advise. The advice is precision gold dust.

It starts with something like, “don’t worry about your voice. People always worry about the sound of their own voice, you must forget about it. It’s misdirected energy. Our voices mostly sound fine to everyone else.”

I think misdirected energy is probably another sin in news broadcast.

Her advice continues.

“When you write your script, write to speak. Say it out loud as you write it. Keep it accessible and simple. As you script, listen to your recordings from the field at the same time so you can link them up. My first radio producer once said to me, ‘your words are the only picture we have’. TV scripts are incredibly minimal, much more minimal than radio but in radio you do have to say a bit more.”

I try to imagine her a rookie with her new producer, while I hoover up her words.

“When you deliver your script in the studio look up as though your speaking to someone, don’t hunch over the script. I find it helps make the delivery more natural.”

I enjoy the image of Alex’s cool, steady gaze challenging thin air as she delivers scripts in the studio.

“Don’t be afraid to put some of yourself into it. You need to put a bit more oomph than probably feels natural in your delivery in a studio because the edit process tends to flatten people out”.

“This is a good opportunity because you are producing and scripting it yourself. You are not forced to deliver someone else's lines. This is yours.” She repeats this sentiment. “This is your story, no one knows about this more than you do. You have been covering the subject.”

She is right. I have a moment to reflect on my self-doubts. Where does such uncomfortable self doubt come from? How can I break free of it so I may proceed with some ownership of my work? The reins of conversation were grasped by a clear and direct will on the part of my news presenter friend. Her will is now that I take ownership and proceed well, with my head facing upward, to the direction of the story. However modest that story is, look up and face it. The strength of her will penetrates even my automated inclination to self doubt and for a moment I get it. I feel composed and ready to tell a story. Because for all Alex’s directness and unnerving mastery of the interview environment she is unquestionably warm and genuine. I feel like she wants me to do well.

Her last advice is on self publicity. “Create platforms so that people may discover you further if they come across your work. Offer further opportunity, somewhere a commissioner might be able to get a fuller sense of you if they were considering you or one of your pitches.”

We discuss this subject and my uncomfortable attempts at online presence.

“You’re clearly someone full of ideas. Create opportunities to make that information available; twitter, Instagram and…”

Her last piece of advice.

“Why don’t you write a blog on your website?”

There is a feeling that things are completed. It is a whirlwind half an hour. I’ve never had such a thorough and succinct media meeting in my life. All the ground has been covered. She’s answered every question I had carefully prepared, but never needed to pose. She was, of course, already two steps ahead.

“Do stay in touch and let me know when it broadcasts. I will listen to it.”

With a broad, open smile, she’s off. I pack away my things grinning to myself, exhilarated, motivated and sort of giddy. I’m spat out by the morning and dive head first into my laptop. Without missing a beat I write my first-ever blog entry, this entry, because if a news presenter with such clear will ever tells you to do something, well, you do it.

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