By David L. Steinberg
David L. Steinberg, director of debate at the University of Miami, analyzes how the actions and words of leaders matter during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Speeches matter. Leaders lead by their actions and by their words. In times of crisis, rhetorical action is particularly important to calm anxiety and to bring people together in shared effort needed to overcome the crises. During the COVID-19 pandemic, both New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom have succeeded in exemplifying outstanding leadership. I believe that effective messages during times of crisis should accomplish five objectives.

The first challenge is recognition—to describe the crisis in a way that informs us about its nature in a way that resonates. The speaker should validate our fears and emotions, recognizing the dire seriousness of the circumstances without either overstating or minimizing their impacts. The speaker should express empathy, recognize an appreciation for our real lived experience, and convey an understanding of the hardship and sacrifice endured and forthcoming. In her recent special broadcast, Queen Elizabeth began by saying, “I’m speaking to you at what I know is an increasingly challenging time—a time of disruption in the life of our country, a disruption that has brought grief to some, financial difficulties to many, and enormous changes to the daily lives of us all.”

Second, the speaker must exemplify competence. They can do this by demonstrating that they have a depth of understanding, knowledge, and expertise, and a willingness and ability to comprehend the crisis. Cuomo’s briefings are data-driven and reflect appropriately precise language of public health, medicine, and policy making.

Third, character is revealed through a tone of both language and delivery which conveys the importance and recognition of the elevated moment in history. It is expressed through eloquent and powerful use of language; a sincere, thoughtful and embracing nonverbal expression; and personal and engaging choice of support, especially narrative. The Queen engaged her audience with her personal reflection, “It reminds me of the very first broadcast I made in 1940, helped by my sister. We as children spoke from here at Windsor to children who had been evacuated from their homes and sent away for their own safety. Today, once again, many will feel a painful sense of separation from their loved ones; but now as then, we know deep down that it is the right thing to do.”

Fourth, in monumental moments, effective speakers can provide a celebration of shared values and common identity, providing a coming together of a community. Generally, this is based on national patriotism, sometimes global or human connectedness. And, in times of war, antithesis, or the bond that occurs in the face of a common enemy. The governor can speak to the proud shared identity of New Yorkers. The queen engaged national pride, “…Those who come after us will say the Britons of this generation were as strong as any, that the attributes of self-discipline; of quiet, good-humored resolve; and of fellow feeling still characterize this country.” Both recognize and honor the heroic work of those on the front lines.

Finally, the effective speaker must convey realistic optimism and hope for resolution of the crisis, recognizing the need for all to participate and support solutions through their efforts, sacrifice, faith in leadership, belief and confidence in each other, and communal spirit. This is the primary and ongoing message of Cuomo’s briefings. The queen concluded “…While we may have more still to endure; better days will return.”

David L. Steinberg is associate professor of professional practice at the University of Miami School of Communication and director of debate.

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