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Coach: ‘Well-Spoken Woman’ Tough, Likable

Ryan Kelly/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Speech coach Christine Jahnke, who has worked with first lady Michelle Obama (above), wrote a book to encourage female presidential candidates by helping women tackle their fears.

There has never been a madam president, but when it happens, it will be because she followed a few simple rules, author and speech coach Christine Jahnke said. 

In her new book, “The Well-Spoken Woman,” Jahnke urges female politicians to refrain from being hesitant, to show resolve when faced with anxiety and to practice their responses to tricky questions — pretty good advice for male politicians, as well.

The main difference in coaching women lies in the candidates’ confidence and view of themselves when going through critiques, said Jahnke, a former press secretary who now works as a speech coach helping women run for office.  

Jahnke joked that men almost always think their execution and speech went perfectly when reviewing tapes. Women, on the other hand, have a tendency to beat themselves up and be too critical. Jahnke strives to find the middle ground and present a realistic critique for her clients, who have included first lady Michelle Obama and surrogates for Hillary Rodham Clinton’s 2008 campaign. 

“You have to be yourself. That is the core, and we’ve all seen figures that are not themselves,” Jahnke said. “If you don’t share something about yourself, you don’t really connect.”

It’s not an easy task.

That is, in part, because of the attitudes of voters, which Jahnke admitted have evolved over time. Having been involved in politics at the national level since the late 1980s, she said female politicians find it easier to run for office now than they did two decades ago.

Her hopes were raised by the two women at the forefront of politics in 2008: Clinton, who won more than 18 million votes in her unsuccessful quest for the Democratic presidential nomination, and Sarah Palin, who inspired conservative audiences during her appearances as the Republican vice presidential nominee.

A Democrat, Jahnke has a soft spot for Clinton — she worked on the campaign — but said Palin also displayed strengths, particularly by showing resolve in the face of anxiety.

She had fewer kind words for Palin’s performance during her gubernatorial resignation speech, criticisms shared by some other commentators friendly to the former Alaska governor. 

“It is a painful video to watch. Her delivery is halted and very stiff and uncomfortable,” Jahnke said. “Having it in the yard was too casual. And if you go back, you see she didn’t really say what she was going to be doing. The message was muddled.”

And muddled won’t cut it.

A study conducted by the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, an organization that partners with nonpartisan groups to further the role of women in politics, found that women need to be likable and tough to please the public. 

That can be a difficult pairing to pull off.

Male politicians have a built-in advantage in voter perception when it comes to toughness. Jahnke said this is where a simple critique of a female candidate’s stance or posture while sitting can translate as tough but likable — not too meek but ladylike all the same.

By contrast, conveying toughness was never a problem for Clinton. Jahnke said she believes Clinton didn’t get enough credit for the personal anecdotes she shared to convey her soft side. 

When Clinton gave a speech at her alma mater, she painted a portrait many had never seen — nervous and shy, an out-of-place Midwesterner who willed herself through Wellesley College.

But hardly anyone noticed, Jahnke said.

Recently, one way for female candidates to demonstrate their toughness has been through law enforcement, and Jahnke cited a number of women who have been elected to higher office after serving as their state’s attorney general: former Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, who now serves as Secretary of Homeland Security, Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire and former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm (all Democrats) and GOP Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire.

Another female attorney general who Jahnke believes has great potential but is little-known outside her home state is California’s Kamala Harris. 

“One of the things that has been most interesting about her in terms of her being a leader is that she has been attorney general and a prosecutor, because that allows her to demonstrate her toughness,” she said. “She is a very good speaker, handles herself extremely well, projects confidence and does well in person and on camera.”

But it isn’t easy to roll all of the desired traits for a politician into one person, male or female. In her book, Jahnke cites examples of success from the world of politics — Barbara Jordan, Ann Richards and Elizabeth Dole — as well as from the nonpolitical world, including Hall of Fame basketball coach Pat Summit and poet Maya Angelou, highlighting the traits that help each stand out.

Jahnke said she was moved to write the book because of the paucity of follow-up candidates to Clinton and Palin — GOP Rep. Michele Bachmann is the only woman in the 2012 field — and for women in all fields in the hope that it would help them tackle their fears. 

And she is optimistic about prospects for women in the future and for continuing changes in voters’ attitudes.

“I would think the public would be much more comfortable now with the idea of a woman president,” she said.

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