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Finding the Right Words in a Crisis

Illustration by Simoul Alva

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When New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that all nonessential workers should stay home to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, a reporter asked why he had decided to issue a “shelter-in-place” order. Cuomo corrected him:

“It is not shelter in place. Words matter, because people are scared, and people panic. Shelter in place is used currently for an active shooter or a school shooting. We are fighting a war on two fronts. We are fighting the virus, and we are fighting fear. When we act on fears, then we’re in a dangerous place.”

Throughout much of human history, leaders have relied on their words to spark action. And many economists and CEOs today swear that words are the most important tool in a world where “command and control” leadership has given way to power by persuasion.

Cuomo has mastered the skill. His press briefings demonstrate how in times of crisis, words are essential to capturing the attention and trust of your audience. Business leaders who want to serve as beacons of clarity and hope for their teams during this uncertain time can follow his lead by applying a few best practices to their speech.

Replace long words with short ones. In his groundbreaking book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Nobel economist Daniel Kahneman writes, “If you care about being thought credible and intelligent, do not use complex language where simpler language will do.” Effective leaders speak in simple language — and simple means short.

Further Reading

This is especially true during a crisis, when attention spans are flagging and noise levels are high. People are being bombarded by information, some of which is misleading or false. The clearer and more concise you are, the better your chances of getting your message across and persuading people to act on it.

In mid-March, when Cuomo issued the order that would upend life for millions of New Yorkers and shut down the world’s financial center, he had to make the news instantly clear and understandable. So he tweeted this message: “Stay Home. Stop the Spread. Save Lives.” The post spoke volumes — in just 39 characters amounting to seven one-syllable words.

If Cuomo had tried to come off as what many consider “professional,” his message might have sounded like this: “For the preservation of public health and safety, I hereby order all residents not engaged in essential activities that impact critical infrastructure to remain in their residences in order to mitigate the propagation of the coronavirus and to minimize morbidity and mortality.”

Consider the two messages side-by-side. The “professional” version is confusing and convoluted, full of the bureaucratic jargon effective communicators avoid. The Twitter message uses simple Anglo-Saxon words such as “stay,” “home,” and “lives.”  Compared with words derived from Latin, Anglo-Saxon words are more likely to be monosyllabic, concrete, and easy to understand.

As you think about how to share your next message, remember that language influenced by the Anglo-Saxon period has been used by many great leaders. Winston Churchill once said, “The shorter words of a language are usually the more ancient. Their meaning is more ingrained in the national character and they appeal to greater force.” In a memo titled “Brevity,” he urged government administrators to replace long “woolly phrases” with single conversational words, pointing out that brevity equals clarity and that directness makes things easier to understand.

Find analogies. Neuroscientists have found that our brains process the world by associating the new or unknown with something familiar. When presented with a novel idea, our brains don’t ask, “What is it?” They ask, “What is it like?”

Analogies answer that question. They serve as mental shortcuts that help us understand complex events. Leaders who are great communicators in a crisis are skilled at finding analogies, because they have to persuade people to act quickly.

Cuomo used that strategy on April 4, resurrecting President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “fire hose” analogy to explain why it was in Oregon’s best interests to send 140 ventilators to New York. “We’re all in the same battle,” he said. “You want to contain the enemy. Oregon could have a significant problem towards May. Our problem is now. It’s smart from Oregon’s self-interest. They see the fire spreading. Stop the fire where it is before it gets to my home.”

Let’s look at the original context. In 1940, with Nazi Germany having set its sights on England after conquering France, Churchill appealed to Roosevelt for arms and supplies. In response, Roosevelt proposed the Lend-Lease program, under which America would loan war supplies to allies while remaining neutral itself. Here’s how he sold it to the public: “Suppose my neighbor’s home catches fire, and I have a length of garden hose four or five hundred feet away,” he said. “If he can take my garden hose and connect it up with his hydrant, I may help him to put out his fire.”

Roosevelt emphasized that he wouldn’t ask his neighbor to pay for the hose ahead of time. If it was intact after the war, the neighbor would return it. If it was damaged, the neighbor would replace it. The message, in short: Although both sides are acting out of self-interest, they can work together to stop chaos from spreading.

After drawing on Roosevelt’s analogy from 80 years before, Cuomo observed that “FDR had such a beautiful way of taking complicated issues and communicating [them] in common-sense language.”

Personalize the crisis. The human brain is also wired for storytelling. In his best-selling book Sapiens, historian Yuval Noah Harari argues that it was only through stories that our species was able to conquer the world. Our advanced language skills — specifically, our ability to connect with one another through narrative — allowed us to cooperate in ways other species could not.

Cooperation is essential in a crisis, so effective leaders need to be strong storytellers.

Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House’s Coronavirus Response Coordinator, is a case in point. She has built a reputation for using personal stories to connect with her audiences. On March 25 she told a heart-wrenching story to underscore the importance of social distancing.

Birx’s grandmother, Leah, was just 11 years old during the 1918 flu pandemic, which killed some 50 million people. Leah caught the flu and infected her mother, who had a comprised immune system and died from the disease. “[Leah] never forgot that she was the child who was in school who innocently brought that flu home,”Birx said. “My grandmother lived with that for 88 years. This is not a theoretical. This is a reality.”

Birx told the story to reinforce her key message: All Americans play a role in protecting one another. The message appears to be working. On April 8, she announced that expected deaths from Covid-19 had dropped from earlier forecasts because “Americans are…following through on these behavioral changes.”

Observe the rule of three. Scholars of rhetoric and persuasion argue that people like things grouped in threes, because we can hold only a few items in short-term memory. If you give people three instructions, they’re likely to remember them all. Give them five, six, or more, and they’ll probably forget most of them. And people can’t act on what they can’t remember.

In a crisis, leaders who give fewer instructions — but more-concrete ones — are more likely to see people act on their words.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease at the National Institutes of Health, is widely admired for his straight talk and steady demeanor. CNN has called him “a public force” who translates complex medical information into everyday language. His strategy? “You don’t want to impress people and razzle-dazzle them with your knowledge,” Fauci says. “You just want them to understand what you’re talking about.”

To that end, Fauci often limits himself to three key points. For example, in an April 5 appearance on Face the Nation, he said the country would be able to relax social-distancing guidelines only when three things were in place: “the ability to test, isolate, and do contact tracing.”

Fauci also stressed that Americans must continue to “physically separate” from one another by doing three things: staying six feet apart, limiting gatherings to 10 or fewer people, and avoiding mass interactions, such as in restaurants, bars, and theaters.

Like a virus, words are infectious. They can instill fear and panic or facilitate understanding and calm. Above all, they can spark action. So choose them carefully.

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Networking Doesn’t Have to Be Self-Serving

Nicholas Rigg/Getty Images

Successful leaders who shift their attention to tackling big, societal problems can be overwhelmed by how little control they actually have. But, by using network-building and collaboration skills, they can navigate a path to successful innovation and transformational change.  Here are the stories of three such efforts and the six essential lessons for attracting support for change they illustrate.

Show up. Presence is powerful. Being on the scene provides a first-hand look at problems.  New possibilities and new relationships might emerge.  That’s how successful Washington lawyers Mary Louse and Bruce Cohen started on the path to innovation.

The Cohens had been thinking about the Syrian refugee crisis, but their vague interest became more focused when they attended a fundraiser at which actress Tea Leoni, a UNICEF goodwill ambassador, reported on her recent trip to refugee camps. Leoni was struck by how many of the refugees she met had been successful professionals before fleeing the turmoil. Less than 1 percent of approximately 12 million refugees of working age would find meaningful resettlement through conventional channels – which was a great waste of human capital and talent.

The Cohens decided to see for themselves. They visited camps in Lebanon and Jordan. Talking with refugees led to the idea for an Uber-like platform to match talented people to unfilled jobs in friendly countries. To develop what became Talent Beyond Boundaries, they ventured into other unfamiliar places to find allies and build coalitions, attending numerous international meetings, gaining support and ideas from the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, NGOs, and corporate human resource executives.

Leaders find both possibilities and partners by showing up in person to places they don’t usually go.

Knock on many doors. To help reduce deaths caused by drunk drivers, Jay Winsten, a public health scientist, wanted to involve the biggest players reaching the largest audiences. He knew none of them. He used classic networking principles: find people who know people; every contact leads to another; and don’t ask too much from any single contact. Winsten went outside his home base to knock on doors in New York, Los Angeles, and wherever media influence was found. He built a wide circle of support from Hollywood moguls, television networks, advertising agencies, the press, and politicians.

He improvised, seizing opportunities. Winsten told his story to a top advertising executive who happened to be in the next seat on a flight to New York; she offered to provide her agency’s services pro bono, which resulted in the Designated Driver Campaign’s widely praised poster and slogan. He dined at celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck’s famed Spago restaurant in Hollywood and approached Puck and his then-wife, co-owner Barbara Lazaroff. Spago ended up sponsoring a Hollywood reception for the embryonic Designated Driver Campaign, and Lazaroff became an adviser.

Small asks of many people proved helpful. A former CBS president introduced Winsten to a one-time rival, the former chairman and studio founder of NBC, who agreed to edit the campaign’s outreach letters to fit the Hollywood creative community’s values. Keeping requests modest makes it easier to get people to say yes and join coalitions with competitors.

Help your way into inner circles. By helping others with their agendas, before pushing his own, Torsten Thiele moved from being a threatening outsider to a familiar insider.

