The hastily-scribbled lines that echoed round the world

Just three lines scribbled on a piece of scrap paper helped turn Jacinda Ardern into the embodiment of how a politician should respond to a crisis.

New Zealand’s Prime Minister found herself thrust into the international spotlight after the massacre of 50 people in a terror attack on two mosques in Christchurch on March 15.

Starting with her first news conference shortly after the killings, Ms Ardern won praise for the way she spoke about the incident: for her empathy, her solidarity with the Muslim community, her emphasis on inclusivity, and for initiating change in the country’s gun laws.

She said: “Many of those who will have been directly affected by this shooting may be migrants to New Zealand, they may even be refugees here. They have chosen to make New Zealand their home, and it is their home. They are us. The person who has perpetuated this violence against us is not.”

Which brings us to the three lines on the scrap of paper. Ms Ardern’s first statements were not the work of assistants and script-writers, measuring every word for impact. She scribbled the outline for the speech on the back of the running order for an event she’d been at the night before.

This is what she wrote:

One person custody may be other offndr.

Act of exraordnry violence. It has no place in NZ.

They are us.

She jotted own a few more thoughts, but she chose to highlight those three lines in bright orange as central to her message to the survivors, the families of the victims, and the broader community as police moved to determine if there were more threats.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern visits members of the Muslim community at the Phillipstown Community Centre on Saturday 16 March 2019, less than 24 hours after a terror attack to two mosques left 50 people dead and dozens seriously injured.
Photo: Kirk Hargreaves [CC BY 4.0]
Ardern had learned about the shooting a little earlier, in a minivan on her way to an appointment. She had little time to prepare, but she didn’t need it. She explained: “I absolutely knew what I wanted to say. That, very quickly, was clear to me, when I heard that a mosque had been targeted. I knew what I wanted to say about that straight away. But, no, I didn’t think about particular words. I just thought about sentiments, and what I thought needed to be conveyed.” 

As presentation coaches, we were fascinated by her approach. Many of our clients, faced with a major speech, try to script out their words to the last comma and period. They want to make sure they have their thoughts in order and they want the reassurance of a detailed script.

We discourage that approach, because it inevitably results in a careful delivery that lacks character, authenticity and energy.

If you have a big speech or presentation coming up, just trust yourself. Take a tip from Jacinda Ardern. Figure out what needs to be said, figure out the emotional framework for your words, then jot down a few key words to keep you on track.

The day after the shooting the Prime Minister flew to Christchurch to meet the Muslim community. She told them: ““I am here today to bring with me the grief of all New Zealand. I am here to stand alongside you… We feel grief, we feel injustice, and we feel anger.” She said it wearing a headscarf, an expression of solidarity that was picked up by media around the world.

It’s a stark contrast to those politicians who think an appropriate response to a tragedy is a tweet about ‘thoughts and prayers’.