American presidents who were great public speakers weren’t born that way. They chose their words carefully and sharpened their skills through practice.
This is the message of Nick Westergaard, a Coralville author, public speaking teacher and communications strategist, who has been studying the communication secrets of U.S. commanders in chief for a Feb. 16 program at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum in West Branch.
“Those who have been seen as effective presidents also are usually seen as effective communicators,” Westergaard said.
Contrary to the myth Abraham Lincoln scribbled the Gettysburg Address on the back of an envelope on the way to the event, historians have found several drafts of the iconic speech that Lincoln delivered Nov. 9, 1863.
“That’s what fascinated me about Lincoln, learning that he was a relentless writer,” Westergaard said of the 16th president.
In fact, “after the speech, a lot of newspapers asked for a copy of the speech from him to print it and run it, and he (Lincoln) continued editing it. It’s always continuing to find the right word.”
Lincoln also would set words apart in his scripts to remind himself to pause for drama or clarity.
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“In his second inaugural, there’s this small, four-word sentence, ‘And the war came,’ ” Westergaard said. “He set that by itself on the page with almost a full line of space above it and a full line of space below it.”
Ronald Reagan, America’s 40th president, is known as the “Great Communicator” with much credit given to his time as a radio announcer and an actor. Westergaard said Reagan learned to speak to crowds when he was a TV host for General Electric Theater in the 1950s.
“He would visit GE plants across the country and really honed his skills standing up and speaking in front of others,” Westergaard said.
Westergaard, 41, also started his career as an actor, graduating from the University of Iowa with degrees in psychology and theater arts. While acting in Riverside Theatre productions, he learned of Buckle Down Publishing, a now-defunct publishing company based in Iowa City, and went to work there after college.
“I ended up falling in love with creative marketing and communications,” Westergaard said.
He now uses his skills to write (he has a monthly column for The Gazette business section), teach and consult on marketing, social media and political communications. Westergaard has worked with several Eastern Iowa Democrats, including state Reps. Dave Jacoby and Zach Wahls. Westergaard’s wife, Meghann Foster, is on the Coralville City Council.
American presidents and presidential candidates provide some of the best examples of good public speaking, Westergaard said. He instructs students to get out from behind podiums and use strategic hand movements.
“If it stresses you out thinking about what your hands are doing, you can imagine holding an imaginary box or basketball out in front of you,” Westergaard said.
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He cited President Barack Obama’s “very crisp hand gestures. You can almost imagine him holding that invisible basketball.”
Westergaard was sitting at the same table as California Sen. Kamala Harris before she spoke at the Iowa Democratic Party Hall of Fame event in June in Cedar Rapids. The then-presidential candidate was making edits on a notecard up until the last minute, with one of the additions becoming a big applause line.
“It made me think of Roosevelt,” Westergaard said, referring to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1941 speech in which he laid the groundwork for the United States entering World War II. Roosevelt, America’s 32nd president, changed the first line of the speech to say the attack on Pearl Harbor was a “date which will live in world history” to the more rallying line, “a date which will live in infamy.”
IF YOU GO
• What: “Presidentially Speaking: The Communication Secrets of Our Commanders in Chief” by Nick Westergaard
• When: 2 p.m. Feb. 16
• Where: Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum, West Branch
• Cost: Free with admission to the library, which is $10 for adults, $5 for seniors, military members and college students, $3 for children ages 6-15, and free for kids 5 and under.
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