Acclaimed DC broadcaster Jan Fox’s four Emmy Awards attest to her stellar 30-year career in local network news. But don’t ask her where she went to Journalism school. The only woman role model on TV when Fox was a kid was Lucille Ball on “I Love Lucy.”
Fox herself is amazed at the contrast between her childhood—spent growing up poor in Shelbyville, Indiana—and her professional life of interviewing many celebrities and US presidents. We were excited to talk to her about her interesting journey.
Are you ready to speak well? Jan Fox can help. Scroll down to read our Q&A. And click here to download the podcast with Jan Fox!
Be Inkandescent: Why do you say that you are living a life you never could have imagined?
Jan Fox: Imagine a little kid with socks that don’t match, hand-me-down dresses, living in an old house with broken windows and lots of weeds in the backyard, an abusive mom, and food that didn’t quite make a meal.
Now imagine that kid getting to do what I’ve done and getting to be where I’ve been and meet whom I’ve met. I could have never dreamed it. I looked for an opening, stuck my foot in the door, and if it worked I kept going in and if it didn’t, I pulled it out and ran. That’s honestly how I lived. I feel incredibly blessed and lucky. I wake up every morning with a grateful heart.
Be Inkandescent: You earned and Emmy in Boston, and three Emmys at WUSA TV9 in Washington, DC—for Best Investigative Reporting, Best Feature Story, and the coveted Station Community Service EMMY for your work on child car-seat checks. That’s impressive. Tell us about those accomplishments.
Jan Fox: It was pretty simple. I was a kindergarten teacher, then a college professor, then by luck I ended up being a little reporter on a big news show in Boston. When the host left, I took the seat for 13 weeks while they went on a national search—and I lasted for five years. And then I had a chance to be an anchor in Portland, Maine. I had never done that.
While I was there I met a guy who got a job in DC. So I came with him and looked for a job. And I watched TV all three nights I was in town and decided that the place with the deepest stories, the best reporting, was Channel 9. And luckily for me, I got a job there.
What I loved most was working as a reporter covering news stories, because the action was there day in and day out. Pretty soon, I was asked to be the consumer reporter. We investigated everything under the sun, and I know it made a difference in people’s lives. Plus it let me sleep well every night. So that’s how I ended up with some of those awards—that, and having great producers.
Be Inkandescent: Tell us a little bit about some of those stories. The consumer reporting is definitely fascinating, but tell us about the sensational stuff like meeting presidents and working in Hollywood.
Jan Fox: When there’s a movie opening, all the talk show hosts are invited to the movie opening, and we get to interview the movie stars.
So if you ask me my favorite, I almost always answer Dolly Parton. What’s the question most people want to ask her? It’s: “Are they real?” But I knew she didn’t answer that question, so I decided to come up with a question that I know she would answer.
I say, “Dolly, is there ever a time you wanted to just take off the wigs, flip off those fingernails, let the air out of those things if you can, and just be Dolly Rebecca Parton Dean?” And she says, “Honey, I’m always Dolly Parton wherever I go. But I like painting and powder. And this is a good barn. If you paint it up so it looks pretty, it’s pretty pretty. But if you take all the paint and powder off, it’s a dang good barn.” So I have no idea if they’re real. But I got a great sound bite from my interview and she was just so delightful and authentic.
Sometimes when I’m speaking about speaking well, I say to the group that it’s important to be your authentic self. Then I put up a photo of Parton and everybody starts laughing because her figure does not look authentic. But when you ask about her soul and her purpose and her homeland and what she’s done for the people from where she came, you can’t help but love her soul. So she’s my favorite celebrity interview. My favorite president was Jimmy Carter.
Be Inkandescent: Tell us why.
Jan Fox: President Carter and Mrs. Carter came to Benning Road in Southeast DC and he built 10 houses for Habitat for Humanity. Everybody told us that we could not bother them because they just wanted to work, but I kid you not, every day he walked to my camera and gave me great sound bites and so did she. And a little boy got his own house and his own room for the first time ever and he got to plant a bush out front. I said to the boy, “Byron, when this bush blooms, call me and I will come back and do another story.”
He called me: “Ms. Fox, you don’t remember me. Bush is a blooming.” We shot the story. “You don’t remember me, but I’m graduating from 6th grade. Will you come to my school?” “Yeah, I sure will.” And we stayed in touch.
Byron came to Channel 9 and interned. Then he got a job as an associate, and then he became an assistant director of Channel 9. So I feel Jimmy Carter gave that boy, that family, a life they would have never had. He also taught me that no matter what your age, work till you sweat—it feels good.
Be Inkandescent: You’re not at Channel 9 anymore. Tell us what you’re doing now.
Jan Fox: When I retired from Channel 9, I didn’t know really what I was going to do, but people kept asking me to speak and asking me to coach. I thought that would end when I left TV. But it didn’t. So I said to my husband, “I think I need to start a business.” And he said, “Go for it.” At 62 years old, I went to an expensive brander and I learned some things about marketing myself.
