Dr. Emily Landon at the Illinois Governor’s COVID-19 Press Conference (University of Chicago Medicine)

Communicating During Coronavirus: 10 Lessons from Dr. Emily Landon

I recently exchanged correspondence with a respected global public health policy expert, someone who has been engaged in the field for more than three decades. “I think the most difficult aspect of [the coronavirus pandemic],” he wrote, “is witnessing the catastrophe wrought by the Trump administration’s unending lies, incoherence, incompetence, cruelty and malevolence. The amazing [Dr. Anthony] Fauci notwithstanding, and the ongoing dedication of CDC and countless others, essential public trust is collapsing.”

Indeed, every time President Trump takes the podium, he makes the crisis worse. Where clarity is needed, the president clouds. Where humility is required, he boasts. Where compassion is called for, he belittles and attacks. Where honesty is indispensable, he lies.

In ordinary times, the president’s failure to provide rhetorical leadership is deeply disheartening. But in the face of this global pandemic, the consequences will be lethal.

Thankfully, authoritative public health experts are stepping forward. One of the best examples is Dr. Emily Landon, chief infectious disease epidemiologist at University of Chicago Medicine, who joined Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker at a March 20 press conference to explain the state’s stay-at-home order.

Her 7-minute speech — which, as of this writing, has received nearly 71,000 views on YouTube — is a masterclass in effective communication, not only about coronavirus, but more broadly.

Here are ten takeaways you can apply to your own speeches and remarks:

Use persuasive structure. When you’re trying convince others to do something, especially something difficult, the structure of your argument can be as important as its substance. Luckily, there is a simple, five-step template you can fall back on every time, and which Dr. Landon employs effectively in her speech: Monroe’s Motivated Sequence (MMS). It goes like this:

— Get the audience’s attention.

— Lay out the problem, with stakes that matter to the audience. Show them why the status quo is untenable.

— Offer a solution — a way to alleviate the problem you’ve just described.

— Lay out a vision of the future: How things will look if they adopt the solution (or don’t).

— Finally, leave them with a call to action. Tell them what to do, right now.

Make sure your audience can see why they should care enough to act. In Dr. Landon’s speech, the vision section of MMS is especially important — precisely because, as she says, “if we do this [i.e. shelter in place] right, nothing happens.” A future state where “nothing happens” isn’t typically motivational, but since most Americans have never sheltered in place before, she has to help us reimagine anticlimax as wild success. She shows us the benefits more time will buy — ramped up production of personal protective equipment for doctors and nurses, more medical research, better conditions for critical workers. And she drives the point home by reminding listeners that the stakes are personal for us all: “[N]othing means that nothing happened to your family. And that’s what we’re going for here.”

Show your humanity. To earn an audience’s trust, you have to come across as a credible authority. But alongside the authority of professional expertise is the relatability of common experience. Dr. Landon speaks freely about her own family and their frustrations, in ways that feel familiar: “So in my house, we’ve made a lot of sacrifices. We don’t go out anymore. This is the first time I’ve left my house in some days, because I’m leading our efforts in emergency planning for my home. My son has traded in sports, a science conference, and the fifth-grade bake sale for puzzles, e-learning, and some video chats.” People will be more willing to take tough steps when they can see you’re right there alongside them.

Don’t hide your feelings. Related to the point above: Dr. Landon’s delivery isn’t flawless. But by valuing passion over perfection, her words become more compelling, because they sound like they are being delivered by a relatable human being — a doctor, a mom, a sister, a neighbor — someone who cares deeply about what’s happening. Someone who cares about us.

Let your credentials speak for themselves. Medicine is a technical field, replete with its own jargon and shorthand. Yet, Dr. Landon doesn’t try to impress the public with epidemiological terms. Instead, she addresses us conversationally and colloquially, even using “Yeah” for emphasis. Choose your words with your audience in mind. Speak in a language they will understand.

Don’t soften hard truths, but offer hope, too. The impulse to downplay the severity of a crisis is understandable but wrong. Leaders obviously don’t want to incite panic, but they have an obligation to give people the information we need to protect ourselves and others. Dr. Landon doesn’t pull any punches in describing the situation’s stark urgency in the very first paragraph: “Despite doing our best to prepare for a respiratory virus pandemic, we now find ourselves facing a brand new virus with too little information, not enough personal protective equipment, changing protocols every single day, and no second chances.” Having gotten our attention, she clarifies actions each of us can take, empowering listeners to help create the best-case outcome, instead of leaving us resigned to the worst.

Use concrete imagery. Throughout her remarks, Dr. Landon uses concrete illustrations to make the abstract real. Communities at a standstill have closed schools and shuttered restaurants. Medical assistance for critical patients looks like oxygen, ventilators, and life support. Being safe means accepting that soccer games and book clubs are dangerous right now. And, guess what? We can help save the world by watching Netflix from the couch.

Limit the numbers. Even as the coverage of the coronavirus crisis is all about data — cases, infection rates, recoveries, deaths — Dr. Landon limits the use of numbers and statistics in her remarks to just a few key points, increasing the likelihood listeners will actually retain the most crucial details:

[T]he real problem is not the 80% who will get over this in a week. It’s the 20% of patients, the older, those that are immunocompromised, those that have other medical problems….

[I]f we let every single patient with this infection infect three more people and then each of them infect two or three more people, there won’t be a hospital bed when my mother can’t breathe very well or when yours is coughing too much.

[N]ow, it’s your turn to do your part, a huge sacrifice to make, but a sacrifice that can make thousands of differences, maybe even a difference in your family, too.

Tell stories. Our minds are wired for narrative; story is how we make sense of the world around us. In this unprecedented moment, when so few of us have previous experiences to draw on, historical analogies can help us process what is happening, and what may be to come. Dr. Landon shares the cautionary tale of two American cities in the early days of the 1918 pandemic flu: “St. Louis shut itself down and sheltered in place. But Philadelphia went ahead with a huge parade to celebrate those going off to war. A week later, Philadelphia hospitals were overrun. And thousands were dead, many more than in St. Louis.” Another benefit of using stories as vehicles for delivering important messages: They are easier for listeners to remember and retell.

Sharpen your soundbite. In our fast-paced, information-saturated age, it can be hard to sustain an audience’s attention for an entire speech, even one that’s only 7-minutes long. Make sure you can encapsulate your key messages in a few Tweetable phrases, and use social media to push those messages out and draw listeners back in.

Dr. Landon has a few such lines in her speech; here’s the one that hit hardest with me: “[W]ithout taking drastic measures, the healthy and optimistic among us will doom the vulnerable.” She boils her argument into one evocative line, and, once again, makes the stakes both personal and actionable: What we do matters. We have a choice.

Together, let’s do the right thing.

Vinca LaFleur

In “Orations Worth Ovations,” professional speechwriters analyze great speeches (real or fictional, historic or personal) and explain what makes them so good.

Watch the entirety of Dr. Emily Landon’s speech here.

Follow Vinca and West Wing Writers on Twitter.

A progressive communications-strategy firm founded by former Clinton and Obama Administration speechwriters.

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