The former deputy assistant to the president and chief of staff to the First Lady recalls lessons anyone can apply
BY JAMES ROSEBUSH AUGUST 20, 2023
It might have been a cold day in southeast rural Illinois, but inside the inelegant student center at Eureka College, on an old wooden stage, tempers flared. Many credited America’s 40th president with learning about public speaking as a broadcaster for the Chicago Cubs, or as an actor on the silver screen. But it was in fact at this small, largely unknown liberal arts institution near Peoria, the very same where Lincoln spoke during his campaign for president, that Ronald Reagan learned the power of oratory.
As a 17-year-old undergraduate student and football player, Reagan was leading a revolt. He and his fellow students had decided their highest priority was to oust the president of the institution, who had taken away many of their most popular courses due to financial constraints. On the podium that day, Reagan gave his first speech.
Years later, when I was working as deputy assistant to Reagan in the White House, he recounted this story and added, “When I heard the cheers and saw the standing ovations in response to my student body speech, I discovered, for the first time, the power of oratory to move a crowd.”
He never forgot that day. He applied that lesson to his presidential speech-making by always focusing on a specific objective with values and beliefs, confident that his approach could bring results. In this case, the results were that the Eureka College president resigned. It was an early example of another startling result decades later, when the Berlin Wall came down—ultimately in response to and in part because of Reagan’s confident call to Mikhail Gorbachev to end the tyranny of a divided Germany.
Anyone can follow Reagan’s formula and be successful at communicating. Here are five rules to adopt and master. The world awaits.
Tell a Story
All people really want to hear, whether you are speaking to a team of Little Leaguers or giving a keynote at the United Nations, are stories. Why? Because they’re like a piece of favorable art: Once you see it, you can easily remember what you saw—or heard, in this case—and retell it over and over to others who were not present. In fact, Reagan loved telling the story of his favorite painting, which was of George Washington kneeling in prayer by his horse at the Battle of Valley Forge. By depicting prayer in this way, Reagan avoided telling people they must pray and instead illustrated how a great leader stooped in humility to do so.
Your Health Matters
Stories are especially relatable if they focus on the ordinary man or woman. Stories about heroes are also effective, as they teach by example. If you think you don’t have any stories to tell, then tell someone else’s. Obituaries of famous or not-so-famous people are spectacular places to find them.
Storytelling makes you a friendly presenter. It draws your audience up close, so that when you have important and serious declarative sentences to share, you already have your crowd in the palm of your hand.
Know Your Audience
Don’t start talking to a crowd of sales reps by ignoring the fact that they may have just had their worst year out of 10 and are afraid of being fired. Don’t start talking to a group of community leaders without knowing what is uppermost in their minds. Don’t be the CEO of a company who is indifferent to the struggles of families who have just lost loved ones.
Ignorance of the audience is a needless and extremely costly mistake. Do your homework. Understand what is really on their minds, and be aware of their fears and concerns. Be empathetic.
Build a bridge to your audience, across which they will be able to connect with you. If you are cold, disinterested, irritated, or fearful, your audience, already skeptical by being called to hear your speech, will mentally revolt by playing Wordle on their phones, sending texts, or snoozing. If you don’t like your audience, why should they like you?
This is a mental process in which 65 percent of all public speaking is nonverbal. People can tell before you utter a word whether you are a relatable speaker and you will pay the price if you are not. You convey your feelings about the audience through your body language and through your conscious happiness of being on the podium.
Begin your talk by telling your audience how glad you are to be with them and how grateful you are that they have taken time from their day to spend it with you. A humble approach will win you more listeners.
The Tone of Your Voice
Reagan rarely raised his voice; he knew that deepening the tone of his voice and pausing was the way to express a serious or an especially important point—the opposite of shouting. This is how Reagan drew his audience to him, making them feel confident in the man as a leader they wanted to follow.
For example, when Reagan delivered arguably the six most iconic words of the last century—“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall”—he did not raise his voice for emphasis. In fact, he deepened his voice and spoke that sentence in a different cadence than the rest of his speech. His words stood out—jumped out, really.
Stick to Your Values
When it came to his love for America and Americans, Reagan was totally, undeviatingly firm in his convictions. He also spoke of it several times a day; that’s why Americans loved him back.
He would rarely ever moderate his beliefs or tilt them to meet a trend or political compromise. During his years in office, I saw many times people attempted to change his mind. I could count on one hand the number of times that he did. What was the outcome of his steady convictions? People trusted him.
A man with zero ego, he did not bend to pleasing people because he didn’t care what people thought of him. He was more devoted to his ideals—and grand they were. And that is how he earned the title of “the Great Communicator.”