French House alumna Lauren Peterson will be back on campus this month to promote a new book she co-wrote with Cecile Richards, former Planned Parenthood Federation of America President, called Make Trouble: Standing Up, Speaking Out, and Finding the Courage to Lead–My Life Story.
Since graduating from UW-Madison, Peterson has had the opportunity to work as a speechwriter for some of politics biggest names, including former President Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and, most recently, activist Cecile Richards. In this interview, the former Badger reflects on what makes a good communicator, connection through storytelling, campaign life, and how to get started as an activist.
Join Peterson and Richards at Madison Central Library on June 23rd from 7 – 9pm for an in-conversation book event and book signing in support of Make Trouble. Bonne lecture!
During your time at UW-Madison, you majored in Political Science but you also studied subjects such as French, Spanish, Theater, Women’s Studies, and Communication Arts. How did these and other courses prepare you for your present career as a speechwriter?
That’s one of the reasons I chose UW-Madison in the first place. I had a lot of different interests, and I wanted the chance to take classes in a lot of different areas so I could figure out my passion. When I first came to campus, I thought I wanted to be an actor.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but having the chance to learn about everything from traditional Kabuki theater to the history of radio (one of my favorite classes I took on campus!) was excellent preparation to work as a speechwriter. In my job, I have to be able to learn about a new topic or policy area almost every day, and to be able to write about it as though I am an expert (which I’m usually not!). And, of course, there are some classes that turned out to be directly relevant to my work. Professor Edward Friedman’s course on the world economy was something I thought about on a regular basis when I was a speechwriter on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign. I was constantly thankful that I had taken a women’s health class in the Gender & Women’s Studies Department when I went to work at Planned Parenthood – shout out to Women’s Studies 103! And Norma Saldivar’s directing class completely changed the way I look at written text that’s meant to be spoken out loud.
Looking back, do you think your experience learning French in particular might have influenced your career in politics and communications?
Definitely! Learning French helped me discover a love for languages, which is the reason I’m a writer today. Speaking French also made it easier for me to learn other languages, including Spanish. And learning to communicate in French definitely strengthened my communication skills in English – it’s all about expressing yourself clearly, no matter what language you’re speaking or writing. Beyond language classes, exploring other cultures has informed my view of the world, which helps me every time I’m writing about foreign policy and global issues.
What role did the French House play in all of this? When you think back on your time at the House, what stands out?
Great friends and faculty – including a few people I still keep in touch with. My fiancée, Liz, and I recently spent two months in Paris, and before I left, I sent a frantic email to Andrew Irving, who had been our advisor when I lived in the French House. Not only did he give me some great tips, he connected me to a fellow French House alum who was living in Paris so we could meet up while I was there.
I also loved living in the French House because it helped me get over the intimidation of speaking a new language out loud. We really did speak French almost all the time, and while we didn’t always know the right word or expression in the moment we needed it, there was a real spirit of camaraderie as we struggled together to figure it out. The meals that were open to the public were another highlight, and a great chance to practice meeting people and making conversation with strangers, knowing the one thing we all had in common was a love for French!
One of my favorite moments from my time in France this winter was the night Liz and I went out to a nice restaurant, and we were speaking French with the waiter. He’d heard us speaking English when we came in, and had kind of a surprised expression on his face throughout our conversation.
He finally said (in French), “You speak very well. Where did you learn French?” He was even more shocked when I told him, “Wisconsin!” But when I told him about the French House, the surprised look disappeared and he said, “Of course, that’s the best way to learn!”
Did you always know you wanted to be a writer?
Pretty much. There were some detours along the way, but writing and reading have always been my favorite things to do. I remember a project in first grade where we got to write and illustrate our own books. I announced to the teacher that mine was going to be a chapter book. I still feel bad for all the parents who had to sit through that the day we read our work out loud – all I remember is that it was very long!
You were a senior writer for Obama for America, Hilary for America, and Planned Parenthood. What did those jobs entail?
I really lucked out. My first real job in politics, after an internship on Russ Feingold’s 2010 campaign and being involved with the campus chapter of Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin, was as a writer on President Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign. I applied because it was a writing job, and it was in Chicago. I definitely didn’t start out as a “senior” anything – I was one of the lowest-level staff members on the digital team, trying my hand at writing tweets and emails and eventually video scripts and short speeches. It was a fantastic experience, because on campaigns, no one really cares how much experience you have (or don’t, in my case) – they just care how hard you’re willing to work.
