With her nervous gesticulating and self-deprecating manner, Jo Usmar instantly charms her audience, negating any preconceptions of the officious, odious journalist. The talk has an informal but intimate feel from the outset, as Usmar guides her listeners through a career story with such humble origins as to put all aspiring writers in her midst at ease. Describing her younger self’s reluctance to get involved in student media societies until her final year, Usmar assuages the anxieties of those of us clamouring to fatten our portfolios, whilst also stressing the importance of utilizing such resources.
Whilst such a platform could have afforded Usmar the chance to self-indulgently pontificate for a 45-minute stretch, she instead chose to impart insights and advice laden with the benefits of experience, as well as some choice anecdotes; she had the hotly contested job of ‘preparing June Sarpong’s blueberry porridge’, not to mention the coveted ‘first interview with One Direction!’ Her delivery is rushed, with neither comic-timing nor polish, but the result is compelling, for Usmar is accessible, and thus fascinating.
Starting her career at Sugar magazine – which unfortunately met its demise shortly after – Usmar worked her way up through the journalistic ranks: a healthy dose of reality for those who thought they could simply waltz into an editorial position at The Times. Currently working as a freelance writer, Jo eschewed any fears her listeners associated with such a precarious position, by demonstrating what a vast range of opportunities such a position afforded her, having written for Stylist, Heat and The Daily Mirror. The title ‘Being a Cosmo Journalist’ really doesn’t do justice to the talk, for Usmar has accomplished so much more. She has also published self-help books, and speaks of the daunting task of finding a willing publicist in a frank but optimistic manner.
At times the writer is ill at ease, and this may reflect an anxiety to fill the allocated time, but these occasional uncomfortable lulls are punctuated by frank and honest observations, and the contrast between the seeming self-doubt that lingers with youth and the self-assuredness that comes from success appeals hugely to an audience of nervous undergrads. At one point she pauses, and asks “Is this helpful?”; here is a woman with an interest in her audience and a passion for her topic. The talk spans an invaluable range of topics, from work experience, to the importance of tailoring your writing style, to the importance of “just talking”.
Jo Usmar is a University of Birmingham girl with no laboured airs or graces, and ‘Being a Cosmo Journalist and Other Stories’ could not have done more to convince her listeners of the importance of such qualities.
by Susie Dickey