The great speakers
We are often asked:
‘Who are the great speakers?’
The recent and regular contributions of the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, have given us a chance to reconsider this popular question.
I don’t speak Ukrainian, but that may not be so important because so much about a great speaker comes from the context in which they are speaking, their physical attitude and delivery skills, such as their vocal animation and appropriate supportive gestures and body language.
I had a friend who was once asked to help judge a speaking contest in Japan even though he could not speak or understand a word Japanese. Nevertheless, he said he was still able to offer a valuable evaluation simply from what he saw and what he heard.
He was even able to comment on the apparent clarity of structure of some of the speeches just from the tone of voice and the pacing and pausing.
Up to now our experience of President Zelenskyy has been mainly of him seated behind a desk while being simultaneously translated by a professional translator.
So what do we already know about his speaking ability?
We know that he has received standing ovations in several national parliaments.
We know that he has trained and worked as an actor, which should give him a full understanding of the importance of vocal variety and inflection, thus helping him to master his pace, delivery and vocal variety.
Add to this he was a comedian, which would suggest that he should have a refined awareness of emphasis and timing.
When most of us heard in 2014 that a popular Ukrainian comedian was standing against the political establishment candidate, we could be forgiven for thinking his whole candidacy would be no more than a joke, a novelty spoof.
After all, how would we react in the UK if Jimmy Carr, Alan Carr or Al Murray were standing for Prime Minister?
(Of course, back in 2015, Al Murray as his alter ego of ‘The pub landlord’ did stand against Nigel Farage in South Thanet but that was more as an act of satire, especially when we consider that he stood on a manifesto of a pint of beer for 1p and bricking up the channel tunnel.)
As the first few weeks of the war in Ukraine passed, Zelenskyy is widely regarded as having out-performed Vladimir Putin in the media war and in winning popular opinion.
So what steps is he taking to be a good presenter?
First of all, as every presenter should, he has considered the impact his appearance would have on his audience.
While Putin is all sharp suit and grand surroundings and trappings of autocratic power, Zelenskyy is portrayed as a man of the people, unshaven in an informal T shirt, whose very colour implies military without being too explicitly so.
We see him as a busy man of action, a man of the people, getting down to business in his working clothes. He is not remote and separate like Putin, he is accessible and is demonstrating that he has more pressing considerations than how he appears to the outside world.
His large desk quietly suggests he is a man of authority and we can imagine him going straight off camera to chair a crisis committee to handle the urgent Ukrainian response to the latest atrocity inflicted on his people.
Putin in contrast comes across as apart, separate and above the common man.
Especially these days with the instant accessibility and apparent informality of social media, it is ever more important that every speaker considers what impression they want to make.
Are we talking on a level to our audience or are we talking down to them?
And Zelenskyy and his team realise that how he comes across is much too important to leave to chance.
Think of all our UK politicians who choose to be photographed on building sites in hard hats and high visibility jackets: sending out images of ‘person of action’, ‘getting the job done’, ‘man / woman of the people’.
A typical audience may not remember very much from a presentation, but retains 100% of the impression the speaker makes.
Therefore Zelenskyy’s man of action and his dressed-down urgency will have been carefully considered.
Otherwise he might find one of his advisers saying to him:
‘Vlodimir you are about to talk to the UK House of Commons, the US senate, the Israeli Knesset, do you think you would make a better impression if you changed your shirt or shaved a little? Surely we want to make the right impression….Oh I see! That is the right impression!’
And what is that impression?
Honest, no pretentions, uncomplicated, of the people, an everyday man raised up by circumstances to handle an emergency.
And what are his messages?
- that we have been unjustifiably put upon.
- that we are righteous and asking for tangible military support – ideally ‘war planes and a no fly zone.’
Having carefully considered the visual message, the next question for a presenter would be:
‘What is the best way to relate to and to connect with this specific audience?’
After all every audience is different.
Therefore, by supporting all our key messages with strong examples and unique images, we will resonate with the particular audience.
So, in Zelenskyy’s case:
- for the British we will go big on Winston Churchill
- for the Americans we will reference 9/11
- for the Israelis we will play on the image of a smaller nation seeking to defend itself against overwhelming odds – and by the way since we are emphasising these parallels, could we maybe borrow your missile defence system?
Thus Zelenskyy easily covers all the basic requirements of;
- good delivery skills,
- a clear message and
- the right visual impression,
- as well as subtly refining the content of each presentation to match his audience.
But isn’t that what any good speaker would do?
We would hope so!
So what is making Zelenskyy so special?
The answer is simple and has been the same answer throughout history: context.
He is an otherwise ordinary man from whom exceptional circumstances have demanded an exceptional response to an exceptional situation.
As Shakespeare says:
‘Some are born great, some achieve greatness and some (as probably in this case) have greatness thrust upon them.’
If he was promoting his commitment to a much more mundane subject like parking fines or income tax, he could use all of his speaking skills and still not capture our imagination.
Great speakers are set apart because they are called upon to step forward to respond to a unique and critical set of circumstances.
And more often than not they are fighting against overwhelming odds, as the whole course of civilisation hangs in the balance.
If we took Churchill out of context and asked him to speak at a club or society meeting, some people may be forgiven for finding his style a bit ponderous:
'Plenty of gravitas but a bit pedantic!'
Whereas that style and delivery was perfect for a war time leader,
but it is more than that, because he was the man speaking in our ‘darkest hour’, proclaiming we would ‘never surrender’ and it is that which gives greatness to his words and context to his delivery.
And would Churchill have gone down in history to the same extent if the war had not ended in victory?
He had a vision and was fighting against overwhelming odds, but most importantly his vision was proved ‘right!’
As great as Zelenskyy seems now, he will go down in history as even greater if his country succeeds. And he is quite deliberately portraying this conflict as much bigger than Ukraine versus Russia. Like the Spartans at Thermopylae, he is letting us know that Ukraine is in the front line defending the world against an existential menace.
What we want from our speakers, especially those that are looking to inspire us and lead us into the future is proof that they are unwavering and right; the politician that has the right vision, the salesperson that is promoting the right product, the finance or marketing manager that is interpreting the right indicators.
Barak Obama is often identified as a great speaker. If we remember a quote attributed to New York governor Mario Cuomo, that politicians ‘campaign in poetry and govern in prose,’ there are many in the US, especially today, when comparing the world’s response to Ukraine to the response to Syria, who might say that in spite of all the great words about red lines in the Middle East, the actions did not match the power of the rhetoric.
Martin Luther King paid the ultimate sacrifice as did Jesus Christ. Benazir Bhutto, prime minister of Pakistan, also lost her life standing up for her beliefs, and maybe it was her earlier pronouncements that she was willing to put her life on the line for her beliefs that made her death more poignant.
So the estimation of the greatness of a speaker will always be more of a reflection of their context than their stagecraft
Great speakers are rarely those who just want to say something,
they are those whom the times have chosen because something needs to be said.
And maybe as each of our MPs stood to passionately applaud President Zelenskyy they realised that as well as many of them can speak and debate, they were in the presence of a person who has been called up to speak when there is more than just one person’s beliefs or career on the line.