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Credibility: The Message Must Be You

As a politician, Ronald Reagan possessed legendary communication skills. He understood the importance of communicating on an emotional level with his audience. In 1980, running against incumbent Jimmy Carter, Reagan asked the American public to consider this question: "Are you better off today than you were four years ago?" The theme caused voters to appraise their lives in relationship to their goals and hopes for a better future, and it won Reagan the election.

In 1984, at age seventy-three, Reagan ran for reelection against former U.S. vice president Walter Mondale. On October 7, 1984, television networks broadcast the election's first debate between the two candidates, live from Louisville, Kentucky. Mondale appeared aggressive and poised, and by all media accounts, triumphed in the debate. Reagan, on the other hand, seemed defensive, nervous, and confused, and struggled to keep up with Mondale's command of specific details and statistics. Despite his massive lead in the poles, the president's age emerged as a dominate campaign issue.

With the next debate scheduled in Kansas City, Missouri, just two weeks later, the White House scrambled to prepare Reagan using mock debates. Administrative staff members fired practice questions at the president and his "opponent," budget director David Stockman. Stockman benefited from the written answers, while Reagan continued to struggle with the facts and figures. In his book, You Are the Message, media expert Roger Ailes relates how Reagan's campaign team summoned him to avert another disaster. Ailes cancelled the simulated debates and instructed Reagan to stop playing defense and be himself. And he reminded the former actor that his flair for communicating through themes and one-liners got him elected in the first place.

By the time the second debate arrived, Reagan's age was on everyone's mind. When the moderator raised the question, the president went with his instincts. Reagan responded, "I want you to know that I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent's youth and inexperience." With that response, delivered with Reagan's trademark timing, inflection, facial expression, and body language, he erased the public's fear about his mental sharpness and permanently put the age question to rest.

As a credible leader, you must be sincere and straightforward in the ways you communicate. In other words, you must speak with a single voice, so make sure the voice you use is your own.
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