The gist: Whether you agreed or disagreed with his politics, you have to admit that Ronald Reagan was a masterful communicator. He cemented in the American consciousness the powerful conservative brand that still thrives today.
Among “The Great Communicator’s” many skills was his ability to convince voters that he shared their core values—even if they opposed his policies.
As psychologist Drew Westen puts it, “By my count, voters disagreed with Ronald Reagan on about 75 percent of the issues. But they liked him. They believed he would restore America’s greatness. They voted with their values.”
Not everyone can have Reagan’s poise or Hollywood polish! But, we can emulate the ways that he offered a clear, uplifting vision, in part by telling us our own American story—a story of confidence and optimism.
On the occasion of what would have been Reagan’s 100th birthday, Sightline brings you 5 durable lessons from The Great Communicator, insights compiled from some of our favorite messaging experts.
Master your narrative.
Reagan defined his party’s principles with a “master narrative”—a familiar story structure with a plot, heroes and villains, and a clear sense of right and wrong. Even his opponents knew it by heart—and it lives on today as the GOP “brand.”
Harness the power of American mythology.
Reagan seamlessly wove the stories that shape the nation’s identity into his own narrative: the Land of Opportunity, the American Dream, the Land of the Free.
First win hearts; minds will follow.
Reagan knew that facts and policy agendas mean little unless they illustrate a greater vision. He played up big, sweeping themes and let the details tag along behind.
Talk in Technicolor.
From his “shining city on the hill” to “morning in America,” Reagan brought concepts alive with vivid imagery and powerful metaphor.
Keep your sunny side up.
Reagan demonstrated that you don’t have to be a Pollyanna to end on an optimistic and inspiring note.
These lessons were adapted from and inspired by the writings of some of our favorite messaging experts. Here are the references for the ideas we shared in the Flashcard along with longer experts.
Drew Westen received his BA at Harvard, an MA in Social and Political Thought at the University of Sussex (England), and his PhD in Clinical Psychology at the University of Michigan, where he subsequently taught for six years. For several years he was Chief Psychologist at Cambridge Hospital and Associate Professor at Harvard Medical School. He is currently a guest Blogger on the Huffington Post, a commentator on NPR’s “All Things Considered” and the founder of Westen Strategies, a political and corporate consulting firm. He is the author of The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation, in which he shows that in politics, when reason and emotion collide, emotion invariably wins. Some of Westen’s messaging recommendations are featured in one of Sightline’s most popular Flashcards.
On Ronald Reagan, Westen writes: “Reagan did not create the agenda of the radical right on his own, but he created, packaged, marketed, and embodied in his own persona a “brand” so simple and emotionally compelling that it was able to sustain itself through eight years of moderate Democratic leadership far closer to the values of the average American. What distinguished the conservative ideology of Reagan was its crystal-clear narrative coherence and its emotional resonance. Like all good narratives…it is easy to tell and retell. Everyone knows exactly what someone who calls himself or herself a conservative purportedly values: military strength, tax cuts, minimal government, fiscal restraint, traditional values, patriotism, and religious faith.”
Courtney Dillard teaches in the Rhetoric and Media Studies Department at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon. She received her PhD from the University of Texas at Austin and her MA from the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill. Her research focuses on the role of persuasion in social change. She is the author of The Progressive’s Pocketbook of Persuasion: A toolkit for Reaching American Voters. Dillard is the founder of Persuasion for the Common Good, a communications consulting firm.
On the power of our national narrative and Ronald Reagan, Dillard writes: “Stories make for powerful persuasion. The prominence of anecdote in our public debate and private convictions suggests that humans often rely on these stories to understand and relay their experience. The narrative form is based on a structure with a beginning, middle, and end as well as narrative elements such as characters, plots, themes, and narrators. It is primarily through the exchange of narratives that every member works to create and reinforce the substance of their culture…Many of the stories circulating throughout American culture are derived from or depend upon our national narrative for their resonance. This national narrative offers a broad and enduring story that political persuaders often use to bind citizens together in a common identity, as well as direct their actions towards common purposes. The national narrative is largely taken for granted, with the values that underpin it seamlessly serving as guides for the audience to evaluate other stories.”
On Reagan’s belief in America’s greatness:
“Perhaps the most important aspect of American mythology is the belief that America is a chosen nation. Republicans routinely appeal to the chosen nation concept. For example, Ronald Reagan popularized the image of America standing alone in the world as ‘the shining city on a hill.'”
