Learn how to make leader communication direct and relatable

As a proud New Jersey native, I’ve been watching Governor Phil Murphy’s daily coronavirus updates with keen interest. And because I live a mere 17 miles from the Lincoln Tunnel, I also frequently watch New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s daily briefings.

And I’m not the only one watching. Of course, tri-state area residents have an obvious reason to tune in, but even folks across the U.S. are paying attention to what these key leaders have to say. Unfortunately, much of that interest is due to the devastation the COVID-19 pandemic is wreaking on our corner of the country. But just as attention-grabbing is the engaging tone our governors take while delivering heart-wrenching news and life-saving instructions.

Our governors are delivering a textbook course on how to communicate effectively during a crisis: Be direct, be clear and be personable. And business leaders around the world should take note.

Here are seven lessons in talking straight that every leader can learn from Cuomo and Murphy:

1. Share a personal anecdote
When Andrew Cuomo’s brother Chris was diagnosed with COVID-19, Andrew wasn’t shy about sharing the story: “He found out yesterday morning that he had coronavirus. He did his show last night from his basement. What a gutsy, courageous thing to do,” he said. “Kudos to him. My pop would be proud. I love you little brother.”

This anecdote let people know that Cuomo is one of us. He understands what we’re going through and he cares. And we instantly felt compelled to stand with him.

Leaders can similarly influence employees’ beliefs by sharing their own personal stories of challenges or triumphs. Let staff know you’re on their level, and they’ll be more likely to trust what you have to say.

2. Show emotion
When Murphy wants to make a serious point, he takes his glasses off, stops reading his notes, looks directly at the camera and addresses the public with intent. In two quick seconds he lets viewers know that he means business.

And when he delivers tough news, he adds respectful commentary. “Since yesterday, with a heavy heart, the heaviest of hearts, we are reporting another 275 lost souls, deaths, in our New Jersey family,” he said on April 8.

Murphy displays his emotions plainly, letting the people of New Jersey know how much he cares.

Leaders shouldn’t be wary of showing emotion to their employees. Sharing your vulnerabilities helps employees relate, and also builds trust in your leadership and your messages.

3. Ask for help
In a recent Twitter post, Cuomo plainly stated: “We must keep the curve flat. Keep staying home. Keep practicing social distancing. Keep protecting others. Now is not the time to slack off.”

This direct, clear language is easy for anyone to understand. More importantly, it gives New Yorkers something to do—a way to contribute to society and help fight the coronavirus battle.

In any situation, people look to their leaders for direction. So leaders need to step forward and provide guidance. Ask for help to achieve a goal, then make the requested action clear, and employees will respond.

4. Provide hope—appropriately
Though both Cuomo and Murphy are careful to give the bad news—hospitalizations and fatalities—its appropriate level of attention, they also make a point to provide measured hope to viewers. And that’s exactly what folks want.

In a recent broadcast, Murphy promised: “We will get there. Let me say that unequivocally…we’ll come through this together as one extraordinary New Jersey family, stronger than ever before. Not without casualty…not without mistake I’m sure, and not tomorrow or next week.”

Coach your leaders to follow a similar path by explaining to employees what they can look forward to. But never sugarcoat or overpromise—employees will see through that ruse and trust will diminish.

5. Say thanks
Cuomo stated during a recent briefing: “I’d also like to find a way to say thank you to these health care workers who are out there every day. What they have done is just incredible. Just incredible.”

Recognition satisfies two basic human needs: 1. to feel safe and 2. to have a sense of acceptance among social groups. It just so happens that these needs are heightened during a crisis (especially #1); therefore, a little acknowledgement can go a long way.

Don’t let leaders worry that now’s not the right time for smiles or happiness. Remind them how uplifting recognition can be for the human soul, and that it’s needed now more than ever. Then encourage leaders to give thanks.

6. Walk the talk
Murphy has taken to wearing a mask as he walks on and off the podium for his daily news briefing, following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s—and his own—advice to the general population. (And in true New Jersey fashion, on April 8 he wore a mask that said, “Exit 109.” Consult your favorite N.J. resident to understand this inside joke.)

By backing up his words with his actions, Murphy is showing his constituents that he means what he says. He’s not too important to follow the rules—he’s in it with the rest of us.

Too often leaders forget to follow their own recommendations. Employees take notice and are quick to follow suit. “Why should I cut costs if the CEO isn’t doing the same? It’s not fair.” Leaders should be careful to back up their words with actions, and gain employees’ trust.

7. Break tension with humor
Even the most serious of Shakespeare plays have moments of comic relief. And a little humor has gone a long way toward making Andrew Cuomo and his brother Chris two of the most beloved people on television these last few weeks.

In a recent edition of Chris’ show, Cuomo Prime Time, Andrew quipped, “One day you can grow up to be like me.” To which Chris snapped back, “I’ve tried to be like you my whole life. Look where it got me.”

Rather than sounding tone-deaf, this on-air brotherly banter has provided much-needed relief from the dark, depressing news this coronavirus has brought.

Coach leaders that adding a splash of humor to their language can make them more genuine and relatable. Just be careful never to make light of a challenging situation; rather, poke fun at something unrelated and unimportant.

Follow these tips to make your leadership communication more human and direct. Employees will appreciate the authenticity and place more trust in the message—and the person delivering it.

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