Late last month, I was padding around my kitchen when I first heard Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s voice wafting over my laptop. I gave up trying to multitask, plopped down at the table and found myself glued to the screen for his entire coronavirus briefing. Like millions of others that day, I became hooked.
For the past 25 years, I’ve been coaching leaders on how to become persuasive and compelling communicators. So when I come across an orator that stops me in my tracks, I need to understand why.
The reason Cuomo’s daily briefings have quickly become “must-see TV” is simple: It’s because he’s mastered six public speaking techniques most needed to engage, inspire and reassure an audience. And if you’re a business leader looking for guidance on how to address your troops during these uncertain times, try adopting these techniques to make your points stick.
1. Use repetitive phrases.
Our brains crave repetition. Hearing things over and over is how we absorb new information. In fact, scientists tell us that the rhythm of repetition actually hits a pleasure button in our brains. It’s why we never tire of hearing the chorus to our favorite song.
Any seasoned politician knows that repetition works wonders in a crowd and plays well with the media. But what makes Cuomo’s use of repetition so unique is that it’s so conversational. It comes across as if he’s speaking directly to you.
“There is no question what we are dealing with,” he said in his March 30 briefing. “There is no question as to the consequences. There is no question as to the grief and loss of life. And there is no question about what we must do.”
2. Use language people can see and feel.
Thanks to neuroscientists like Antonio D’Amasio, we now know emotions play a critical role in decision-making. Using language that makes us see and feel literally activates more neurons in our brains. When you embed information in images and emotions, it’s much more likely to stick.
Governor Cuomo regularly relies on this tactic. When describing how states, competing with each other—and the federal government—were driving up the prices of medical equipment for everyone, he offered a visual anyone can relate to:
“It’s like being on eBay, with 50 other states, bidding on a ventilator.” (View clip.)
Just about everyone has a visceral sense of how anxiety-producing it is to compete for non-essential things on eBay. So with this analogy, we can instantly see and feel the absurdity of competing for life-saving equipment in this way.
3. Tell your audience when you’re sharing facts, when you’re sharing your personal opinion and when you’re sharing expert opinion.
We all need to know what’s fact and what’s opinion so we can act accordingly. Telling the truth, no matter how grim, bolsters your credibility as a trustworthy source of information.
When Cuomo begins his press conferences, he always starts with the facts. From there, he distinguishes facts from projections based on opinion or models. In his March 30 address, he offered a measured response to the ever-present question: “When will life return to normal?”
“This is opinion not fact: I think you [will] see the return to normalcy when we have an approved rapid testing program that can be brought to scale.”
Compare this to President Trump, whose failure to make this important distinction often breeds confusion. When he told FOX News reporter Bill Hemmer on March 24 “You’ll have packed churches all over our country on Easter Sunday,” it sounded like fact. If Trump had simply said: “I hope the churches will be packed by Easter, but the facts suggest that social distancing will probably be necessary for far longer,” he wouldn’t have had to backtrack a week later—a leadership misstep that breeds cynicism and mistrust.
4. Rely on personal stories to underline an important point.
Stories invite us to stand in the shoes of the storyteller, see the world from his or her point of view, and link the consequences of the storyteller’s actions to our own. As I always say to my private clients and students at Columbia: Storytelling literally teaches our brains how to plan for the future.
Good leaders like Cuomo know how to use story to bring levity to a situation, or to help us understand the consequences of our actions. When he shared his story of learning his brother Chris Cuomo had tested positive for coronavirus, he revealed that just two weeks before, Chris had considered inviting their mother to quarantine at his house longer term. It was one of those “what if” stories that made us all gasp.
“If my brother still had my mother at his house, chances are she may very well have been exposed, and then we would be looking at a different situation than just my brother sitting in his basement for two weeks.”
5. Be vulnerable.
Being authentic and vulnerable makes you more relatable. In all my years of coaching, I can tell you that this is often the biggest hurdle for leaders. After all, most are taught to assure the troops that the boat is sailing just fine, thank you.
But Cuomo uses it to his advantage. When talking about his brother’s diagnosis on April 1, he confessed, “It is frightening… This is my best friend.” In his April 8 address, he was particularly vulnerable when responding to a reporter: “You think there’s ever going to be a morning that I wake up again in my life not worried about this in the back of my mind?”
6. Have a larger message.
Weaving all the facts and details together under a larger thematic umbrella gives even a standard update a more transcendent quality. It makes all the details hang together in a more meaningful way and gets everyone on the same page.
Cuomo consistently hits on themes like the importance of collaboration and generosity. Neither are startlingly original themes, but they have the effect of lifting us out of our own dread, enabling us to feel connected to a better future. He gives us something to hang on to. To aspire to. And that, in itself, both reassures and empowers.
Cuomo doesn’t have the eloquence of his famous father. And he’s admitted he can’t cook his mother’s marinara. But right now, his “special sauce” may be exactly the one we need.