11 Speaking Techniques of the Great Communicator

President Ronald Reagan and General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev meet for the first time. Here, walking towards each other to shake hands. Reagan would later implore, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall."
Photograph and Audio Clip Courtesy Ronald Reagan Library

As he approached the microphone at Brandenburg Gate, with a wall of bulletproof glass behind him, I wonder if Ronald Reagan knew that the words he would speak that day would be heard by billions of people spanning across multiple generations, into the future.

 

“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” These words might represent the pinnacle of the Great Communicator’s impact through words. Though his advisors continually tried to temper his words, President Reagan had a sense of history, public sentiment, and timing.

Here are 11 techniques Ronald Reagan used that can help you become a great communicator:

  1. He began by speaking to small groups: In 1954 Ronald Reagan was hired to host the General Electric Theater, a new television series that aired on Sunday nights. Part of this new job included traveling across America, visiting 139 GE plants in 39 different states. He would speak to small groups alongside the assembly lines of the plants. These talks led to speaking at chamber of commerce events, state conventions of service organizations, and business clubs.
  2. He received feedback from his audience: Reagan continually field-tested the different ways he could present his opinions, stories, and jokes. He always updatd his material to keep his speeches fresh.
  3. Ronald Reagan didn’t read his speeches, nor did he memorize them: He didn’t believe an audience could be held by a speaker who was reading a speech. But, although Reagan possessed a legendary memory, it was virtually impossible for him to memorize every word of every speech. So, using a self-made form of shorthand, Reagan would abbreviate each word and then compress the sentences onto 4 X 6 inch cards. As few as 3 or 4 words were enough to prompt him to ad-lib the rest. As a result, his speeches were well-prepared and fresh. They never sounded off-the-cuff or over-rehearsed.
  4. He wrote his own speeches: The reason Reagan’s words resonated with the audience is because they resonated with the speaker. You could sense the conviction he had for the content of his speeches. By the time he had become president, he had so clearly established his convictions over the years, it was easy for speechwriters in the White House to capture his message and imitate his style.
  5. He spoke to millions, one by one: As a sports announcer, Reagan would imagine that he was speaking to a specific group of friends who used to congregate around a radio at a local barbershop. Listeners would feel as if Reagan was directing his words to them personally because, in a way, he really was! He always reminded himself, even when speaking to millions of people, that he was speaking to an audience of individuals, not a mass crowd.
  6. Ronald Reagan chose simple language: Ronald Reagan always preferred using short sentences. He would not use a two-syllable word, if a one-syllable word would work just as well. He avoided speeches that seemed eloquent on paper but ended up sounding stilted. He always wanted his speeches to be easy to absorb.
  7. He used lots of examples: Reagan’s use of stories, anecdotes, and examples is legendary. Rather than convince others by giving long-winded opinions, Ronald Reagan would present example after example to prove his point.
  8. He began with humor: When addressing an audience, he liked to start with a joke. He seemed to have an endless supply of funny stories.
  9. He wore one contact lens: President Reagan was severely nearsighted, making it impossible to simultaneously focus on both his notes and his audience. Rather than constantly put on and then remove his glasses during a speech, he began wearing a single contact lens, which allowed him to focus not only on his close-up material, but on those he was speaking to.
  10. He stood in close proximity to his audience: Like many professional speakers, Reagan knew how important it was to be physically close to the 1st row of the audience. Keynote speakers believe that any considerable distance between a speaker and the 1st row creates an emotional separation between the speaker and the audience. Reagan always preferred to be within 2 to 3 steps from his audience.
  11. Ronald Reagan’s extreme passion for reading informed his speaking: As a young boy, and throughout his entire life, Reagan was a voracious reader. His love for reading helped to inform his public speaking and his ability to engage in both rehearsed and impromptu debates.
  12. In the end, it was the content of his message that made him a successful speaker: President Reagan said this in his farewell address:

And in all of that time I won a nickname, The Great Communicator. But I never thought it was my style or the words I used that made a difference; it was the content. I wasn’t a great communicator, but I communicated great things. And, they didn’t spring full bloom from my brow, they came from the heart of a great nation – from our experience, wisdom, and our belief in the principles that have guided us for two centuries.

What a beautifully crafted statement of 80 words. Did you happen to notice that 64 of them had only one syllable?

Click here for other posts that capture the leadership style of Ronald Reagan.

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