Thiele, a banker, wanted to improve the health of the oceans. He believed that adding considerations about finance and technology to climate-change discussions would accelerate change. Early on, he didn’t push the agenda of his Global Ocean Trust on the hundreds of advocacy groups and government entities worldwide who were suspicious of bankers and their motives.

Instead, he developed a reputation as someone who could be counted on to contribute without seeking credit; that reputation started to move him from outsider to insider. He wrote briefings on ocean finance and thus introduced the idea of blue natural capital. He joined working groups for behind-the-scenes planning; one of these laid the groundwork for seven Arctic nations, including the United States and Russia, signing a joint moratorium on commercial fishing for 16 years. He volunteered to support others’ efforts for a Norwegian government ocean action initiative and the European Union’s blue strategy. He organized a conference for the German government, staying in the background. He helped technology companies form an Ocean Data Alliance and a Coalition for Private Investment in Conservation. He assisted every sector.

Ask to be taught. You build trust by seeking to understand others’ points of view first and then, as you learn from them, converting them into allies for innovations — even ones that might challenge your point of view. Being a learner and asking questions has an added bonus; the people whom you ask tend to think you’re smarter than people who don’t seek information.

Mary Louise and Bruce Cohen started as novices, respecting existing expertise and encouraging people to teach them about refugees and government policies – even though their talent-matching venture was a radical new approach. Ask enough questions, absorb enough knowledge, and soon you’re an expert yourself.

In initial meetings with major global NGOs such as the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Torsten Thiele didn’t inject his perspective as a finance expert; instead, he showed genuine interest in the ecology, biology, and conservation aspects of climate change. “I’m learning from you,” he would say. When he added his economics agenda to conversations, he could present it as aligned with theirs. WWF officials saw that Thiele took their interests seriously and eventually invited him to speak about the value of establishing blue finance at major conferences.

Plant seeds and pre-sell. On contentious matters, it’s smart to hold private conversations before seeking public commitment. Lining up new relationships behind the scenes, before anyone even comes to the table, is one of the secrets of great negotiators, as expert James Sebenius has demonstrated. It’s also dangerous to walk into a meeting without knowing where people stand – that is a sure way to build a community of people totally united in opposition to your agenda.

For multi-stakeholder meetings, Thiele held one-on-one advance discussions. To launch the blue finance idea at a UN conference, he invited senior bankers to join officials from an NGO and two governments. Rather than bringing them into the room right away, “where they wouldn’t have understood each other (or felt it was a good use of their time),”   he met with them separately, then slowly brought the parties together. He explained the issue in each group’s professional language, contacted the others for their input, circled back, and slowly got buy-in. He used a similar approach to other successful cross-sector discussions with business leaders, development bankers, and conservation organizations.

To avoid public clashes, win people over in advance. Help them understand how their perspective fits in with a larger one.

Demonstrate and deliver. The Cohens had to prove there was refugee talent before asking employers to join a market for it. To create an online talent catalogue, they hired a skilled programmer they had met in a camp in Beirut. Allies went to camps to encourage refugees to provide data. When they had 11,000 skilled professionals with English language skills – engineers, accountants, and specialist roofers, among others – they used this unique database to line up talent-hungry employers, initially in Canada and Australia. Talent Beyond Boundaries began to work with global accounting and consulting firms, national companies like Shopify in Canada, and small and mid-sized enterprises in places that were talent-hungry. The first refugees were resettled in Canada and Australia.

Thiele and his Global Ocean Trust generated private sector interest in ocean finance. In collaboration with the The Economist’s World Ocean Summit, he helped create an innovative finance challenge won by the Seychelles Blue Bonds proposal, the world’s first sovereign blue bond, to invest in marine and fisheries projects. He helped bring insurance companies into the new coalition at a 2018 Ocean Risk Summit in Bermuda, resulting in a scheme for “Blue Carbon Resilience Credits,” a cross-sector collaboration between XL, a major insurer, and The Nature Conservatory, a leading NGO. Wary adversaries found a common task that made them allies.

Jay Winsten’s Designated Driver campaign was highlighted on more than 160 prime-time programs over four U.S. TV seasons, with an estimated $100 million a year of donated airtime. It became “cool” to name a designated driver; the term made it into dictionaries. People didn’t feel preached to; they embraced responsibility for others’ safety. Traffic fatalities declined, due to this and other factors.

Tangible demonstrations of impact justify the faith of early supporters and attract new ones. Small ripples grow into waves of change.


In a world where networks are more important than hierarchies, power goes to the connectors. The best leaders leap over silos and across organizational, geographic, and sector divides to align others behind their agendas. They think “outside the building” to form coalitions for change, built on a foundation of respect, and trust.