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Christine Jahnke, speech coach for women in politics, dies at 57

Christine Jahnke, a communications coach who prepared Democratic women to run for office and helped others, including Michelle Obama early in her White House years, become comfortable with public speaking, died on Aug. 4, her birthday, at her home in Washington. She was 57.

Her husband, Paul E. Hagen, said the cause was colon cancer.

Ms. Jahnke (pronounced YON-key) found joy in the art of political communication on behalf of female candidates and progressive causes. She spent three decades helping women find their voice, whether in speeches, interviews or debates, and whether they were seeking office themselves or campaigning on behalf of others.

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In addition to advising senators, governors, members of Congress and candidates for local office, she consulted for groups including Black Lives Matter, Planned Parenthood and Amnesty International, and events including the Million Mom March for gun control laws in 2000 and the Women’s March on Washington in 2017.

She had been a backstage fixture at the previous five Democratic National Conventions as speakers rehearsed their remarks, guiding them on how to work with the teleprompter, read the audience and sharpen their message.

“Women come into training sessions more aware of what they need to work on because they have been dealing with the tone police all of their lives,” she told The New York Times in November.

Her training sessions highlighted techniques for effective public speaking. She was a longtime admirer of Sen. Kamala Harris’ communications skills, and although Harris was never a client, Ms. Jahnke frequently used her as an example to her trainees. After last year’s Democratic primary debates, she pointed to her deliberate pacing when she confronted former Vice President Joe Biden over his stance on busing.

“Her pace was the delivery technique that enabled her to command the stage,” Ms. Jahnke said. “If you listen carefully, you will notice how slowly she is speaking and how she uses pauses to add drama.”

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Her friends lamented that Ms. Jahnke died before Biden, the Democratic presidential nominee, announced Harris would be his running mate.

Ms. Jahnke started her own firm, Positive Communications, in 1991. That positioned her well for 1992, when a record-breaking number of women — many of them galvanized by the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings — ran for office for the first time. That year, which politicians and the news media called the “Year of the Woman,” ushered in a period of rapidly escalating change in the gender makeup of Congress and state legislatures.

“She was part of it — she empowered a lot of women to run for office,” Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University in New Jersey, said in an interview. Ms. Jahnke collaborated with the center to provide training for women candidates.

“She always looked like she was loving what she was doing,” Walsh said. “The work was about social change. She wanted to see the face of political power in this country shift to women at every level, as opposed to someone who was just generically training people to be good communicators.”

Among those she worked with was Obama. She helped the first lady work on her delivery before she addressed the International Olympic Committee in Copenhagen in 2009, when she made a pitch for Chicago to host the 2016 Olympics. CNN said that Obama “clearly took the gold with an emotional speech,” outshining her husband.

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Ms. Jahnke shared her own tips in articles, blog posts and training sessions, which she conducted across the country.

“Hold it together,” she advised in a 2018 blog post on Gender Watch, a political website.

“Women have been fearful of displaying emotion since Pat Schroeder was criticized for breaking down when she announced her departure from the presidential race in 1987,” she wrote. “It’s OK to convey what you feel, but do it with words and not tears, especially if you hope to re-enter public life.”

She told losing candidates to look beyond the moment.

“Recognizing that the moment is bigger than you are is a way to show leadership,” she wrote in the same post, citing Hillary Clinton’s withdrawal speech in 2008, in which she said, “Although we weren’t able to shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling this time, thanks to you it’s got about 18 million cracks in it.”

“Seize the election night spotlight to remind voters why you ran in the first place,” Ms. Jahnke advised.

Christine Kay Jahnke was born on Aug. 4, 1963, in Albert Lea, a small town in southern Minnesota. Her father, Wayne Henry Jahnke, is a retired pipe fitter at a food-processing facility, and her mother, Sharon Kay (Klopp) Jahnke, is a retired administrative assistant at a community college.

In addition to her parents and her husband, she leaves her sister, Lisa Hanson, and her brother, Michael Jahnke.

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Ms. Jahnke grew up in Albert Lea and went to Winona State University in Minnesota, where she studied mass communications, graduating in 1985. In 2012, she earned a master’s degree in liberal studies from Georgetown University.

After her undergraduate studies, she worked briefly at a television station in Rochester, Minnesota, inspired in part by “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” which was set in a TV newsroom in Minneapolis. Feeling more comfortable behind the camera than in front of it, Ms. Jahnke left to join Michael Dukakis’ 1988 presidential campaign as an organizer and press aide.

That led her to Washington and a job with Sheehan Associates, a firm that specializes in media training. Ms. Jahnke was among the first to focus on women almost exclusively, as they started to enter politics in significant numbers.

“She saw this need for women to have a more prominent role in public life, and she purposefully focused on that,” Hagen, her husband, said in an interview.

“Few people have that clarity,” he added, “where they see a need and step in and advance that vision.”

She and her husband, whom she married in 1995, divided their time between Washington and Quogue, New York, on the East End of Long Island, where she painted and read fiction and history.

She wrote two books: “The Well-Spoken Woman” (2011), in which she discussed the effective public speaking techniques of prominent women, and “The Well-Spoken Woman Speaks Out” (2018), in which she sought to empower a new generation of diverse leaders.

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“These different women who are running, and the way they are running, is going to change politics forever,” she told The Times in 2018. “They’re rewriting the playbook.”

She ran workshops for the Women’s Media Center, founded by Jane Fonda, Robin Morgan and Gloria Steinem to train not only candidates but also women leaders involved in the more recent gender and social justice movements. Her trainees included Fatima Goss Graves, president of the National Women’s Law Center and director of the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, and Brittney Cooper, author of “Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower” (2018).

“There was true joy on her face as you went through training and you’d see a trainee get it and connect and suddenly the skills kick in, along with the comfort level and the confidence,” Julie Burton, president of the Women’s Media Center, said in an interview. “She not only transformed what a person could do, she transformed a movement.”