The Great Communicator

“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”

“We will never forget them… (as they) ‘slipped the surly bonds of earth’ to ‘touch the face of God.’”

“Honey, I forgot to duck.”

Whatever your politics and assessment of his presidency, one thing we would all likely agree on is “The Great Communicator” was an apt description of our 40th President, Ronald Reagan.

Back in January of 2013, my husband Tom picked up a quick college credit for his master’s program by visiting and writing a reflection paper on the Ronald Reagan Library near Los Angeles. Interested in history and always up for a road trip on a sunny Southern California post-Christmas day, I tagged along. We do a nice job in this country of honoring our leaders, and this Presidential Library was no exception. Perched high on a hill and beautifully designed, whether you’re a Democrat or Republican, a history buff or not, you’d likely be impressed with the gorgeous view of Simi Valley, mission-style architecture, cool interactive exhibits, and just walking through a real Air Force One.

I was 21 years old in 1980, and the election that year between Reagan and Carter was the first one in which I was old enough to cast my vote. So for me, walking through this museum was a walk back through the memorable events of the 1980’s—a decade in which I would become a young career woman, start a family, and become politically aware; the end of the cold war; the bombing of Libya; the Grenada invasion; the Iran-Contra; the INF treaty; Sandra Day O’Connor; the Challenger Disaster; an assassination attempt; and the crumbling of the Berlin Wall (just to name a few).

But the things we notice and the things in which we are interested change as we grow older. Now an avid student of great communication, I have forgotten (or maybe never quite understood at that young age) what a brilliant communicator Ronald Reagan truly was. The museum illuminated this aspect of him in a spectacular way. Watching excerpts from speeches and broadcasts, Reagan had a simple, clear, sincere way of communicating his message that was second to none (so far in my lifetime!) among politicians and other public speakers.

Reagan credited the early development of his communication talent to his work in live theater as a high school and college student where he felt he learned empathy and the ability to use his facial expressions to communicate his feelings. He honed the skill of pace and vibrant language on the radio where, as a radio announcer in the ’30’s for the Chicago Cubs baseball games in Detroit, he would receive telegraph messages of the game, play by play, and describe the game as if he were watching it live. In this medium, he learned how to make the listener feel he was addressing them directly.

He had a quick wit and unabashed sense of humor. Two of my favorites are his famously telling the surgeons as he entered the operating room following his assassination attempt, “I hope you’re all Republicans” and “I have left orders to be awakened at any time in case of national emergency… even if I’m in a Cabinet meeting.”

And maybe most of all, Reagan was clear, passionate, and optimistic in his message. When his opponent, Mondale, spoke of how much it would cost, Reagan spoke eloquently about the future in space and why we had to go there. He knew how to illuminate the “why” around his ideas in a way that inspired people, and his passion, enthusiasm, and faith were evident. He was believable because he believed.

So what do we learn from someone who communicated like President Reagan? Here’s what I learned and am beautifully reminded of:

  1. Know your audience and connect with them: Speaking is not the same as effectively communicating a message. When we speak, we say what we want to say. When we communicate, the listener(s) receive the message we intended. One is about “us.” The other is about “them.”
  2. Simple doesn’t mean simplistic. People want to get it. The most brilliant communicators find ways to make their ideas, especially complex ones, simple to grasp—clearly, quickly, and deeply.
  3. Humor is more than being funny. Infusing effective humor into your communication causes your listeners to instantly feel at ease because they get the feeling that you are at ease. It creates an assumption in the mind of the listener that you are quick, confident, and optimistic. It’s the key element in that off-the-chart likability factor which Reagan had.
  4. The first person who must have a strong conviction and clarity is YOU. Reagan said he didn’t think it was his style that created the title of “Great Communicator” but rather his content. “I wasn’t a great communicator, but I communicated great things.”

“They say the world has become too complex for simple answers. They are wrong.”

~ Ronald Reagan

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