From Babysitter to Cabinet Speechwriter
This week we spoke with Jenifer Sarver, Chief of Staff to Karen Hughes – the Global Vice Chair of Burson-Marsteller. Jenifer has an incredible talent for knowing exactly what to say to get the point across, whether it be to her younger brothers or powerful CEOs. Her determination coupled with practiced skill and valuable experience has made her quite an accomplished Bossy Lady! Jenifer shares with us the real struggle of maintaining a work/life balance and the benefit of reading good books all while challenging us to be the strong, assertive women that we have every right to be.
1. What was your first job and how did you end up writing speeches?
My first job was babysitting my three younger brothers. It has been pivotal in my career in politics and communication as I had to become adept at the art of negotiation, compromise and delegation – and learning how to clean up other people’s messes. My first professional job (which is probably what you’re really asking) was an important stepping stone to my current role in public affairs. It was in the 1996 election cycle where I was privileged at a very young age to serve as a deputy campaign manager for a woman who was running for Congress in Fort Worth, Texas. I learned a lot of important lessons in that first job and one of the most important was how hard most elected officials work for the privilege of representing us. On that campaign I walked with the candidate to nearly 2,000 homes, knocking on doors and shaking hands. It was retail politics at its best and it was a great boot camp for someone interested in learning more about campaigns, politics and the political process.
After that campaign I worked on another race as finance director, ultimately went back to undergrad to finish my degrees in public relations and speech communication, and then landed at a high tech public relations firm in Austin.
I ended up speechwriting because I quit my job in Austin and moved to Washington, D.C. in September 2001, three weeks after September 11. I was passionate about exploring politics and public service and knew I wanted to be in the epicenter of our democracy—and I wasn’t going to let the terrorist attacks deter me. I moved up jobless and relatively penniless. I got a job at Ann Taylor and pounded the pavement, walking the halls of Capitol Hill to share my resume with anyone who would have it. Luckily, someone did and gave me an opportunity. My gumption got me in the door; my political and communications experience, coupled with my Texas pedigree, got me the interview; but my writing skills and political acumen helped me land the job as Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison’s speechwriter. I was wildly privileged to serve in that role for nearly three years, and felt everyday that I was serving the people of Texas and playing a small role in something much larger and more important than myself.
2. Looking back now, if you could give one piece of advice to yourself in your early 20s what would it be?
I’ve been fortunate to pave a path that I have been very proud of, and I wouldn’t change a thing. I was blessed to have wonderful mentors and managers who were supportive of my professional career early on, and if anything, I would tell younger self to more intentionally seek out their wisdom and advice. It is easy when you have early success to think that you know it all. You don’t. And the humility and insight to know that there are others from whom you can learn will help ensure greater success later on. I would also say that there is no such thing as “work/life balance” – it’s a daily struggle and continues to be, but I would prioritize myself a little more – body, spirit and mind. And I would spend more time with my family. I lost my mother unexpectedly nearly four years ago and I miss her every day. I would give anything for one more shopping trip or conversation over coffee. The times I skipped out on being with her or talking to her to do something far less important, I regret.
3. What made you realize you could write speeches for incredible people?
I had no idea I could write speeches until someone asked me to. The key to being a good speechwriter is being a good writer, period. Being a good writer starts with reading good writing. Fortunately, I was raised in a home stacked with books and by parents who emphasized the written word, often forcing us to forgo things like television and video games (the horror!) to read books. (Real books. With paper pages.) In high school I realized I had two specific skills: talking and writing. And, if I could make a career out of doing things I loved, and would probably do for free, then that was my path. I learned to write speeches by listening to speeches. Lots and lots of speeches. Some good, some bad, others awful – all instructional. To write well for someone else, it’s important to be able to get inside their head and understand what makes them tick. What words and phrases roll off their tongue? What is their speech cadence? Are they funny? Can they effectively use dramatic pauses? And then, after you understand them better, you need to understand what they want to say – and craft a message that enables them to effectively deliver that message in a style best suited to them. My family never really understood why I didn’t “get credit” for the speeches I wrote. Indeed, speechwriting is very much a behind the scenes, collaborative effort – but when a phrase or sentence that I crafted comes out of the mouth of a Senator, a Cabinet Secretary or a CEO, and makes its way into the pages of a newspaper, that is tremendously gratifying.
4. You’ve worked in a variety of different fields. What advice do you have for women who are trying to find a direction career-wise?
Follow your heart. I know it sounds trite and simplistic, but really, truly if you find work that you love and are passionate about, you will never feel like you have a job. Sometimes what you love won’t lead you to fame or fortune, but it will lead you to a more content and fulfilled life. And that, my friends, has no price tag. Your passion may be in the classroom, the cockpit, the kitchen, or it may be in the boardroom. No one can define success for your life better than you. Many will try, but what inspires and drives you is what matters in the end. Try different things. Intern. Volunteer. There’s 101 ways to try out a new career – don’t limit yourself to a 9-5 job, try something on for size that’s part-time or on a short-term basis. Interview people in other careers to find out what they do, and if they like it, and then you can decide if it’s for you. Informational interviews are a great way to explore potential alternatives and the realities of making a leap, with minimal risk.
5. You’ve worked with people who are highly visible in the media and press. What do you think is the most important thing for women in the spotlight to remember? Particularly women in politics?
We’ve come a long way, baby. Though we haven’t reached political parity by any stretch, there are increasing numbers of women engaged all along the political spectrum – from staffer, to donor, to candidate to appointed official. Yes, the media will often annoyingly point out a women’s hair or wardrobe, but honestly, we spend a lot of time on those things – isn’t it nice that they get noticed? Don’t have a chip on your shoulder because you’re a woman and don’t expect anything special as a woman. Show up and work hard. Don’t ask for a seat at the table – take it. The worst thing women in politics do is ask for permission to participate. That battle was fought already. We won. The challenges women faced even two decades ago have largely eroded. The barriers aren’t completely gone, and likely never will be, but they can be overcome … and trampled on in a nice pair of stilettos.
Jenifer Sarver is the general manager of Burson-Marsteller’s Austin office, and also serves as chief of staff to the company’s global vice chair, Ambassador Karen Hughes. She provides crisis and strategic communications counsel and support to a range of clients from non-profits to Fortune 500 companies, and leads new business development efforts and community outreach in the Austin, Texas area. Jenifer previously worked on Capitol Hill for U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, in the Bush Administration at the U.S. Department of Commerce and at The Archer Center, the home of all Washington, D.C.-based student programs for The University of Texas System. Jenifer also worked in public relations at Cunningham Communications and Public Strategies, and began her career in political campaigns in the 1996 election cycle.
Jenifer graduated from The University of Texas at Austin with bachelors’ degrees in journalism and speech communication, and received her Master’s in Public Administration from American University. Jenifer has been an adjunct professor at Concordia University in Austin, at American University in Washington, D.C., and through the UT System, teaching writing, political communication and public policy. She is actively involved in the Austin community, serving on the boards of the Austin chapters of the Association for Women in Communications, the Public Relations Society of America, MaverickPAC, the Archer Center, and the Texas 4000 for Cancer, a charity bike ride from Austin to Anchorage. She is a Fellow a the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Participation, was selected as a member of the 2010 Leadership Austin Essential Class, is on the UT Austin College of Communication Advisory Council and is the chair of the National Public Relations Committee for the Texas Exes.