When Michelle Obama was a brand new First Lady, and lacking in confidence about her strength as a speaker, she turned to Christine Jahnke for for help with the teleprompter. When Hillary Clinton ran for president in 2008, she turned to Jahnke for guidance. So did nearly all the current and former Democratic women governors, Melinda Gates, Cecile Richards, and many other high-profile women.
Jahnke was among the most visible and successful speaking coaches focused on Democratic candidates and politicians. She would boost their confidence, refine their messages, sharpen their sound bites.
She passed away at her home in Washington, DC on August 4. She was 57. The cause was colon cancer, according to her obituary in The Washington Post.
Jahnke coached dozens of women — men, too — in the skills of communicating powerful, memorable ideas on the speaking podium, in debates, and in media interviews.
But what set her apart from other coaches and trainers was her fierce commitment to elevating women’s voices. She wrote two books focused on women and public speaking.
In The Well-Spoken Woman: Your Guide to Looking and Sounding Your Best (2011), she explained “how Melinda Gates emerged as a powerful advocate, Michelle Obama honed her podium presence, Suze Orman conquered the camera, and Ann Richards always owned the room.”
She shared strategic advice and exercises — on everything from messaging to “hair and hemlines” — so that women speakers would come across as polished and prepared.
Her follow-up book, The Well-Spoken Woman Speaks Out: How to Use Your Voice to Drive Change (2018), targeted women who were “persisting, resisting, advocating, or running for office” — with advice and tools for making an impact.
She described the book as “a celebration of women who are raising their voices, a guide for every woman who wants to join in.”
“Women are telling stories that haven’t been listened to,” she wrote. “And they are speaking up in forums where male voices have dominated — in workplaces, in houses of worship, at town halls, and on the campaign trail.”
In both books, Jahnke drew on her deep experience helping female candidates and politicians communicate more powerfully.
In her first job after college in Minnesota, she was a weathercaster, then news anchor. “I quickly learned,” she told Washingtonian magazine,” that I wanted to be the person behind the camera, making things happen for other people.”
She worked on the 1988 Democratic presidential campaign of Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis before moving to DC.
In 1991, she found her professional calling when watching the Anita Hill testimony on TV. Hill was testifying before a hostile, all white, all male Sentate Judiciary Committee about her experiences working for Clarence Thomas, President George Bush’s nominee to the Supreme Court. (Joe Biden presided over the hearings as chairman.)
“It really made my blood boil,” Jahnke recalled in a 2018 interview. “I knew there wasn’t anything I could do to help her, but I could help other women who wanted to raise their voice.”
Jahnke spent a few years working for Michael Sheehan, a well-known media trainer who has worked with Bill Clinton, John Kerry, and other Democratic leaders. She struck out on her own in 1991 and founded her own firm, Positive Communications.
In recent years, Jahnke has expressed appreciation for the shift in the way female candidates express themselves, breaking free of the old, limiting stereotypes. One example she cited: “the mommy penalty.”
Voters have historically been skeptical of female candidates with young children, believing that family commitments and constituents don’t mix. But increasingly, Jahnke noted, women running for office speak candidly about motherhood, their family lives, and other personal experiences. Jahnke’s term for women who bring their whole selves to the role was “360 degree candidates.”
The changes have made her hopeful, she said.
It’s too bad she did not live to see the 2020 Democratic National Convention put a spotlight on so many powerful women speakers, including Gabrielle Giffords, Michelle Obama, Eva Longoria, Tracee Ellis Ross, Kerry Washington, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Hillary Clinton and Kamala Harris.
For the first time ever, women speakers at the DNC got more speaking time than men.
Their poise in front of the camera, their vocal firepower, and their mastery at messaging and persuasion — all these are a fitting tribute to Chris Jahnke, the ultimate well-spoken woman,
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