Singapore’s Prime Minster Lee Hsien Loong delivered a public announcement in February 2020 on the Coronavirus outbreak (Speech link: http://bit.ly/37iccmu) . His speech serves as an example for world leaders on how to deliver a message to the public during crisis.
The impact of the speech could be immediately observed as my friends and colleagues in Singapore reported a calmer atmosphere in public places and reduced queues for essential supplies.
As someone who works with senior leaders to construct impactful messages, in this article, I break down what makes this speech a masterpiece.
“The Ministerial Task Force, advised by DPM Heng Swee Keat, has been leading the Government’s response to this outbreak. They have been dealing with new developments every day, and holding regular press briefings to keep Singaporeans informed every step of the way. Today, I want to speak to you directly, to explain where we are, and what may lie ahead.”
People are scared of the truth being kept hidden from them. PM Lee in the very beginning of the speech made it clear that the government will keep people informed “at every step of the way”
“We went through SARS 17 years ago, so we are much better prepared to deal with nCoV this time. Practically, we have stockpiled adequate supplies of masks and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). We have expanded and upgraded our medical facilities, including the new National Centre for Infectious Diseases (NCID). We have more advanced research capabilities to study the virus. We have more well trained doctors and nurses to deal with this situation. We are psychologically better prepared too. Singaporeans know what to expect, and how to react. Most importantly, having overcome SARS once, we know that we can pull through this too.“
PM Lee referenced to how Singapore and its people successfully fought the SARS virus outbreak and know what to expect and how to deal with this new threat. By doing so, he began the speech on a positive note.
“We are not at that point yet. It may or may not happen, but we are thinking ahead and anticipating the next few steps. And I am sharing these possibilities with you, so that we are all mentally prepared for what may come.”
PM Lee did not portray that they have it all figured out. He clearly mentioned that there is more to be known about the virus. However, he also mentions “fear can do more harm than the virus itself”. Through authentic communication without any window dressing, PM Lee not only exercised influence in the current circumstance but also tapped into the longer term confidence of the people.
No downplaying of the threat
“The new coronavirus is similar to SARS, but with two important differences. First, the new virus is more infectious than SARS. Therefore it is harder to stop it from spreading. Second, the new virus is much less dangerous than SARS. About 10 per cent of those who caught SARS died. With the new virus, outside of Hubei province, the mortality rate is so far only 0.2 per cent. In comparison, seasonal influenza has a death rate of 0.1 per cent. So in terms of mortality, the new virus is much closer to influenza than SARS.“
Many leaders resort to “There’s nothing to worry, it is all under control” kind of response. However, PM Lee clearly stated that the new virus is even more infectious than the SARS virus. People appreciate authenticity more than empty promises. Through this statement, he won the people’s confidence that the government understands what they are dealing with. After this, when he talked about the virus being much less potent than SARS and having a mortality rate closer to common flu, he tapped on the trust that he had earned.
“I have already postponed my Chinese New Year Istana Garden Party for grassroots leaders, which was to be held tomorrow.“
PM Lee explained how he has been impacted and the measures that he has exercised at his personal level. He mentioned how he postponed the Chinese New Year Party with grassroot party leaders and then urges the people to exercise caution. This further enhanced the impact of the message he delivered.
Call to action
“Whatever the situation, we can each do our part. One, observe personal hygiene – wash your hands often, and avoid touching your eyes or face unnecessarily. Two, take your temperature twice daily. And three, if you are not well, please avoid crowded places and see a doctor immediately.“
PM Lee clearly outlined what measures people can take in their personal capacity, what they need to do and what they need not be worried about. He did not ask people to do anything out of ordinary but maintained a tough stance on precautionary measures.
Body language and humour
“We have ample supplies, so there is no need to stock up with instant noodles, tinned food, or toilet paper, as some people did yesterday.”
PM Lee sportingly made reference to people stocking up noodles and toilet paper and suggested that there is no need to do the same. His authentic smile and gentle hand movements convey the feeling of things being under control. This represents PM Lee’s speech translated in action.
This speech is an example of how authentic, clear and succinct communication can be used to deliver even the toughest of messages during difficult circumstances.
Kudos to PM Lee and wishing good health for the world!