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10 lessons in effective leadership communication from an ‘ordinary’ budget speech

Even “ordinary” speeches call for effective leadership communication techniques.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s Budget 2020 speech offers concrete ideas and inspiration for CEOs and business leaders everywhere.


Nations and businesses worldwide are opening back up – albeit slowly – after months of strict lockdowns since the coronavirus began traipsing across the globe.

Government leaders, economists and CEOs are delivering important messages about what it will take to recover and rebuild our nations, our large and small businesses, and our livelihoods.

In short, people want to know this from their leaders:

Where do we go from here?

Over the past few months, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has been widely praised for effective leadership communication during the coronavirus pandemic. Her speeches have exuded empathy, conveyed honesty, triggered emotions, brought clarity, delivered reassurance, instilled confidence and gained people’s trust – results that leaders everywhere should work with intention to attain every time they speak.

Last week, Ardern delivered her Budget 2020 speech, streamed on Facebook Live. In ordinary times, a speech about budget and financial plans and priorities may be perceived as rather “ordinary.”

But these are not ordinary times.

Ardern, whose formal education focused on communication studies in politics and public relations, expertly layered techniques for effective leadership communication in her annual budget speech – to extraordinary effect.

Hundreds of comments poured in on Facebook, one crediting Ardern’s speech for its “compassion, action and class” and another noting that “it is great to listen to a very fluent speaking leader who doesn’t mutter in (one’s) boots.”

As CEOs and business leaders everywhere work on their organizations’ recovery and rebuilding plans and priorities – and decide how best to convey important messages in virtual speeches to employees and stakeholders – they can get concrete ideas and inspiration about effective leadership communication from Ardern’s Budget 2020 speech.


1 – The Prime Minister opened her speech by immediately acknowledging reality.

Instead of frittering away her opening lines on a long string of “thank yous and glad-to-be-heres,” Ardern jumped right in:

“Mr. Speaker, business as usual in this place would dictate that today, Budget Day, is the day that the Minister of Finance comes down to this house and delivers the Government’s plan for the year ahead.

Business as usual would then have the Opposition stand and give a speech opposing that budget.

Business as usual would have everyone in this house retrench into our old patterns that the public know so well but, if we’re honest, have probably never had much time for.

“Today Mr. Speaker, the Leader of the Opposition has acted as if it’s business as usual.

“But nothing, and I mean nothing, about this time in our history is usual, and so neither should our response be.”

In her first 120 words, Ardern reiterated four times that we are in extraordinary times. This is not, as she said, “business as usual.”

Her repeated use of that phrase primed her audience for the hard reality underpinning the 2020 budget: the truth about these times we are in.


2 – The Prime Minister used comfortably familiar imagery.

Ardern painted memorable word pictures in her call for everyone to rally around the cause – a budget requiring significant borrowing as the government invests in jobs:

“I make the offer to Mr. Bridges and the Opposition today, to see this period in our history for what it is – a global crisis. And to see this budget for what it is, a response to the rainy day we have planned for.

“Now is the chance for us to come together as politicians. To say that a rainy day demands of us that we shelter and protect New Zealand to weather the storm.

“Rather than argue about who gets to hold the umbrella, I hope the Opposition steps away from business as usual, and votes for this budget and the jobs it will create.”


3 – The Prime Minister began moving her audience toward a new future.

Ardern took a moment to contrast people’s collective memories of the past with the vastly different present – a reminder to her national audience that New Zealanders must let go of what was and accept the reality of what is if they expect to move forward to what could be.

This remains an effective leadership communication technique when speakers need to move an audience toward a future that is new and unfamiliar.

Ardern said:

“Mr. Speaker, a mere six months ago, nobody would have imagined a world in the grip of a global COVID-19 pandemic, let alone one that would wreak havoc across health systems and economies globally.

“I still vividly remember at the beginning of the year reading about the first lockdowns overseas and thinking what a remarkable thing it was. To ask humans to stay in one place for such a long period of time seemed unfathomable.

“And yet here we are, having shut our borders, moved into lockdown and collectively built a wall of defense to a virus that was closing in on the world.”

“Mr. Speaker, there are few things that I think I will ever consider as being outside the bounds of possibility anymore.

“And perhaps that is the same perspective we now need as we start our recovery.”


4 – The Prime Minister praised people for their victories.

Ardern’s early, decisive action with the coronavirus – coupled with the citizens’ response – is credited with helping New Zealand largely eradicate outbreaks of COVID-19. By acknowledging the country’s accomplishments, Ardern stirs feelings of national pride, which is helpful as she begins to make the case for the budget’s priorities:

“We have been a government that, with the support and efforts of New Zealanders, took us through an enormous health challenge. And we will take the same approach to the recovery of our economy.”

A few minutes later, she applied this same general concept – the notion that “we came together before and achieved victory, and we can come together again” – when she explained how New Zealand’s 2020 budget must continue to address the problem of homelessness:

Our response to COVID, on the face of it, had a very simple premise early on – stay home, save lives. That simple, simple requirement forced us all as a country to ask the question – what if you don’t have a home?

“The answer was simple: We will find you one. And through hard work and huge collaboration, between government, local government, Iwi and the community sector, that is exactly what happened. In the midst of the crisis we housed the chronically homeless in New Zealand.

“Now we need to keep it that way.”


