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Ronald Reagan’s Selling Power - Part II

Mar4_1b What were the secrets to Ronald Reagan’s repeated successes, achieved more often than not over what seemed to be overwhelming odds?

"His greatest skill is his ability to communicate an idea or an emotion," is how New York Times correspondent Robert Lindsey summed it up in the book Reagan the Man, the President.

Ronald Reagan was inspirational, dramatic, and a super salesman. In this post, I’d like to review how three professional and personal qualities helped Ronald Reagan outsell everyone.


Like many successful salespeople, Ronald Reagan used short stories to illustrate political (selling) points. House Speaker Tip O'Neill said, "He's always got a disarming story. I don't know where he gets them, but he's always got them. He calls up: 'Tip, you and I are political enemies only until six o'clock. It's four o'clock now; can we pretend it's six o'clock?' How can you dislike a guy like that?"

When Reagan told a story, his greatest strength was in the mastery of his voice. He was able to skillfully catch the right tone, and

his voice sometimes broke when he told an emotional story of heroism.

In his inaugural address, he moved millions with these words describing Martin Treptow, a World War I soldier: "We are told that on his body was found a diary. On the flyleaf under the heading, 'My Pledge,' he had written these words: 'America must win this war. Therefore I will work, I will save, I will sacrifice, I will endure. I will fight cheerfully and do my utmost, as if the issue of the whole struggle depended on me alone.'"

Reagan's previous acting experience helped him to inject his own true emotions into each story he told. As Constantin Stanislavski, the world-famous director, wrote in his book An Actor Prepares: "The great actor should be full of feeling, and especially, he should feel the thing he is portraying. He must feel an emotion not only once or twice while he's studying his part, but every time he plays it."

This is a lesson that applies equally well to selling.


Top salespeople consistently show two personality characteristics: the capacity to be firm and friendliness.

On the surface, these attitudes may be present in every salesperson – but not in equal measure. Salespeople who are too firm may bulldoze through a sale, thus annoying customers and causing unnecessary cancellations. Salespeople who are too friendly will get along fine with the customer but may lack inner strength and fail to ask for the order.

Ronald Reagan demonstrated both qualities and knew how to use them in equal measure. He was able to be charming, pleasant, and personable, but he could be persistent in pursuing his conservative political views.

He was firm in keeping his word, thus maintaining a high level of credibility. When he said that he would take certain actions in a given situation, he followed through with no ifs, ands, or buts. In 1981, he let the air traffic controllers know they would be fired if they went on strike. They did...and they were.

In his November 1981 fight with Congress on the emergency spending bill, he said he would order a shutdown of the government if he wasn't satisfied with the bill. Congress didn't meet his request, and President Reagan shut down the government.

Whichever side of Ronald Reagan emerged in a selling situation, he approached the opponent with a basic strategy: First disarm, then strike a deal.

If President Reagan didn't persuade someone the first time, he called them again...and again. One senator who changed his opposing views after a private meeting with Reagan confessed, "I feel like I am going to need an arm transplant, it's been twisted so much."


People love to buy from the sales rep who tells it like it is – simple and straightforward. Simplicity is an art, and it takes hard work. Ronald Reagan was a master at simplifying communication and had an extraordinary talent for condensing ideas. His simplicity came across in the following ways:

A) Simple language

He stayed clear of complex words or phrases.

His audience did not need a dictionary to understand his thoughts. Like a good sales rep, he knew that life is too short to waste time with complicated language.

B) Simple "mini-memos"
As governor of California, he developed a highly successful system for handing down decisions. After hearing out his subordinates' detailed recommendations, he would draft a concise one-page, four-paragraph summary of a problem with clear recommendations on how to solve it. His style initially drew criticism but got better results than that of the previous governor, Pat Brown.

C) Simple persuasion techniques
In his presidential campaign, he scored points with highly persuasive statements such as, "Recession is when your neighbor loses his job. Depression is when you lose yours. And recovery is when Jimmy Carter loses his."

Some of his simple but profound one-liners had tremendous impact. For example: "How can we love our country and not love our countrymen?" Or, concerning the Panama Canal, "We built it, we paid for it, it's ours, and we are going to keep it."

