When you think of jobs in communications, gigs in public relations, marketing and journalism typically come to mind. The Young Professionals Committee will shed light on intriguing communications roles in financial institutions and government at a panel on May 9, 2017, “Non-Traditional Communications Jobs That Rock”.
We caught up with panelist Carlyn Reichel, who served as former Vice President Joe Biden’s foreign policy speechwriter from September 2015 through the end of the Obama administration. Carlyn now works as Director of Communications at Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement.
What was your first job out of college and how did you land that role?
By the time I graduated college, I knew that I wanted to work in Washington. So, I moved across the country and dropped off my resume in a lot of congressional offices. Unfortunately, it was August, and Congress was in recess — not a great time to try to land a job in DC. But I did get an offer to join a boutique PR firm in town that handled an array of clients from the government and non-profit sector.
I don’t have a great story about how I got that job: I applied to a posting I saw online while searching for communications jobs in DC, interviewed with a series of people, and ultimately accepted the job so I could get my feet under me in Washington. I figured out relatively quickly that I wanted to be more directly involved with politics and policy making — the whole reason I moved to DC in the first place — so I started looking into grad schools. But, because it was a small company, I got to try a lot of different aspects of PR work, which was helpful in sorting out what I did and did not want to pursue in my career.
How did you wind up becoming a speechwriter? Was there someone in particular or an experience that motivated you to follow this career path?
Well, I didn’t so much “wind up” becoming a speechwriter as I aggressively pursued the chance to try my hand at it and then worked a lot of long hours for many years to develop my skills. But it’s fair to say that I didn’t always know this is the direction my career would take.
I was in graduate school during the 2008 campaign, and I spent most of that summer on a journalism fellowship talking to people in Minnesota about the idea of the American Dream and how it was changing. I interviewed people and politicians, covered the state party nominating conventions, even sat in the press pen for a rally with then-candidate Barack Obama. And by the end of the summer, I knew in my heart-of-hearts that I didn’t want to report, I wanted to advocate. I had clear opinions about the direction our country should go, and I wanted to fight for them.
What are some misconceptions about your career that people would be surprised to hear?
I think there might be an overly romanticized idea of the speechwriter alone with a computer, agonizing over the perfect turn of phrase that shifts the course of history. Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of agonizing — something all writers understand. The pressure is immense. Deadlines are real. And, especially when you write on behalf of representatives of the United States government, your words carry serious consequences, so you better have your facts right. But great speeches most often aren’t made up of the fanciest words or the showiest sentences. They convey something real and powerful in a way that immediately connects with the audience. People want to feel that a speaker understands their problems and gets what their life is like. And since speeches are meant to be heard, not read, being simple and sincere with your words is almost always more effective than trying to be convoluted or clever.
Can you share an exciting moment in your career?
I had so many incredible opportunities during my time working for the Obama Administration, it’s hard to pick just one exciting moment. I’ll never forget my first time landing in a foreign country in one of those Air Force planes with “United States of America” printed in big blue letters on the side. Or the first time walking through the gates to start my job with the National Security Council and realizing, “OMG, I work at the White House.”
For an American Studies major who grew up watching The West Wing, those were pretty amazing moments. But my best memories are all from times when I got to see how a speech or an article that I worked on made a difference to someone,—,gave them hope, or encouraged them to keep going, or just let them know that someone cared. That’s what I cherish most.
What is your best piece of advice for young professionals?
Don’t waste time being afraid. I know that’s easier said than done and the only real antidote is experience, but it’s also an energy suck that consumes a lot of time that would be better spent just doing the work. Because I started my career in speechwriting by working for a high-profile principal — then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — I fought a lot of anxiety early on about whether or not I deserved the opportunity.
I don’t think I’d heard the term “imposter syndrome” at that point, but certainly I didn’t believe I’d earned the right to call myself a speechwriter. It didn’t matter that I was surrounded by incredible people who saw my potential and who were willing to invest the time to train me. My fear was my biggest stumbling block. And when I was finally able to internalize the fact that even people with important jobs are just people—when I was able to be myself around them without fear—that’s when I really started to come into my own.