Former President Ronald Reagan, our 40th President said: “America is too great for small dreams.” Reagan’s optimism can be found in his numerous speeches delivered across America while serving as president. During his tenure in the White House he faced many challenges, obstacles and adversity with great courage. As a student of rhetoric I found the delivery and content of Reagan’s speeches to be dynamic, upbeat, positive and hopeful. We can learn how to be more effective speakers and communicators by reviewing three key qualities in President Reagan’s public speaking style:
First, Reagan captivated his audiences by using a strong voice and vocal variety. Reagan’s developed his abilities as a strong speaker in his early years as a radio and sports broadcaster. Years later, he refined his delivery skills as a professional actor in Hollywood. Reagan recognized that a speech includes more than content. To be effective, speakers need strong delivery skills. Delivery is the oral and physical presentation of your speech. Effective delivery involves present your message with a sense of communication. It is possible to research, organize and write a powerful speech, yet the speech can be rendered ineffective by a poor delivery. Reagan had a strong, deep, enthusiastic voice. He utilized the concept of vocal variety. Vocal variety involves the pitch (highness or lowness) and tone (serious, humorous, happy) of your voice. Many of us can remember Reagan’s speech at the Berlin Wall in 1987 where Reagan raised his voice in his request to the leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev to “Tear down this wall.” Reagan also presented his speeches using a comfortable rate of speaking. He utilized pauses to effectively highlight major ideas. Successful speakers recognized that vocal variety is more attention-getting and appealing to an audience.
Second, Reagan optimized the use of nonverbal. He was known for looking directly into the camera during televised speeches from the oval office. Eye contact is critical to effective speech delivery. Some speakers spend too much time looking down at their manuscript. This approach shows a lack of preparation and self- confidence. The tone of your remarks should be reflected in your face. Reagan’s historic speech following the Challenger Disaster in 1986 is an example of using your face to establish the tone of your speech. Reagan’s facial reactions during the Challenger Disaster speech reflected a genuine tone of sadness and tragedy, mixed with hope for the future. Posture is also very important for a speaker. Reagan was known for standing straight up during speeches. His posture during a speech reflected his confidence as a leader of the free world.
Third, Reagan utilized an audience centered approach to speaking. He was familiar with each audience and his speeches were customized to each audience he addressed. Speechwriters for Reagan participated in audience analysis. Audience analysis is a term which means that the speaker will take care to understand the interests, values, beliefs, and attitudes of the audience to ensure greater success with the speech. Not only must the speaker be interested in the topic but the listeners must also, or they will not be attentive during the presentation. Reagan had a positive view of America and felt that optimism, dreams and a hopeful future were values held by his audience. In President Reagan’s 1984 State of the Union, he shared an optimistic vision of America: “The heart of America is strong; it’s good and true. The cynics were wrong; America never was a sick society. We’re seeing re-dedication to bedrock values of faith, family, work, neighborhood, peace, and freedom — values that help bring us together as one people, from the youngest child to the most senior citizen.” It is interesting to note that by taking the time to understand the audience, a speaker comes to the speech event fully prepared to discuss issues in a manner likely to bring the audience members closer to the speaker’s position. Remember that public speaking is an audience-centered activity, earning that the speaker’s purpose is to inform and influence the greatest number of listeners.
Reagan deserved the title of “the Great Communicator.” In his speeches, Reagan motivated countless Americans by his optimistic and hopeful view of America. Speakers can improve their own speaking style by paying close attention to delivery, nonverbal and speech content.