Oswald Letter

Learning essential communication lessons from the Great Communicator

Reaganby Dan Oswald

If you are like me and are interested in politics, you know Ronald Reagan was considered the “Great Communicator.” His effectiveness as a communicator was often credited to his career in radio, television, and movies. His detractors often said of his oratory skills, “He’s just up there acting.” But to me Reagan’s effectiveness as a speaker went beyond his smooth voice and polished delivery. Reagan, through the use of stories and illustrations, could educate his audience and move them to take action.

There are many lessons we as leaders can learn from the Great Communicator.

Know your audience. I don’t think anyone would ever say that Reagan was an intellectual. And I don’t say that to detract from his intelligence. Reagan knew his audience—often the American people—and could speak to them in a language they could understand. He frequently would take complicated subjects and boil them down to the key elements and, like a patient teacher, explain them in a way that helped his audience clearly understand what they needed to know. That doesn’t happen unless you have a good understanding of who you are speaking to.

Keep it simple. Some of the most memorable Reagan quotes were short one-liners that conveyed a strong message. We learned from another president, Abraham Lincoln, that powerful, lasting messages don’t have to be long. His Gettysburg Address was no more than 270 words. (Not many more than what I’ve written so far.) Reagan challenged Mikhail Gorbachev to “Tear down this wall!” He told Jimmy Carter in their 1980 debate, “There you go again,” when Carter continued to repeatedly raise a single issue. And in the same debate, he asked the American people, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” He proved that sometimes simple is better when delivering a message.

Use humor, when appropriate. Reagan could deliver a serious message when necessary, like he did when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986. That speech is ranked as one of the greatest political speeches of all time. But he also used humor effectively, often poking fun at himself. In a 1984 debate with Walter Mondale, the 73-year-old president responded to questions about his age: “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” That line even got a chuckle from Mondale, who later would say that at that moment, he knew the election was over for him. Humor can be a powerful arrow in a communicator’s quiver.

Become a storyteller. Reagan was a great storyteller. His stories could be serious but often included a bit of humor. About his tendency to tell stories, he once said, “You’ve heard, I’m sure, that I like to tell an anecdote or two. Well, life not only begins at 40 but so does lumbago and the tendency to tell the same stories over and over again.” But Reagan knew that people enjoy stories and that they can often help the audience remember the message. He used them extensively in his communication, and they contributed greatly to his ability to connect with an audience.

Be sincere. The greatest attribute Reagan brought to his communication was his sincerity. He spoke of personal experiences that resonated with his audiences. Despite his life in Hollywood, people saw Reagan as “one of them.” That’s because he could talk about his childhood in the Midwest and his life experiences, and they sounded authentic. He was believable in what he said. Former Democratic Congresswoman Patricia Schroeder once wrote this about Reagan in USA Today, “As a young congresswoman, I got the idea of calling President Reagan the ‘Teflon president’ while fixing eggs for my kids. He had a Teflon coat like the pan. Why was Reagan so blame-free? The answer can be found in the label that did stick to him—‘The Great Communicator.’ Reagan’s ability to connect with Americans was coveted by every politician. He could deliver a speech with such sincerity.” His political opponents understood how his sincerity benefitted him as a communicator.

Ronald Reagan was indeed a great communicator. He honed those skills during his years in Hollywood and continued to polish them during his time in politics. Depending on your political beliefs, you may applaud him for his ability to communicate or jeer him. But regardless of your position, it’s hard to deny that Reagan had a way of connecting with an audience and effectively conveying his message. He used one-liners, humor, and stories to reach his audience, but his greatest gift as a communicator was his sincerity when he spoke.

There’s a lot we can learn from Ronald Reagan that will help us become better communicators, but most of all, he taught us that to be able to reach others, we must work at it every day and must believe every word we say. You do those two things, and the rest will take care of itself.