D) Simple life philosophies
The son of a shoe salesman, Ronald Reagan exuded an air of simple virtues. He placed a plaque on his desk in the Oval Office that read, ,

"There is no limit to what a man can do or where he can go if he doesn't mind who gets the credit."

Haynes Johnson, a Washington Post writer, commented in a front-page editorial, "[Reagan] lacks the arrogance or insecurities of some presidents. The presidency does not awe him; he's not uptight in the job. Those who have known him for years say he has changed hardly at all since entering the White House."

Ronald Reagan's knack for simplicity fooled the casual observer. Critics labeled his contagious optimism as "unrealistic cheerleading" and described his willingness to listen in this manner: "He waits for others to advise him what to do. He is an endorser." But upon closer examination, many critics revised their opinions.

What Reagan critics overlooked is that pretending to be simple, less intelligent, or plain old dumb was part of his highly successful strategy.

This is a persuasion technique that an individual with an inflated self-image cannot pull off.

Maintaining simplicity is a difficult skill but leads to sales success. It's like the old saying, "The greatest truths are the simplest; and so are the greatest men."


1. “There is no limit to what a person can do or where that person can go if he or she doesn’t mind who gets the credit.”

2. Top salespeople consistently show two personality traits: the capacity to be firm and friendliness. Firmness ensures strength and consistency; friendliness leads to pleasant feelings. Both qualities need to be balanced to achieve maximum success.

3. The key principle to persuasion: First disarm your opponent, then strike a deal.

4. A good story, told with sincerity, will disarm, persuade, and sell an audience more effectively than facts or research ever will.

5. Simplicity is an art and takes hard work. Simplify your communication with others; condense your ideas. Life is too short to waste time with complicated language.

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Jim Capatelli

Sorry, Gerhard. But I couldn't disagree more.

Successful salespeople are truthful, intelligent, detail oriented and hard working. Ronald Reagan was none of these. Even his most ardent backers---and many of his closest aides---will admit that he rarely worked more than 3 or 4 hours a day. He disdained hard work. He wanted to spend most of his time going places where he could be wined and dined.

I could go on and on, but the point is pretty simple: Reagan was a showman who could recite vapid platitudes fed to him by the people who used him to manipulate public opinion. Real leaders---and successful salespeople---don't manipulate. They're sincere and well-informed.

There is a specious and bizarre mythology that has been developed around the failed presidency of Ronald Wilson Reagan. But serious historians are beginning to see this man for who he really was: someone who ran up a federal deficit that was larger than that of all previous presidents combined; someone who rarely read more than a page at a time; someone who illegally sent weapons to the dictators in Iran and then secretly used that money to fund terrorist groups in Central America; someone who privately made fun of AIDS victims and refused to make any effort to stop that disease when it was first uncovered in the 1980's; someone who pushed for policies that have vastly increased the gap between the very wealthiest in our society and the other 98% of us who work for a living; someone who did everything possible to keep our country behind in environmental policy, and so much more.

I have great respect for you and your company. But I strongly take issue with what you've written about Ronald Reagan. Hopefully you won't take my comments personally and you'll allow them to be published.

Jeff Ogden

Great post and great points about the Gipper and tie to sales. Great stories, simple language and artful use of voice were three things that made him such a great communicator.

Jeff Ogden, the Fearless Competitor
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Michelle Thompson, B2B Sales & Client Management Professional

Miss the Gipper, need him more than ever now. Gerhard ... excellent analysis! Such great advice for professionals of all types ... sales, marketing, PR ... well, anyone wanting to make real connections with people and get results. As a communicator, he was the total package. As a leader, his ability to cast a compelling, contagious vision was masterful. Even today, his most strident adversaries give him credit on these points. We may not see the likes of him again, but I hope we do!

Jack Underwood

Great insights on President Reagan. He was a great leader that took America out of a very difficult era and provided the leadership that was required to re-establish our nation as a global leader. I really miss him!

Pete 'The Gold Caller' Ekstrom

In order to persuade others to see your point of view you need a special delivery to get your point across. In showbiz they say, "it's all in the delivery", and Reagan was a master of delivery. He often took lines from old movies and worked them into his speeches, and then he worked his 'folksy' delivery to humble himself, and make his point more appealing to his constituency, and the general public. Whether you agree with his policies, or not, Reagan's delivery was one-of-a-kind, and pure genius.

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