I always wondered how Ronald Reagan became such a skilled speaker and communicator. Part of it, I assumed, was his many years of acting. But after I watched a 2 part PBS documentary last night (American Experience) on Ronald Reagan, I came away with a different view. American Experience: Ronald Reagan
The show follows Reagan from his early life growing up in a broken home through his presidency. Very early on he showed his true colors, being the hero,and being in the spotlight. As a lifeguard in high school, working all summer from dawn till dusk, he pulled 77 people from the raging river waters, saving more than a few from drowning. (Later when he was losing his mind to Alzheimers, one of the few things he'd recall were those golden years on the river).
Over time the documentary showed, as he went from acting to being president of the actors' screen guild, to doing some of his first public speeches on behalf of Barry Goldwater in 1963, how he evolved into a smooth, masterful speaker. By the time he ran against Gerald Ford for the Republican nominatino in 1976, he was almost in another league (when Reagan spoke at the National Republican Convention, having just been defeated by Ford, he gave a powerful speech, bringing the crowd to its feet. "There was a feeling among many delegates that they'd picked the wrong candidate," commented his biographer).
Reagan was known for pissing a lot of people off, from Berkely students to liberals and environmentalists. His time as California governor in the 60s was particularly stormy. Standing in the National Redwood Forest, he once commented: "A tree is a tree. How many more do you have to look at?""
Yet he proved to be a masterful communicator. Some observations from the (two part) show that would benefit today's presenters:
* Have a clear theme/message: Reagan came to life in the early 60s when he hit on two themes: fight the communists, and cut down Big Government. He hammered this home for over two decades, building in effect a political brand that would dramatically shape politics by the 80s. (Years later Bill Clinton would come out of a confused political race with his own focus that would save him against George Bush: "It's the Economy Stupid." )
* Be natural--and confident: When Reagan strolled up to the podium,
every molecule in his body showed confidence....yes he had some good
speechwriters, but he also rehearsed and knew his lines -- and
delivered them with gusto...never missing a beat.
* Study your body language: Reagan's body language was natural, and positive. He didn't have the twitches, frowns, and other awkward moments that aflict others.
* Believe in your mission and message. Reagan seemed to believe what he was saying with all his heart. A respected speaker told me years ago, "Go out with the strongest message you can--even if it's controversial. Hammer it home. Even if people don't agree, they'll respect you for your passion and focus.
* Use stories and imagery: Reagan conjured up images (many fanciful) of a Rockwellian time of quiet streets, small towns and close families (even though his was broken), a simpler time when "things seemed right." He played on people's emotions, pulling the heart strings.
* Use humor: Reagan had a natural wit that drew people in. His "There you go again" line is famous. And in march 1981, as he entered the operating room following his assassination attempt, he looked up at the surgeons and quipped: "I hope you''re all Republicans."
I wasn't a Reagan fan politically, but even today I have to admire his communication skills. As I watch what's happening in Washington today, it's clear something is missing. Makes you almost want to "bring back the Gipper."
Reagan story example:
* March 31, 1976 (from his "To Restore America" speech, which included one of many references to his experiences during the Depression)
"No one who lived through the Great Depression can ever look upon an unemployed person with anything but compassion. To me, there is no greater tragedy than a breadwinner willing to work, with a job skill but unable to find a market for that job skill. Back in those dark depression days I saw my father on a Christmas eve open what he thought was a Christmas greeting from his boss. Instead, it was the blue slip telling him he no longer had a job. The memory of him sitting there holding that slip of paper and then saying in a half whisper, 'That's quite a Christmas present,' it will stay with me as long as I live."