Whether you agreed or disagreed with his politics, just about everybody has to admit that Ronald Reagan was a masterful communicator. He was quick witted, often downright funny, and almost always affable—even in tense situations (Think: presidential debates and emergency rooms. He came off funny rather than mean-spirited when he said “there you go again” after Jimmy Carter attacked his health care record. He managed to pull off two jokes in the minutes after getting shot. “I forgot to duck!” to his wife, and to the surgeons extracting the bullets: “I hope you’re all Republicans.”)
But more important than all that, Reagan successfully cemented in the American consciousness the powerful conservative brand that still thrives today.
They didn’t nickname him “The Great Communicator” for nothin’. For better or for worse, he shaped the political landscape for decades to come. And perhaps the most powerful, among his 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, any of us—even the most hardened policy wonk—can emulate the ways that Reagan offered a clear, uplifting vision, in part by telling us our own American story—a story of confidence, strength, power, and optimism.
Ronald Reagan did it, so can you!
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February 6, 2011, would have been Reagan’s 100th birthday. To mark the occasion, we have put together 5 lessons from The Great Communicator. These are insights compiled and adapted from some of our own research and from some favorite messaging experts.
1. 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.
Why is the conservative brand that Reagan espoused still hardwired in Americans’ minds? All of our experts cite Reagan’s prowess as a storyteller.
As Drew Westen explains in his book, “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 Dillardwho teaches in the Rhetoric and Media Studies Department at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon, also acknowledges Reagan’s knack for powerful narrative, pointing out that he knew better than to cast himself as the hero (that was implied, of course. The nation and its people were heroes and he was the symbol, the embodiment of shared American values and aspirations):
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.
2. 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.
Part of “mastering the narrative” is building on cultural narratives and “myths” that people already know and relate to on a gut level. Courtney Dillard, who also wrote a book called, explains that it is primarily through the exchange of narratives that we create and maintain our culture—and an American cultural identity. She writes: “[Our]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.”
One part of the American mythology that Reagan tapped into again and again is the belief that America is a chosen nation. Dillard says that his famous “shining city on a hill” image reinforced this idea. Another enduring national storyline that Reagan employed often is the American Dream. Here’s Dillard:
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…Americans typically accept this plot and reinforce it in their own behavior and their judgment of others.
3. 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.
All our experts suggest that Reagan was successful in his communications because he went for the heart (or gut) rather than appealing to Americans’ minds. Drew Westen is famous for saying that “in politics, when reason and emotion collide, emotion invariably wins.”
Jeffrey Feldman is editor-in-chief of the influential political blog
4. Talk in Technicolor.
From his “shining city on the hill” to “morning in America,” Reagan brought concepts alive with vivid imagery and powerful metaphor.
It seems to me that Reagan, unlike myself, could see the world in black and white. His was a world where clear distinctions could always and irrefutably be made between good and evil or right and wrong. But his turn of phrase was far from monochrome. In fact, he spoke in what I call a language of Technicolor. Take his moniker for the Soviet Union: the “evil empire.” Vivid language calls up an image in the mind’s eye of hero vs. villain in a great global drama.
Indeed, when Reagan first used the phrase in a March 8, 1983 speech to the National Association of Evangelicals, he explicitly spelled out this “struggle between right and wrong and good and evil.”
So, in your discussions of the nuclear freeze proposals, I urge you to beware the temptation of pride, the temptation of blithely declaring yourselves above it all and label both sides equally at fault, to ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire, to simply call the arms race a giant misunderstanding and thereby remove yourself from the struggle between right and wrong and good and evil.
I think our experts would all agree that what works so well about “talking in Technicolor” is that the language sticks—it makes for more memorable stories, it taps emotions before reason, and it can conjure familiar stories and feelings about our core values and beliefs about our national identity.
Furthermore, Technicolor language makes for good soundbites. It’s eaten up and echoed by the press and lives on long in our minds long after a speech or statement is made. Powerful images and metaphors like the ones Reagan employed are so visual, so emotionally-compelling and hard to shake that they frame the conversation from that moment forward, shaping how people think and talk about certain issues.
5. Keep your sunny side up.
Reagan demonstrated that you don’t have to be a Pollyanna to end on an optimistic and inspiring note.
This final tip came directly from one of the “lessons” outlined in the book, by the editors of . (New Word City is a publisher of “concise, original writings on business topics exclusively in digital form.”)
The editors explain that Reagan had a “clear, uplifting vision for America.”Not only that, he wasn’t afraid to repeat, repeat, repeat. In fact, he “stated his vision simply but emphatically every chance he got.” This didn’t make him sound like a broken record. On the contrary, the result, as the New Word City folks put it so well, was that “people knew what Reagan stood for. He spoke directly and honestly, without condescension. There was no ambiguity.”
I should say that I’m not a big Reagan fan. But lots of people can’t get enough of him. Gallup just released polling numbers for Presidents’ Day that show Americans are most likely to say Ronald Reagan was the nation’s greatest president—slightly ahead of Abraham Lincoln and Bill Clinton! The Reagan love-fest continues.
But Americans don’t all agree about Reagan’s legacy. I think Jeffrey Feldman sums it up quite well when he explains that for many conservatives, Reagan is still the cat’s meow, “an inspiring speaker who restored American pride at home and abroad, championed traditional values, and ended the cold war.” By contrast, for most progressives he is seen 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.”
For me, it’s Reagan’s enduring rhetoric that has had the biggest impact—and not in a good way. So, it’s been a useful exercise for me to get past my own feelings about the guy and look at what he can teach me about winning hearts and minds.
Use it for good, not evil.
Image of Ronald Reagan courtesy Ronald Reagan Library.