How I overcame my fear of going on TV


Writer Vicky Ward on how to beat stage fright and become a pundit

Since March 17, I’ve been on what is technically termed a “book tour,” which in my case is a misnomer, since I am yet to leave New York City. But in the past seven weeks since the publication of my book on the Kushners, I have been transformed from a hermit who scarcely left my desk between September and January into an in-demand expert on the first daughter and her husband. Predictably, the White House dismissed the book as “fiction” — but this grandstanding lacked teeth, not least because four days after publication Tricia Newbold, a whistleblower, told Congress that following ordinary vetting procedure the security clearances for Ivanka and her financially conflicted hubby had been denied and that the Trump administration had been forced to override the denials. The press reported that the president had personally stepped in to clear Jared Kushner, Ivanka’s husband, even though she had said in a taped interview that her father had “no involvement” in the process.

So, in order to posit repeatedly about how the apple — or, perhaps, in this case, the orange — has not fallen far from the tree, I’ve become a TV pundit. When I bump into friends, they tell me to relish the moment, because it will pass. “Enjoy it,” they say.

I smile politely.

They do not know my secret.

I have always suffered terribly from stage fright. As a child I was a talented pianist (I was even appointed “School Pianist” in acknowledgment of my hard work and ability). But whatever flair I displayed in the practice room vanished in front of an audience. Then, my fingers shook and I missed all the keys. I ended up giving up the piano. It was the same with singing: I sang clearly and beautifully until the parents showed up for the school concert and my voice turned to a whisper.

In my adult life, for years, I have been leery of going on television, not least because of its requirement that you speak concisely and, at least in America, somewhat passionately. This flies directly in the face of the skill set which enables me, I hope, to be a good reporter: namely, that I ask the questions, rather than give the answers. I’m able to see around all corners of an argument, which helps me build bipartisan relationships, which is fantastic for Rolodex-building but does not translate to being a pundit. When someone asks me, “What do you think?” I think so many thoughts all at once that the noise inside my head gets so loud it’s deafening — and I am speechless. As a result, one of the things I’ve come to truly dread is being on set, earpiece in my right ear, and a producer saying: “Ten seconds before we are live, and Ms Ward, please look at Camera Two . . . ” In that moment, I’d rather be having a root canal.

But this spring I knew that I would be on a lot of TV shows and that some of them might be adversarial. I had to master my fear, so I had booked a veteran Washington media coach, Michael Sheehan, on the recommendation of a New York plutocrat, a private equity tycoon, who confided that once upon an unimaginable time, 20 or more years ago, Sheehan had told a far less confident version of himself that he had a few things to learn about public speaking; apparently, it had worked. Sheehan had told me over the phone I’d need two or three sessions. But then he arrived, off the Acela train, for our first session and saw my anxious expression. I explained I’d been so nervous about our training that I had not slept the previous night. “We might book a few more sessions, then,” he said kindly. My other half popped in as Sheehan positioned his camera on our dining room table. “She needs help with being concise,” my other half told Sheehan before heading out the door. My other half was previously married to a very successful news anchor. Again, I thought about the root canal.

After we’d done a few hours of Q&A — on the playback my “A’s” were as rambling and boring as I’d feared — Sheehan asked me if I liked tennis. I don’t just like tennis. I love it. I have played competitively all my life. “You are always serving,” he told me. “Whatever they ask you — you are serving.” But with what? At that point, he produced a pack of flash cards. “Get out a pen.” And then he started to dictate lines. “Here are your five themes. Whatever they ask you, it’s one of these themes. Memorise the flash cards. Next time we are going to expand the flash cards. And come up with specific details for the flash cards.”

Flash cards. Words. Memorising. Now we’d moved into a territory where I felt much more comfortable than the land of cameras and lights and overly energised anchors. But even so, what happened if I just blanked and forgot my lines on air? That afternoon I went to see my psychiatrist, with whom, amazingly, in over half a decade’s worth of weekly 45-minute sessions, I had never raised the subject of my performance anxiety. He looked at me a little bit sceptically: “You realise there’s a medication for that?” he said. Apparently, I am the only person on the planet of my age who has never heard of beta blockers. So, I took a pill before my next practice session in the dining room with Sheehan. And I didn’t panic. I served. I remembered the flash cards. Even better, weeks later, I did the same thing on air with George Stephanopoulos of ABC News. “I see your media training paid off,” observed my other half, which, for him, is high praise. I became so confident, that I went on CNN one night and was so comfortable, I started to yell. “The content was good, but the delivery was most unladylike,” observed my other half later. Even Sheehan was taken aback by my verve. “You were a bit hyper,” he said gently, “but it fit the show.”

So, as I wrap up my media tour and remember what it feels like to book an Uber, and fix my own hair and make-up, I am far more confidently pitching myself to news shows. “I can talk about anything,” I told one producer recently, wondering, even as I said it, if that was me or a beta blocker saying something that until a mere three weeks ago would have been remarkably out of character. But proof that something transformational had happened at dinner last night, during the conversation with my other half. “I think you could be very good on TV,” he said. Then he paused, looking intently at my elated expression. “But first you’d need to fix your wonky nose.”

Vicky Ward is the author of ‘Kushner Inc: Greed. Ambition. Corruption. The Extraordinary Story of Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump’ (St Martin’s Press)