What makes a good spokesperson great?

Throughout COVID-19, health care professionals have been all over the news, from chief medical officers to infectious disease experts to front-line hospital and clinical care providers.  We get daily updates from trusted voices in public health.

It’s not an easy job, especially for a vulnerable, anxious and increasingly frustrated audience bombarded with differing opinions and misinformation. So, what makes a great spokesperson?  And how do you build trust and credibility – not just during a global pandemic, but anytime?

For twenty years, I’ve had the pleasure of working with disease specialists, surgeons, physicians, researchers, disease advocates and industry leaders as media spokespeople. I’ve learned the following traits make a good spokesperson great:

Prepared: An effective spokesperson approaches every speaking opportunity with a plan, defining an objective, at least three memorable key messages, and a clear call to action. Great presentations, speeches and interviews are engaging and interactive. Great speakers think about their audience and tailor their message to meet their mutual needs.

Articulate: Good spokespeople speak to a topic clearly and concisely, in ways audiences can easily understand. While subject matter expertise is essential, it doesn’t necessarily determine who holds the mic. For example, while a neurosurgeon is most qualified to speak to glioblastoma multiforme tumours, if they can’t define this aggressive brain cancer in a clear manner without medical jargon, they likely won’t be successful in getting their message across. How you say something is just as important as what you say. A great spokesperson is a storyteller, describing technical ideas without technical words.

Presence: Body language, tone and eye contact matter, whether you’re on camera or on the podium. Think about your attire, your mental state and your environment before you embrace the mic. Take a moment before every speaking opportunity to reflect and think about what you want to achieve. Unless you are addressing an issue or crisis, think about smiling, pausing for effect and making eye contact throughout your speaking remarks. Reporters, for instance, have multiple options when seeking comment on a story. Like most of us, they want to interact with people who are professional, compelling, concise and a pleasure to engage.

Argyle CEO Daniel Tisch (@DanTisch) at the podium.

Accessible: This may seem like a given. However, appreciating the demands on leaders’ time, too often those quoted in news releases are not available to support media information requests. Great spokespeople identify time to speak with media and stakeholders to share their knowledge. If you’re not available, you can’t be quoted. If you can’t be quoted, your message won’t get out. It’s important to respect newsroom deadlines, if only for a pre-negotiated five-minute telephone call. If you are going to be a spokesperson, you need to make time to respond to information inquiries. If you can’t, you need to plan and assign back-ups — or let someone else take the lead.

Dr. Hance Clarke, Medical Director of the Pain Research Unit at Toronto General Hospital, on-air with CBC Radio Vancouver (@Drhaclarke)

Good spokespeople deliver messages. Great spokespeople paint pictures with words.

Good spokespeople deliver messages. Great spokespeople paint pictures with words.

Need to up your game as a spokesperson? Argyle has a dedicated leadership communication coaching team, led by our President and CEO Daniel Tisch, who has supported a long list of political leaders, Fortune 500 business leaders and advocates to improve their skills, tell compelling stories and build stronger relationships with stakeholders and audiences.

About the Author

Rob McEwan is one of Canada’s top health communicators, working with patient advocates, health professionals, journalists, clinicians, researchers and influencers.

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