The following case study is excerpted from the multimedia version of Resonate by Nancy Duarte.
Space Shuttle Challenger Address
President Ronald Reagan was a skilled communicator who was faced with a daunting communication situation immediately after the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster.
The shuttle’s launch had already been delayed twice, and the White House was insisting that it launch before the State of the Union address, so it took off on January 28, 1986. This particular launch was widely publicized because for the first time a civilian—a teacher named Christa McAuliffe—was traveling into space. The plan was to have McAuliffe communicate to students from space. According to the New York Times, nearly half of America’s school children aged nine to thirteen watched the event live in their classrooms. After a short seventy- three seconds into flight, the world was stunned when the shuttle burst into flames, killing all seven crew members on board.
President Ronald Reagan cancelled his scheduled State of the Union address that evening and instead addressed the nation’s grief. In Great Speeches for Better Speaking, author Michael E. Eidenmuller describes the situation: “In addressing the American people on an event of national scope, Reagan would play the role of national eulogist. In that role, he would need to imbue the event with life-affirming meaning, praise the deceased, and manage a gamut of emotions accompanying this unforeseen and yet unaccounted-for disaster. As national eulogist, Reagan would have to offer redemptive hope to his audiences, and particularly to those most directly affected by the disaster. But Reagan would have to be more than just a eulogist. He would also have to be a U.S. President and carry it all with due presidential dignity befitting the office as well as the subject matter.”
President Reagan’s ability to credibly move in and out of different roles for different audience segments was a large part of what made him The Great Communicator.
The speech succeeded in meeting the emotional requirements of its various audiences by carefully addressing each segment. The circumstances gave a natural situational segmentation; it would not have been appropriate for him to address them based on conventional distinctions of gender or political parties.
Reagan took care to connect all sub-audiences to the larger audience of collective mourners. He brought disparate groups together by treating them as a single organic whole: a nation of people called to a place of national sorrow and remembrance. Eidenmuller says, “Catastrophic events do provide the basis for rhetorical situations. Despair, anxiety, fear, anger, and the loss of meaning and purpose are powerful psycho-spiritual forces that deeply affect us all. It has been said that ‘without hope the people perish.’ And without hearing powerful and timely words of encouragement, the people may never find cause for hope.”
The speech lasted only four short minutes, but Reagan creates an eloquent and poetic moment. It captures the mythological sentiment surrounding humanity’s unending quest to solve the mysteries of the unknown. The phrase “touch the face of God”, was taken from a poem entitled “High Flight” written by John Magee, an American aviator in WWII. Magee was inspired to write the poem while climbing to thirty-three thousand feet in his Spitfire. It remains in the Library of Congress today.