When is it time to “lose the script”?

When the Director of the U.S. Center for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) Rochelle Walensky turned from her official update this week on the COVID-19 pandemic and said, “I’m going to lose the script here,” it was a breathtaking moment of vulnerability and authenticity. 

She had just finishing a virtual press conference on the pandemic numbers, dutifully reporting on the new cases, hospitalizations and deaths that continued to sweep over the country even as vaccines were making their way into communities. 

As she finished her presentation, she turned to the camera and admitted that she was scared. She pleaded with us to “hold on a little longer.” She spoke not as a federal public health agent, but as a human being.

What can we learn from this?

People matter

A year of pandemic updates, of charts and graphs and data, has been numbing. We see the numbers tick up and down. It is sometimes easy to forget that each of those dots on the graph represents a human life, of disruption, fear and grief. That dot is not only that person, but that person’s family, colleagues, friends and community.

Dr. Walensky did not lose sight of this and felt compelled to remind us of the real human toll, and the risk people still face in the months ahead. She spoke to us not as a policy wonk in DC or even a clinical expert, but as “a wife, a mother, a daughter.”

Even the most data-centric presentations can tell a story about people.

Words matter

Of all the things she said during her press conference, it was the phrase “impending doom” that captured headlines around the world. Those words resonate much more than just “COVID numbers increase” or some other dry-as-toast frame around a very real human tragedy.

Stories run deep

Dr. Walensky is not just a bureaucrat at a federal agency. Prior to her appointment, she was a practicing physician who has been at the front line in the fight against COVID-19. She drew on her personal story, recalling being the last person that her patients would see — patients who could not see family or loved ones in their dying hours. 

She was not afraid to draw on those stories to make the data come alive.

Authenticity wins every time

Her voice cracked. Her eyes plead. Losing the script often means that your communication will not come out as smoothly as a well-rehearsed speech. But in that moment of authenticity it was precisely the imperfection that made her so compelling. 

Does this mean you should give up scripting, rehearsing and preparing? Absolutely not. To “just wing it” is not a winning strategy for being an effective speaker. 

But this provides an example of the impact you can make when you are willing to open up, be a little vulnerable and your true self in a moment of spontaneous expression.

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