5 – The Prime Minister made a promise that people could believe.

Ardern’s praise for what New Zealanders had achieved together – by being focused and decisive – made it made it easy for her audience to trust the promise she was now making about economic recovery and rebuilding:

“In short, I give my commitment to New Zealanders that they will see us apply the same unrelenting focus we have had on our health response to COVID-19 to our economic response.

“And that work has already started.”


6 – The Prime Minister did not whitewash the truth.

At least three times in her speech, Ardern made it clear that New Zealanders needed to brace themselves for continued difficult times. She was frank and transparent:

“The times ahead will be tough. Global predictions are dire. Unemployment will rise, and growth will slow dramatically. We know as a trading nation that will have an impact, and it will be significant and it will be painful.”

When addressing the issue of child poverty, she said:

“And equally important, it will mean in the tough days ahead we can guarantee our most vulnerable kids will get a filling, healthy lunch every school day.”

As she began to conclude, she said:

“And while there is much we cannot predict in these uncertain times, what I can promise is that we know this is not the end of what we need to do.”


7 – The Prime Minister called for collective strength and swift action.

Note the fortitude Ardern conveyed in her “we” statements about the future:

“We have to be focused. We have to be decisive. We have to go into this period knowing it will be tough, but that there is hope and possibility.”

She also made a quick and simple comparison between the options at hand: to either “sit back and hope” or “sit up and act”:

“We have never sugar-coated what the future will look like, but nor will we pretend there is nothing that we can do about it.

Governments have choices, just as we did when we faced COVID-19. And those choices are between sit back and hope, or sit up and act.

“We have chosen to act.”


8 – The Prime Minister used empathy and referenced everyone’s shared humanity.

Ardern acknowledged that she understands how New Zealanders feel about the need to continue protecting their fellow coworkers from economic peril:

“We know there are businesses who are opening up again, but we also know there are some who cannot just yet, while others will take more time to recover.

It serves no one, if in the meantime while businesses are opening back up, to lay off staff unnecessarily.

“I know how important this is.

“I have received a huge number of emails from people describing what a difference the wage subsidy has meant to them.

“In almost all of them they talk about their staff being their family, and how important retaining and looking after them has been.”


9 – The Prime Minister issued a bold challenge and gave people hope.

Effective leadership communication must always give people hope especially during times of disruption. That is why Ardern set up the nuts and bolts of the 2020 budget by first repositioning New Zealand’s economic crisis as an opportunity:

“But our response must go beyond supporting those still in work. That isn’t enough.

“Too many people have already lost their jobs, and we need to support their path back to employment.

“For them, we must be swift. We must be practical. But we also owe it to ourselves to take this opportunity to solve the problems of both today and yesterday as we go.

“If I had asked you before COVID, what it is that we must address as a nation, what our common challenges were, I would imagine that many people would write a similar list.

“We have long faced a housing crisis, our environment has been suffering, inequality and child poverty have all been issues we’ve had to tackle.

“In three years’ time, I want to look back and say that COVID was not the point those issues got worse, but the chance we had to make them better.

We can emerge from this crisis stronger than we were before. That’s why we are focused on jobs, but also jobs that solve these entrenched problems.

“So let’s look at how.”

Ardern then described the intent to build an additional 8,000 public and transitional housing units over the next four to five years – and how that would transform the country:

“This represents the largest public housing building program in recent decades, and I hope means that COVID-19 will be remembered as a period where New Zealand didn’t just stay home – it made sure everyone had a home.”


10 – The Prime Minister circled back – and ended her speech where she began.

In her closing remarks, Ardern once again reminded people that unusual times call for unusual measures. Then she asked for support to match these times by once again recalling the phrase she used so often in the beginning of her speech – that this is not “business as usual”:

“We went hard and early to fight COVID-19, and that success has opened up economic opportunities.

“Now, it’s time to make the most of the head start New Zealand has with its economic recovery.

“This budget shows how we are positioning New Zealand for that right now.

“It shows that we know this is not the time for business as usual.

“It’s the time for a relentless focus on jobs, on training, on education, and the role they all can play to support our environment, and our people.

“So Mr. Speaker, let’s begin our recovery, and let’s rebuild, together.”


Effective leadership communication: 10 lessons from Ardern

The widely reported 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer Spring Update issued May 5 in response to the coronavirus pandemic revealed that government trust in leaders – like New Zealand Prime Minister Ardern and others – is at an all-time high.

In fact, government trust on the Edelman barometer surged 11 points to 65 percent. Currently, government is the most trusted institution for the first time in Edelman’s 20 years of study.

Leaders like Ardern are doing a lot of things right. CEOs and business leaders looking to create more effective leadership communication would be wise to take a closer look and apply these 10 lessons, which the New Zealand Prime Minister wove easily into an “ordinary” speech about the upcoming budget:

  1. Acknowledge reality
  2. Use familiar imagery
  3. Move your audience toward a new future
  4. Praise people for their victories
  5. Make a promise that people can believe
  6. Don’t whitewash the truth
  7. Call for collective strength and swift action
  8. Use empathy and reference everyone’s shared humanity
  9. Issue a bold challenge and give people hope
  10. Circle back to where you began


Need help creating effective leadership communication messages in your speeches and executive communications?
Work with Teresa Zumwald, an award-winning speechwriter, speech coach and executive communicator.
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