New York Governor Andrew Cuomo (center), and local mayors Rex Gatchalian of Valenzuela and Vico Sotto of Pasig display a simple tenet of communication: show, don’t tell.
Culture Spotlight

OPINION: Dear Politicians, Speeches are obsolete. Only work can inspire us now

A former political speechwriter writes about a new normal brought about by COVID-19, where only action counts. By GIAN LAO
| Apr 01 2020

Early in the quarantine, I tried to write the same speech over and over again. I guess you could call it fan fiction: If I had influence over what a global leader would say about the COVID-19 pandemic, what would I have them say? I had a few things in mind. A few sentences that alarm, followed by a paragraph that comforts. A parental figure telling an entire panicking nation that we’re going to be okay. Something stern but inspirational.

All the drafts were sent to trash.

Soon I settled on a theory for why it was so difficult: In the age of COVID-19, we don’t need another f**king inspirational speech. There is no speaking for the sake of speaking. All briefings are disaster briefings.

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The means by which we are moved into action have also evolved. Crisis favors action over language. This is the difference between a coach yelling at his team and a superstar taking over to win the game. This is the difference between Jesus telling a parable and Jesus going out there and reviving Lazarus. The public palate has evolved to only accept the latter. Meanwhile, our politicians are still busy finding the vocabulary to justify acts of unfathomable stupidity

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Across the Pacific, this pandemic has seemingly unearthed a canny leader whose unique tone has somehow matched these unique times. People are calling him the Acting President of the United States. The New York Times reports that $285 cashmere sweaters bearing his name are among the web’s hottest items. My dad is also on the hype train, watching his disaster briefings on YouTube as palate cleansers after every late night Duterte speech.

New York is hardest hit of COVID-19 and Cuomo has been nothing straightforward about what the state needs in his speeches. REUTERS/Mike Segar/File Photo

I am talking about Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York—the state with the highest number of confirmed COVID cases in the United States.  

The thing about Cuomo’s sudden popularity is he couldn’t have planned for it. His powerpoints look like they were designed in the mid-2000s. Some of his quotes are the dictionary definition of cheesy. “You don’t go to war with what you need; you go to war with what you have,” says one of his slides. But he has captivated the quarantined. And his popularity almost places a hard period on the prevalent communications wisdom of the social media age: Authenticity is everything.

Cuomo doesn’t use flashy introductions. Sometimes he will talk about his day. Over the weekend, he said: “If you’re feeling disoriented, it’s not you. It’s everyone.” He will mention how there’s no traffic, or how he’s been able to spend more time with his daughter, but the key is that he keeps it brief and authentic. Otherwise, it’s business.

His powerpoints look like they were designed in the mid-2000s. Some of his quotes are the dictionary definition of cheesy.

All he ever really says is this: He’s on top of the situation. He goes through the numbers. New York needs 140,000 beds for COVID patients. They need 30,000 ventilators for when the case count hits the apex. He talks infections and hospitalizations and losses: 66,000, 9,500, 1,200. He reminds people to stay home and wash their hands, talks about closing public parks if social distancing isn’t followed.

Then he chimes in with a comment you can’t place, like: “Ventilators. Ventilators. Ventilators,” as if he could acquire them by forcefully repeating the word. “I didn’t know what they were a few weeks ago, besides the cursory knowledge. I know too much about ventilators now.”

And maybe it’s because he works hard and speaks like this for two weeks in a row that he has a one-time permit to suddenly be inspirational.

“The first responders are just so extraordinary to me,” he says. “Forget everything else.”

“These are not high paid people. It’s not that they’re doing it for the money. It’s not that they don’t have families. They are just extraordinary. They prove it time and time again, but I’ve never seen a situation like this, where their heroism is so… obvious. And the risk is so obvious. Their public service just rises above.”

“I am in awe of what they do. I find that inspiring. I’ll tell you the truth: Every time I say I’m feeling tired… Forget me. I’m not doing a third of what these people are doing.”

There is something about a person who has clearly worked but makes nothing of it. After displaying competence, he redirects the attention to those who rightfully deserve all the praise—those on the front lines.

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The Andrew Cuomo formula is not difficult to replicate. Actually, it almost reduces the practice of communications to one overused nugget of advice: “Show. Don’t tell.” The people have nothing to do in their homes but look. If you work, the people will see you work. But if you make them wait for 7.5 hours for an aimless speech, they’ll see that too. And if you spread a deadly disease in a hospital ward, they’ll make you pay with memes and legal threats.

Think about the last time you were inspired in the midst of this crisis. Tell me: Wasn’t it, simply, just news of someone working? Someone on the front lines walking to work? A student-led donation drive to equip our health workers with PPEs?

It’s the same for a few of our politicians, at least. And if you’re looking for hope, it wouldn’t hurt to look their way.

Many have applauded Sotto, a young, first-time mayor, for his refreshing approach to governance and crisis management. Photo from @VicoSotto on Facebook

Pasig Mayor Vico Sotto’s appeal to the national government inspired many. Here was a young leader—working and clearly tired as a dog—talking to the camera, saying: “Pag hindi natin pinayagan ang tricycle, mas marami pong mamamatay.”

Valenzuela Mayor Rex Gatchalian also drew praise as he proudly announced that he was copying Pasig’s mobile palengke to make it easier for his citizens to buy food.

“Kopyahan na eto,” Gatchalian said. “Wala naman tayo sa school, e.”

Gatchalian has been similarly decisive in both action and communication during this crisis, and has not shied away from mimicking what works. Photo from @REX Gatchalian on Facebook

Marikina Mayor Marcy Teodoro has quietly worked on developing a COVID-19 testing center in his city, and people found the news and took note.

Seeing a few good leaders do good work is the closest therapy we have for the anxiety of the past few weeks. Government cannot complain that we only notice their faults. My opinion is that we are actually so starved for good news that we are finally looking closely into what each of our leaders is doing. It just so happens that only a few of them have acted with incisiveness, clarity, and care—while so many others are so worried about their public image that it’s actually ruined their public image. One day, it will be funny how this era of facemasks is having all of us reveal who we really are.