“Thank you, Mr. President” — Lessons Learned from Helen Thomas

WH2When Helen Thomas, the legendary White House correspondent, died last week she left us with her legacy of “firsts.”

She was the first woman reporter in the White House press corps, first woman president of the White House Correspondents’ Association, and the first woman elected to the Gridiron Club, a select group of Washington’s most distinguished journalists.

How Did She Do It?

How did she break down the barriers and get into those elite “clubs?” What can we learn from her?

As one of nine children of a father who couldn’t read and write, she didn’t have much going for her when she was born 92 years ago. Possibly that’s how she learned to be assertive if she wanted to be heard above the din of her siblings.

She wasn’t a great beauty, practically a job requirement for on-air reporters today. And she was always on view in televised press conferences, sitting in the first row of the press room, ready to leap at the President with pointed questions.

She wasn’t afraid to stand up for what she believed in. To her, there was no such thing as “you can’t,” or “no” if she went after something. Authority didn’t intimidate her. President Gerald Ford once said, “She practiced a fine blend of journalism and acupuncture.”

She had self-confidence, moxie and stamina, all the ingredients you need to succeed in the media, politics and business.

If you’re required to give presentations within your company or externally, what lessons can you learn from the legacy of Helen Thomas?

Never be Intimidated

Even though she often socialized with presidents and other leaders, Helen Thomas was not cowed by them and relished asking tough questions, as shown in this video:

Similarly, you can’t be intimidated if you are required to present to your CEO, your client or to hundreds of people attending a conference. Don’t allow yourself to fall victim to the imposter syndrome, meaning that you don’t feel you’re in the same league as other speakers. You’re convinced you don’t know as much they do.

When a newly elected President of the United States first sits down at his desk in the Oval Office, do you think he feels confident that he knows everything he needs to know about the job? Can anyone ever know all there is to know?

Be brave and self-assured. Fake it, if necessary, until you become the power person in the room

Welcome the Tough Questions

Helen Thomas also said there are no rude questions. Don’t mistake a tough question for rudeness. When you’re presenting, you’ve got to be prepared for any and all questions. If you’re prepared you can maintain control of the Q&A.

Respond to questions with a sense of authority. Reply simply and directly. Remember that you don’t “think” you know the answer; you do know the answer.

Helen Thomas almost never let a President off the hook when he tried to evade her questions. She would quickly follow up with another question.

She made one exception, when President John F. Kennedy was struggling to find the answer to a question. “He went on and on,” she recalled, until suddenly she rescued him with her trademark sign-off to every press conference, “Thank you, Mr. President.”

Thank you, Helen Thomas, for your trailblazing career and the lessons we’ve learned from you.

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One Comment

  1. Nice tribute. As someone who received a Journalism degree, I applaud Helen Thomas’ accomplishments and how she strived for accurate and responsible reporting. Others in her field should take note.

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