On March 2, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo gave the first of what would become 111 consecutive days of COVID-19 PowerPoint updates. Cuomo’s ‘daily briefings’ turned into must-watch TV, with millions of viewers tuning in throughout New York, America, and around the world.
Cuomo shares leadership lessons from those briefings in his new book, American Crisis.
The big takeaway for everyone who leads when emotions are high: “Communication is everything.”
Very few of us will ever have to manage a crisis on the scale of what Cuomo faced in New York in the early days of the pandemic. The complexity was staggering.
Cuomo writes, “Never in modern history has government ordered businesses, schools, and private institutions to close. State government has never issued stay-at-home orders, not even during the 1918 flu pandemic.”
The communication lessons that Cuomo learned and shared from 111 PowerPoint presentations will help any leader or aspiring leader navigate teams through a crisis.
1). Deliver a consistent message.
It was well-known to the state’s voters that Cuomo and New York City mayor, Bill de Blasio, had a strained relationship. But the two leaders decided to hold the first briefing together to show a unified front.
“An informed, consistent message was important, so by doing this event with the mayor, I could make sure we were stating the same facts,” writes Cuomo.
Consistency extended to the time of the presentation, too. Daily briefings were held at 11:30 a.m. “Consistency of presentation offered its own kind of comfort to viewers: they knew what to expect.”
2). Choose your words carefully.
Cuomo acknowledges a communication mistake he made on March 3, when he used a poor choice of words. To slow the spread of the virus in the suburb of New Rochelle, a town that would become the nation’s first hot spot, Cuomo announced a “containment zone” and said that the National Guard would help deliver food to students after the schools closed.
“The combination of the words ‘containment zone’ and ‘national guard’ frightened people,” according to Cuomo.
“To be clear, there was no actual containment of people; they could come and go as they pleased. The containment was of the virus. But the term was misunderstood, and I soon learned that a poorly worded phrase was dangerous. The quick escalation from mild concern to high anxiety surprised even me.”
Cuomo was even more more careful with his word choice after a panic broke out in the San Francisco Bay Area when local governments issued a ‘shelter-in-place’ order.
“Shelter in place was originally used in the 1950s in anticipation of a nuclear attack. It literally means to seek to out shelter in an interior windowless room in your home and remain there until the all-clear is given. It was a startling and frightening concept.”
Cuomo’s right. I live in the Bay Area and had just returned from a trip on the same day as the order. I’ll never forget the chaos. I saw long lines at the gas stations, no parking availability in grocery store lots, and rows and rows of empty store shelves.
“Did I miss something?” I asked. “Grocery stores aren’t shutting down, are they?”
“Haven’t you heard? Shelter in place. You can’t leave your house!”
They were wrong, of course. We could still leave for essential reasons.
When Cuomo issued a similar order in New York on March 20, he used the words, “Stay home” or “pausing,” words he considered more comforting.
“Communication is an art form, especially when emotion is running high,” writes Cuomo. Words matter.
3). Write the presentation in your own words.
Trust is a key word that runs throughout Cuomo’s book. In a crisis, a leader can’t tell people what to do and watch as they do it. Leaders have to persuade people. Persuasion requires trust.
“If they did not trust my credibility, they would not trust me, the information I gave them, or my proposals,” writes Cuomo.
Cuomo’s words had to be his own. That meant that Cuomo had to understand what the numbers meant.
The daily COVID numbers (new cases, tests, hospitalizations, deaths) came in at 3:00 a.m. Cuomo’s staff talked on the phone and reviewed the numbers with him when he woke up at 5:00 a.m. He got to the office at 6:00 a.m. and read through stacks of reports, peppering his team and outside scientists with questions.
Cuomo then wrote the entire presentation by hand.
“It was important to me that everything I conveyed at the briefings was logically organized and in my own words…In the briefings I spoke the way I would speak to a close friend or my daughters. I said the same words that I said to my mother and brother.”
4). Visualize the message.
After writing the day’s message in his own words, Cuomo sketched the visuals for each of the twenty or thirty slides in the PowerPoint deck.
For example, one day Cuomo wanted to visualize the threat facing New York’s hospital system. “I sketched a tidal wave representing COVID cases cresting upward, and in the sea below, a hospital.”
Members of his staff would create the slides along with graphics, charts, art.
Interestingly, the team wanted to use more modern visuals. “They thought ours looked straight out of the 1960s,” Cuomo recalls. But Cuomo didn’t want the presentation to look slick. “I wasn’t trying to sell anything.”
This tells me that everything about Cuomo’s presentation was intentional. He thought carefully about the message he wanted to send, the feeling he wanted to convey, and the emotion he wanted to evoke.
5). Show authentic emotion.
The briefings were meant to be authentic and real. “I felt the same emotions so many people were feeling, and I would acknowledge them and show them,” Cuomo writes.
Cuomo allowed himself to display his emotions by dividing his presentation into two parts. In part one he delivered the facts: numbers and statistics. Part two began with a slide titled, “Personal Opinion.”
“When I was afraid and I was frustrated, I said that. When I was sad, especially when the fatalities began, I communicated honestly and extemporaneously exactly what I was feeling.”
Cuomo says if he had not connected emotionally with people, they would not have had the trust or confidence to follow his proposals.
“I needed to connect to people where they were. To believe in me, the had to know me as a person.”
Cuomo is a student of history. He often quoted Winston Churchill or Franklin D. Roosevelt in his press briefings. He’s learned that in periods of crisis, an inspired leader can bring people together to accomplish the impossible. But inspiration requires that people are unified behind a common goal, understand the facts, and trust the leader to get them to the other side.
Yes, communication is an art form. It’s a skill that every leader must sharpen if they hope to persuade people to follow their vision.