I knew about Nichola before I actually met her. When we finally got together for coffee, our shared passion for writing launched a terrific friendship. As associate professor of communications arts and sciences at Pennsylvania State University, Lehigh Valley campus, Nichola D. Gutgold, PhD is a prolific author on the communications styles of influential women in male-dominated fields.
When I learned that Nichola had gone to Washington, D.C. to interview Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Sonia Sotomayor, my first thought was, “How did she become a force who gains access to important women?” So I decided to ask.
DL: Nichola, here you are, professor and author, on a career roll. How did this all happen?
NG: Well, it sure isn’t what I ever expected. My father was a coal miner and one of ten children. Though both my mom and dad were supportive of my sisters and me, they didn’t encourage a professional career route. As a kid, the only images I had of successful career women were TV news broadcasters.
I was lucky enough to go to college, the first in my family to get a degree. I graduated with a double major in mass communications and English, thinking I would teach. While an undergrad, I worked for a while as a newspaper beat reporter. It was a lot of grunt work and a bad fit for me.
I didn’t have any specific career goals after I graduated. So I worked briefly for a TV station, a small advertising business, and then in PR for a shopping mall.
DL: Did these jobs discourage you?
NG: Not really. I always had a sense that I needed to expand my educational credentials. It wasn’t long before I went for an MA in Speech/Communication at Bloomsburg University.
While studying for my masters, I got married and helped my husband start his own advertising business. Balancing all this was a bit hairy. Once I completed my degree I became an adjunct professor at a couple local colleges and Penn State. That’s when I realized I needed a doctorate.
DL: Was getting your PhD your most important career choice?
NG: Yes, it would make all the difference, but it came with real sacrifice. When I started my PhD, I was thirty years old with a young daughter. The rigors of the degree took everything I had, requiring me to study well into the night while jockeying my family responsibilities (often not too well) and my teaching. It was a time of tremendous stress and guilt.
I am fortunate to be strong-willed and optimistic. I knew in my heart that I had to give my all to achieve that degree. If I wanted to be taken seriously in my career and have opportunities presented to me, that PhD was the ticket.
DL: After you got your degree, what made you start writing books about influential women?
NG: It’s always amazing how one thing leads to another if we’re open to it. I’d seen Elizabeth Dole speak on TV at the Republican National Convention. I was intrigued by her beauty queen look and her willingness to demure to her husband’s political aspirations even though she could have been the presidential candidate. So I decided to do my dissertation on her speech-making style.
I wrote to Elizabeth when she ran the Red Cross, more or less begging for an interview. It took several letters until one day, her office contacted me to say she was coming to Hershey, PA to speak and had bought me ticket to hear her. I was stunned and thrilled. That’s how it all started.
DL: I suspect it can feel pretty intimidating to contact these women. What gives you the nerve to do it?
NG: I’ve come to realize that women like Elizabeth Dole and the Justices Ginsberg and Sotomayor have their own stories to tell and few opportunities to tell them. Sure they’re in the news, but you’d be surprised at how little in-depth attention they get personally.
But it takes perseverance. I often have to write many letters (not e-mails) requesting an interview and then following up. Sometimes I get a quick response and other times I wait. I just don’t give up.
DL: It still amazes me that they will agree to talk to you. What’s your magic?
To have Penn State University as my employer is a huge asset. In many ways, I stand on PSU’s shoulders and that opens doors. My academic credentials also have weight. It lets these women know that I am a professional, dedicated to getting things right.
I also make it clear that my focus is on their speech and communication styles. I don’t critique what they say, just how they say it, specifically the techniques they use to make their points to influence change.
It doesn’t take magic, just work hard and optimism. A positive spirit and a can-do attitude have the power to make things happen.
Nichola Gutgold blogs at TalkDoc. Her books include Almost Madam President: Why Hillary Clinton ‘Won’ in 2008 , Seen and Heard: The Women of Television News, and Paving the Way for Madam President. With Molly Wertheimer she co-authored, Elizabeth Hanford Dole: Speaking from the Heart. She is currently writing a book on communications styles of the women Supreme Court Justices.