In my job at Planned Parenthood, I wrote speeches, helped shape the organization’s messaging along with the communications director, helped with social media, and traveled the country to grassroots events and rallies, which was really fun. I would have stayed at that job forever, except that I got a call from a friend who was getting ready to help launch Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. Hillary Clinton has been a hero of mine since high school, so I leapt at the chance to help elect her. I started out in a job on the digital team, where I oversaw a small team of writers and strategists whose main job was finding creative ways to get our message out online. Secretary Clinton’s director of speechwriting gave me the chance to help out with speeches when I had time, and when we won the primary and moved onto the general election, I became a full-time speechwriter. It was the most exciting job I’ve ever had in my life, and it breaks my heart every day that she’s not our president.
As a professional communicator who has worked on behalf of very public figures, what do you think distinguishes good communicators from great ones?
Great question! Gloria Steinem has said she can tell someone’s really smart when everyone they’re speaking to can understand what they’re talking about. I think that’s so true. Great communicators are clear and accessible. They don’t throw around complicated sentences or acronyms or SAT words – they speak in a way everyone can understand.
I also believe that two of the most important tools of communication are stories and a sense of humor. That’s one of the reasons I love working for people like Cecile Richards and Hillary Clinton – they understand that if you can make someone laugh, or move them with a story that gets to the heart of an issue, that person is much more likely to remember what you said.
You will be back on campus at the end of this month for an event at Madison Public Library to promote Make Trouble, which you co-wrote with former Planned Parenthood Federation of America President Cecile Richards. How did you two meet?
During my time on the Obama 2012 campaign, I’d gotten to see Cecile Richards, who was then the president of Planned Parenthood, at a few women’s events, and I was always struck by how funny, energetic, and direct she was. After the campaign ended, I said it was my dream job to work as a speechwriter for someone like her. It turned out she was actually hiring a speechwriter. When I went in for the interview, one of the first things she brought up was her love of Wisconsin – so that definitely gave us something to talk about! I managed to get the job, and we’ve been working together more or less ever since.
What’s it like to work with Richards?
It’s the best! She’s an inspiring leader, someone who not only talks the talk, but walks the walk when it comes to lifting up the young women she works with – as evidenced by the fact that she wanted to have my name on the book right next to hers. As we’ve been on the book tour together over the last couple months, I’ve also been reminded that she’s a great person to travel with, because she always knows the best off-the-beaten-path restaurant in every city (and airport!). Read the book and you’ll see what I mean!
What do you want readers to take away from the book?
Someone on our book tour put it so well – they said the book is a love letter to the fellow travelers Cecile has gotten to know throughout a lifetime of organizing and making trouble, and it’s an open invitation to activism. I hope people reading this book will see that activism, grassroots organizing, and politics are not only an impactful way to spend your time, they’re a lot of fun.
Madison has changed quite a lot since you were a student. What are you most looking forward to during your visit to campus?
My family still lives in Madison – both of my parents are Badgers, and my sister graduated from the law school last month. Plus, I’m getting married on campus this October. I always seem to find a reason to come back!
On this visit, I’m looking forward to talking about Make Trouble and why I think Cecile’s story is such an important one for this moment in our country and our state – Wisconsin definitely needs troublemakers right now. I’m also very much looking forward to sitting out on the Terrace at sunset with a giant scoop of ice cream, and hopefully grabbing a meal at my favorite Madison restaurant, Himal Chuli!
Any advice for current Badgers interested in a career in politics?
Don’t make the mistake of thinking you have to have just the right internships, to have taken all the right political science classes, to know the right people. Within the four walls of a campaign office, none of that matters.
Find a campaign, candidate, or cause you want to work for, and find a way in – whether it’s an internship, a volunteer gig, or an entry-level job. Campaigns are a meritocracy – if you’re talented and you do the work, you’ll do just fine.
And if you’re looking for a place to start, head on over to Planned Parenthood Advocates of Wisconsin and tell them you want to volunteer – that’s what I did, and it worked out pretty well!