The range of emotions felt as we’ve watched Volodymyr Zelensky speak via Zoom to parliaments across the world over the past few weeks, is vast. There’s no question that the Ukrainian President is speaking from the heart as he shares the atrocities that are happening in his country every minute of every day. But what is it about his speeches that make him so authentic, powerful and likeable?
And then there’s Biden - an authentic, effective communicator in his own right - but whose recent speeches have been followed up by press comments along the lines of “don’t let him speak if it’s important” as he constantly slips up when ad-libbing. Of course, these two leaders are in very different situations and therefore are communicating with different purposes. However that being said, there are some key reasons as to why Zelensky is so powerful in his communication, and Biden arguably less so. Here are a few.
Simple versus scripted words
Zelensky uses very simple words. Whether he’s speaking in his own language or English, his words are visual, powerful and ideas-based. His language plugs into far-reaching concepts - like what it means to be a human and be free, or that the Russians are trying to defeat the freedom of all the people in the world. These ideas are huge in themselves, but he makes them easy to understand and digestible by using straightforward language that gets straight to the point, rather than making people switch off with complex, non-inclusive language. His use of downward inflection (when you go down at end of your sentences) and short sentences have a strong impact too.
We then look at Biden, whose words are articulate but often come across as more scripted. He recites them like an actor - not necessarily a bad one - but an actor no less. Biden talks about the world “bending to Putin's menacing ways''. Though lyrical and beautifully written, it’s much less direct, and feels like something better suited to an interesting novel. It lacks the punch that Zelensky’s words have. He tends to use much longer sentences which don't always land with his audience.
You could say that Zelensky’s raison d’etre is that much more powerful because it’s his country at stake. However, when framed in the context of democracy at stake - lack of freedom, recession, social unrest, children dying - you can very easily argue that any country's ruler should be able to get behind those ideas with the same level of passion.
Alignment to audience
Zelensky chooses his words carefully depending on who he's speaking to. When he spoke to the UK House of Commons, he brought in Shakespeare and Churchill. In his speech to the EU, he asks them to prove that they will not let Ukraine go, and that they are indeed Europeans. It makes his audience feel immersed in his emotion when they listen. This is cleverly done with a clear call to action, to align to a much bigger mission.
Biden shows a little bit of this passion, but without the true feeling behind it, as if he’s not really plugged into what he wants his audience to believe. His adlibbed words “for god's sake, this man cannot remain in power” at the end of his speech come across as an intellectual idea that he’s bringing to the table, as opposed to a rallying powerful cry with purpose. There is a stronger sense of overall polish, but it lacks weight.
Zelensky, a former actor, knows that in order to make other people feel, you have to feel. You have to release your energy not just into your words, but into your gestures. When he speaks, the energy and heat comes out through every atom of him. His eye contact is so direct that you can’t help but be entranced by his piercing eyes staring at the camera with conviction.
Biden, on the other hand, is certainly someone who knows how to use nonverbal communication, but sometimes it appears as though he’s performing a part. He uses large, statesmanlike open gestures that feel crafted and curated - perhaps as you’d expect from an American president. His arms are used to emphasise his words, and yet it feels stiff, as if he’s been taught to do it for effect...
So, what can we learn from Zelensky?
1. Know your mission
There’s no doubt that there’s heat, passion and direct punch coming from Zelensky when he speaks. Everything he says has a mission behind it. If you have a big purpose, then show it. Let its power release through every pore of you - your words, your tone and your body language.
2. Make it relevant to your audience
Zelensky matches his words to his audiences effectively. When he spoke to the House of Commons, he made a comparison to Brits fighting for their country. His cry to the EU - "We have proven that, at a minimum, we are exactly the same as you. So prove that you are with us. Prove that you will not let us go. Prove that you are, indeed, Europeans" - was equally powerful.
3. Keep it simple
Simple words and simple ideas have a powerful impact in public speaking. Let your energy out through short, powerful sentences with weight and purpose. Don't alienate people by trying to be too clever with sophisticated vocabulary.
As we continue to watch Biden, Zelensky and other leaders communicate their passion and truth on the world's stage, think about the emotions that are evoked for you, and why. We hope you found this blog interesting and insightful.
London Speech Workshop is planning a communication drop-in session to support families hosting people from Ukraine. Together with a communication coach and a professional interpreter, this will touch on everything from tips on communicating without a common language and active listening, to setting clear boundaries. If you are hosting guests from Ukraine, or know someone else who is, we'd love to hear how we can best support you in this way. Please get in touch if you are interested.
📸Photo by iNews