On the American Dream:
“One aspect of our national narrative that continues to endure is the American Dream. The American Dream provides a central element of our national plot, telling Americans what they should be striving for, and what the country values as a whole. This plot line contents that regardless of the conditions into which a person is born, if she works hard enough she will be able to achieve success. This success is evidenced by home ownership, marriage and family, and economic self-sufficiency. Americans typically accept this plot and reinforce it in their own behavior and their judgment of others.”
On elements of a good story—heroes, villains, and victims:
Successful storytelling has always depended in part on the storyteller’s ability to make her characters come to life for the audience. Stories are often comprised of a simplified cast of characters, which includes heroes, villains, and victims. In crafting central characters for the American narrative, there are many unwritten guidelines that persuaders should observe. [For one] it is important that the political persuaders never overtly cast themselves as the hero. Instead, the persuader constructs a story where the country is a heroine or ordinary citizens act in extraordinary ways.”
Jeffrey Feldman is editor-in-chief of the influential political blog Frameshop. He has a PhD in cultural anthropology which he “applies broadly to the analysis of politics and communication, ranging from election speeches, to issue campaigns, and media analysis.” He has been a regular contributor to The Thom Hartmann Show on Air America, and travels the country offering seminars on language and progressive politics. Feldman is the author of Framing the Debate: Famous Presidential Speeches and How Progressives Can Use Them to Change the Conversation (and Win Elections) and Outright Barbarous: How the Violent Language of the Right Poisons American Democracy.
On Ronald Reagan’s skill at setting the stage through stories and metaphor, Feldman writes: “For many conservatives, Ronald Reagan was the greatest American leader to emerge in the twentieth century—an inspiring speaker who restored American pride at home and abroad, championed traditional values, and ended the cold war. Most progressives, by contrast, see Reagan…as a divisive leader who waged a relentless campaign against America’s good faith in good government, decimated the middle class, and gave rise to a new form of dangerous American arrogance in global politics. Neither side, however, has spent enough time understanding the incredible gift that Reagan had for framing a debate. Indeed, one need not admire or admonish Reagan’s policies in order to learn from his framing.”
“[His “story time” frame invited the audience to] ‘Come with me through the looking glass, and I will tell you a story about America.’ The ability to frame the tiniest details as if they were the whole of American promise was Reagan’s gift as a speaker. Or, as he phrased it later in a speech, ‘Life has a way of reminding you of big things through small incidents.'”
On vivid language and metaphor:
“…The very personal metaphors that Reagan used…created a real engagement between the listener and the abstractions of politics. Bureaucratic pretense dissipated as did the often-daunting jargon of current events. We were invited to see participation in politics as no more complicated than sitting down at the table for a conversation.”
New Word City
We also borrowed insights from Ronald Reagan’s Leadership Lessons, by the editors of New Word City. New Word City is New Word City is a publisher of concise, original writings on business topics exclusively in digital form.
The editors write: “Ronald Reagan had a clear, uplifting vision for America that he stated simply but emphatically every chance he got: Less intrusive government and a renewal of America’s core optimism and belief in its ongoing greatness. People knew what Reagan stood for. He spoke directly and honestly, without condescension. There was no ambiguity.”
On keeping your sunny side up:
” At a time when the national mood was glum, battered by the psychic pain of the Vietnam retreat, the disgrace of Watergate, the embarrassment of the Iranian hostage crisis, and a slumping US economy, the eternally optimistic Ronald Reagan made Americans believe that our best days still lay ahead…Optimism is the glue that binds a group of different personalities and allows them to focus on a common goal. This doesn’t mean you should be a Pollyanna, pretending things are better than they are. But when a message is not all positive, always end on an optimistic, inspiring note.”
More on the power of good storytelling:
“Ronald Reagan wasn’t an analytical thinker, but he understood the power of narrative. He told stories and was brilliant at personalizing an issue by highlighting a specific group, family, or individual. He instinctively knew that American history is a continuing narrative, and he knew which direction he wanted to take it.”
More on vivid language and metaphor:
“Time and again, Ronald Reagan gave a resounding voice to the American people in their moments of frustration or sorrow or pure joy. He used words to challenge or disarm a foe, to inspire the downhearted, and to move hearts and minds in the direction he wanted them to go. No one will ever forget his challenge to Mikhail Gorbachev: “Tear down this wall!” Or the shivers felt when he spoke of the Challenger victims as waving goodbye before they “slipped the surly bonds of earth” to “touch the face of God.” He was a true master of language, and he used it to great advantage.”