by Jay Baglia, Ph.D.
In a crisis, citizens seek information. Civic leaders need to address their constituencies regularly. But quantity isn’t nearly as valuable as quality and consistency. As a professor of communication studies who has taught public speaking at the university level for 25 years, I’ve got to say if there’s anything making this coronavirus crisis worse, it’s poor communication. Here’s some advice for our leaders. From the moment you step in front of the microphone, you should practice what you preach.
We have been told to practice social distancing—keeping a minimum of six feet from each other. I’d like to start seeing leaders exhibit this practice. Unfortunately, what I’m used to seeing from them lately is a group of 6-10 people all huddled unnecessarily around a speaker during a press conference. Stop it. It’s a mixed message.
And let’s minimize the political spokespeople. Personally, I feel that a scientist is best, but only one with delivery skills who is adept at using narrative form. We need stories, not lists.
Now I’m going to be blunt: the President is doing a terrible job of relaying important information. More to the point, he frequently contradicts what’s just been said by an expert. I’m sure he has a role in this crisis but it shouldn’t be relaying critical information. Honestly, we need the experts—public health experts, epidemiologists, virologists, medical/legal experts.
If you’re a senator, or a representative, or governor or a mayor and you have the same problem staying on message as this President, let someone else—a science or a medical professional—make the announcements. The one non-medical intervention we need right now is credibility. We need someone up in front of that camera we can trust. Now.
Turning this around to communicate professionally and to build trust is not hard. I offer a few points to help anyone speaking officially during a crisis:
- Take a couple minutes before every press conference and rehearse what you are going to say. Practice doesn’t make perfect but it improves the delivery
- Oral communication—as opposed to written communication—requires shorter sentences and repetition. Human beings used to be terrific at listening to speeches—we aren’t any more.
- Slow down, enunciate, repeat.
- Maintain some eye contact with the press and with the camera. Eye contact equals credibility in this country and helps you to connect with your audience.
- Eliminate non-essential human props and wavy hand movements as they serve only to distract.
- We are a visual culture and so some graphics will enhance the receptivity of a message.
- Keep visuals simple
- Make sure visual elements are large enough to be seen without the camera having to zoom in. No one can see the details on the 8-1/2 x 11 sheet of paper you’re waving about.
- While I’m not a technological wizard, I do know that you can split a screen and have the information on one side and the speaker on the other.
- Make sure you know what the visual look like on screen. For example, a picture shows Trump and Pence standing in front of the White House logo and their bodies block off many of the words, but clearly frame “White Wash”. This was not intended but it does make a viewer question everything they said.
- Make sure your nonverbal communication matches your verbal message. Telling people to social distance and then crowding 16 people behind the podium is the opposite of the message.
- Know your audience.
- Get the most knowledgeable expert who engenders public trust and can deliver the message proficiently. If you don’t know the answer, say you don’t know and then find out by consulting other experts.
- Say what you’ve come to the lectern to say and then answer questions. Don’t ad lib. Your audience has questions. If you know the answer to a question provide it. If you’ve been paying attention you know that most of the questions coming from the media are clarification questions. That means you might not have provided a complete explanation, or what you thought made sense, wasn’t clear to everyone. Competent communication is like good teaching and includes the art of providing examples and saying things in a way most of your audience will understand. Learn from the questions.
- Before you close your presentation, be sure to repeat the most important points: best practices, websites, phone numbers—and if that vital information can be accompanied by graphics so much the better.
Have Good Role Models
- Here in Illinois, Governor JB Pritzker has been giving daily updates. Everyday at 2:30. They last no longer than 30 minutes. Closer to 20. We have come to rely on them. His tone is measured and matter-of-fact. He does not mince words. He has experts deliver content that is beyond his capability. He doesn’t showboat.
In times of crisis, we want to and need to trust our government and elected officials. That requires them to take seriously the task of communicating clearly. From a department chair to the President of the United States, we need to take a few moments to think about what we are communicating and how we are communicating it.