The power of straight talk – FDR, Cuomo & Varadkar

As we navigate our way through such uncertain times, honesty is an essential ingredient for any public speaker seeking to keep an anxious public on side.


A case in point is New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. His daily televised coronavirus addresses in recent days have made of him a “TV sensation”, according to Variety magazine. The showbiz paper - not best known for its incisive political commentary – puts it down to the Governor’s tell-it-as-it-is approach: “Andrew Cuomo’s daily recitation of the number of cases, hospitalizations, testing rate and all manner of other statistics — including the grimmest — reassure people because it shows that somebody’s leading a team to attack the problem.”

Mr Cuomo’s frank approach to bad news is, of course, a necessary and even welcome counterpoint to Donald Trump’s hollow bragging. But this not entirely new in American rhetoric: a hallmark insistence on “the facts”, a rigorous use of everyday terms to express complicated concepts, and a sometimes-folksy empathy for the audience’s anxieties all hark back to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s famous “fireside chat” radio addresses in the 1930s and 40s.

In his first such chat as US President in March 1933, devoted to the banking crisis, FDR quickly set the tone for his subsequent talks to the American people on complex and painful subjects including financial collapse, recession, droughts, and war.

The key lay in appealing to his audience’s good sense:

“My friends, I want to talk for a few minutes with the people of the United States about banking… I want to tell you what has been done in the last few days, why it was done, and what the next steps are going to be… The success of our whole great national program depends, of course, upon the cooperation of the public—on its intelligent support and use of a reliable system… It is your problem no less than it is mine. Together we cannot fail.”

Listen to FDR start his first Presidential fireside chat  (2’44”)

 

Mr Cuomo’s sometimes rambling TV addresses are decidedly more modern (witness the no-nonsense PowerPoint slides) but they follow a similar plan. He details the facts, displays his grasp of the underlying issues, acknowledges feelings, shows sympathy for the feelings of others, talks about his family and even cracks jokes against himself.

Above all, he levels with his audience and focuses on delivering the facts. Take one of his talks late last week:

“We are battling a deadly virus. Is there an intrusion on daily life? Yes. Is there an intrusion on movement? Yes. Is there an intrusion on the economy? Yes. But, what’s on the other side of the scale is literally saving lives. That’s not rhetoric, that’s not drama, that’s fact.”

Watch Andrew Cuomo deliver his folksy straight talk here (2’24”)

 

Across the Atlantic, Ireland’s acting Prime Minister Leo Varadkar (himself a trained medical doctor) has won plaudits for an equally frank approach.

When he announced the lockdown imposed on the Republic last week, he spoke straight to the people of Ireland, addressing them as equals:

Freedom was hard won in our country, and it jars with us to restrict and limit individual liberties, even temporarily. But freedom is not an abstract concept. We give it meaning every single day – in the way we live our lives – and in the decisions we take willingly to protect our loved ones. So I am asking people to give meaning to our freedom and liberty by agreeing to these restrictions.

Restricting how we live our lives so that so that others may live. I am asking us for a time, to forego our personal liberties and freedoms for a greater cause. Tonight, I am appealing to every man, woman and child in our country to make these sacrifices – not out of self-interest but for love of each other.”

Talking straight shows respect for your audience. It will pay off in the long run.

Ireland’s Taoiseach Leo Varadkar tells people to stay home  (1’33”)