The 3 communication lessons I learnt from Jacinda

Jane Sheffield
Lead Trainer & Owner
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The 3 communication lessons I’ve learnt from Jacinda Ardern. However you feel about her, you can’t argue that Jacinda Ardern is a top-notch communicator. 

I personally have learnt so much from watching her over the years.  Here are the top 3 communication lessons I have learnt from Jacinda Ardern:

Lesson 1: Look at your audience. Always.

Scripts in a business environment can be problematic. They take ages to prepare, and often end up sounding wooden and unnatural.  And once we have the script up there – man, it’s hard not to read it!

However, in situations like press releases or very formal events, they are hard to avoid. So, for an example of delivering a script like a communication-master, look no further than  Jacinda Ardern’s Harvard Commencement Speech.

Now, there are many things Jacinda does well in  this speech, but the one I want to highlight is how she looks at and connects with her audience. The entire time. Yes, she has notes, but her focus and energy are on the people she is talking to, not the notes. (And at 25 minutes long, this is no small feat)!

Being the true communication geek that I am, I decided to compare this speech to some other famous commencement speeches. Starting with one of the best business communicators at all time, Steve Jobs. I looked at Steve Jobs’ Stanford Commencement Speech in 2005, and JK Rowling’s Harvard Commencement speech in 2008. Both are brilliant speeches, by amazing communicators. And both openly read from their notes throughout their entire speech, which only highlights just how ‘next level’ Jacinda Ardern’s control of her content really is.

How you can do this:

1. Use notes with key words, rather than a word-for-word script.

2. Take time to practice. Lots of times.

There is no substitute for practice. Talk it aloud. Lots of times.

Carmine Gallo, Author of ‘Talk Like TED’, recommends 20 for 20 (practice a 20 min presentation, 20 times).

3. Practice without your notes.

If you practice with your notes, you’ll naturally look at them every time you lose your place. Pushing yourself to remember your speech without them will strengthen your memory of the content.

Once you know it really well – write new notes. You’ll find you need even less words than you originally thought, and what you write will be more helpful than the first version.

4. Keep practising.

Lesson 2: Keep cool under fire.

Press conferences for Prime Ministers can be intense. So intense that at one stage whilst Prime Minister, David Lange stopped doing them completely, due his intense dislike of them.  Jacinda Ardern, however, makes them look easy. She is a master at reducing the aggression in the room, while keeping control in a respectful manner. Whilst some media personalities feel this level of control for a PM is not appropriate, from a corporate perspective, we can all learn from her technique.

In this clip, we see Newstalk ZB’s political editor, Barry Soper, pushing the Prime Minister to answer a question he needs for his Press deadline. He repeatedly interrupts her. Again, and again.

And this happens right? And not just to the Prime Minister! Many of my clients live in fear of certain colleagues and associates badgering them throughout presentations with repetitive, (and sometimes aggressive) questioning. In this situation – when the blood roaring through your veins is screaming, “SHUT UP AND LET ME GET ON WITH THIS,” – it is hard to keep your cool.

But, no matter the line of questioning, if we do ‘lose it’, we, the speaker, will be the one that appears unprofessional. And flustered. Or worse – aggressive.

Jacinda? She knows how to keep it light. She never loses her smile. Even when reprimanding Barry, with “I’m going to ask for a bit of decorum”, her tone is professional, light, respectful – and always in control.

How you can do this:  

In times of intensive questioning, watch your internal dialogue. “What an arrogant prick”, may be a natural response to aggressive questioning, but it’s not helpful (as Jacinda herself can testify to). A much more helpful internal dialogue is an objective one. Always try to give your audiences the benefit of the doubt. Replace thoughts such as, “Barry is trying to undermine me”, with, “Barry is just doing his job.” This will help you keep calm, instead of firing you up into ‘attack mode’.

You could even try the ‘Jacinda Ardern special’ before answering.  When you do feel under attack, this “Stop, breathe and smile” technique allows you time to calm yourself, and it lightens the tone both internally (how you feel), and externally (how the audience perceives you).

If you live by the mantra, “Always treat your audiences with respect, no matter what,” you will always be ok.

Lesson 3: Address barriers in the room through story.

For me, Jacinda Ardern’s most impressive communication skill is her ability to connect with all audiences. When she is going into a speaking situation where she is the outsider, she spends time crafting stories at the start of the talk, to encourage connection.

She spends time getting to understand her audience. She figures out what could stop them listening to her, addresses this head-on, and creates opportunities to connect (which often involves her making fun of herself).

An example of this in-action is when Jacinda spoke to students, at Otago University’s Convocation Speech in 2018. She was only one year into her role as Prime Minister, and whilst not at the standard of her Harvard gig, I still learnt a valuable lesson from this.

(Now, an audience of mostly teenagers would be a difficult brief for many). The potential signs in the room – the things that would stop her audience listening to her – were:

1) Alienation (You are the Prime Minister. I am a student. We are not connected).

2) Boredom (I would rather be at the pub than here).

Within the opening remarks of her speech, a story from her past confronted the first ‘stop sign’, head-on:

Now my first memory of Otago was attending Science Summer School as a teenager. My second was for the University’s Easter tournament, where I came as a debating adjudicator. Neither of these things makes me sound like I had any friends as a young person.

Don’t underestimate debaters. They’re the only sports team I know in Dunedin that was banned from the local pubs.

Within a few lines, she had crossed the barrier from politician to student. And not just any student, but a ‘geeky’ one with no friends. Hard to resist liking her now! Just like that, she was in – and her audience was eating out of her hands.

How you can do this: 

Take time to know your audience BEFORE you prepare what you are going to say. Identify potential barriers to them listening to your message, and include stories that will address these barriers – allowing you to connect quickly and meaningfully. 

For example, if you have an audience that may question your experience – start with a story that demonstrates that whilst you are new to the role, this isn’t ‘your first rodeo’.

Jacinda’s term may be over, but she left us so many lessons about how to communicate: with calmness, control, and most importantly – connection.  

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