Be Inkandescent: Why is your company called Fox Talks.
Jan Fox: I say it’s Fox Talks because I talk and I teach people to talk better. I work with my clients so that each one leaves feeling like they can do it. Teaching people to speak well, draws on my experience as a teacher and as an on-air journalist. I view television as a classroom, where when you speak authentically, you reach a lot of people. And when you’re working on a stage with a lot of people, it’s about more than just speaking. So I help my clients reach their audiences by teaching them to speak for full-blown impact. And I love it.
Be Inkandescent: What’s one great tip that our readers can take away today to speak better in front of large groups of people.
Jan Fox: Well, I hate to use an old cliché—but: Just do it! I believe if you look deeply inside yourself you’ll find a message. And you might be the only one who can deliver it. If that’s the case, then I believe you’re obligated to get out of yourself, not to worry that you’re going to stumble over words, so that you can give back.
Speaking can be scary and intimidating. Standing on our two-foot-square speaker box, it’s easy to think, “You’re all looking at me, I’m worried about what I’m going to say.”
And so I say, “Just take a step to your right or to your left—step out of that speaker box.”
Forget that they’re going to judge you. Just share what you know. So give it to them like you’re giving it to the neighbor over the back fence. Whatever you’re really good at, and there is something you’re really good at, find a way to bring a little piece of that to your speaking. There’s a relaxation that comes from that.
Be Inkandescent: Can you name a few of the folks you’ve coached—or is that top secret?
Jan Fox: It’s not so much that I don’t want to tell who they are; it’s that the reason they came to see me is they had a fear about speaking and so I don’t like to put them in that light. But I will mention just one: The executive director of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, a very powerful position.
A while back, someone gave him, out of the blue, a hard drive that contained 30 years of emails and records documenting how the British Isles were a tax haven. And there were some big names on that drive. It was huge. And it affected lots of countries. My client pulled together around 50 journalists from around the world and they worked on it for a year in a half.
It blew up last April all around the world, when they reported their stories in newspapers, on TV, and on the Internet. Some governments have toppled, some very famous bankers in England are in trouble, the daughter of Imelda Marcos gave back her Van Gogh paintings, some Koreans had to give back some money.
So it was an amazing story, but he was afraid to tell it. He was afraid his memory wouldn’t be good enough to tell the story well, and he was intimidated by the task of organizing it for presentation. And so we worked together and he was asked to do a TEDx talk.
I helped him build a Powerpoint so that at any moment in which he forget something or didn’t know where he was going, all he had to do was finish the sentence and click to the next slide. Not only did he do a phenomenal job, but the audience got it. They got the magnitude of this story. and they clapped long after he got off the stage.
Experiences like that reinforce my feeling that there’s a need for convincing people that if they open their mouths, the impact could be heard in a big way.
Be Inkandescent: You’ve also conducted training programs — at Verizon, The Defense Logistics Agency, The CIA, The Senate Dirksen Building, Well Point, Anthem. Now you are helping law groups, the DC Bar, PR firms, Women’s Groups, IT companies, sales teams, several golf groups, and other businesses raise the level of their communications and increase the confidence of their employees. What are your plans for the future?
Jan Fox: Okay, the truth comes out. At 67 years old, I know I want to avoid the rocking chair. I’m having a blast. I have a big business plan, and I have some little ones, too. I want to do some new things with my website, I want to have new programs, I want to offer some things online, so that I can reach a bigger market.
I couldn’t dream of my life to date—so how am I supposed to dream the rest? It’s been a constant reinvention. I reinvented myself from being a school teacher to a college professor, from a college professor to a TV talk-show host, from a talk-show host to an anchor, from an anchor to working in a top-10 market. And so this is just another reinvention. Remember when I said opportunity knocks? I’ve got my toe in the door. I’m beginning to see what’s behind it, and I’m going for the ride.
Be Inkandescent: What is “the power of tweaks”?
Jan Fox: I think they’re tiny mind shifts. Picture yourself up on stage in front of a large audience. Then put your hand in front of your face and look at your palm, and say, “I’m really scared, I’m standing up here all by myself.” Now move your palm just a little bit and see that you can see beyond it. If you do what I call the big embrace, if you embrace that audience and embrace the opportunity instead of hide behind this palm, it’s just a tiny little mind shift, but it makes a big impact.
When I work with people, even in big training sessions, I have them try that. I have them move out of that speaker box that I mentioned earlier. I have them switch a gear. So it’s just tiny moves, I call them tweaks, the power of tweaks, that use the micro to maximize your impact—and your potential. So if you’re fearful, a tiny little move gets you started, and then you know what? The rest of the tweaks just unveil themselves one after the other.
For more information about Jan Fox and her speaking training firm, check out her website, FoxTalks.com.