When he gave up a successful career as an actor playing the president of his country to become… the president of his country, Volodymyr Zelensky could probably not believe that his life could become more unusual.
And yet now he finds himself one of the key actors in the largest armed conflict in Europe since the second world war. I’m conscious of how talking about words and images in these terrible circumstances might appear. However, given that the first casualty of war is truth – something President Putin has demonstrated so shockingly – then effective, honest communication by leaders is even more critical in this desperate situation.
As an actor, Zelensky might have a head start in communications, you might think, but the fact is that even if you can deliver a line that’s been written for you, it doesn’t mean that you can convince your audience. So far, the Ukrainian president’s performance has been a masterclass in communications and here’s why.
How has Zelensky been successful?
First, he’s clear on his audience. He has various groups to speak to, including his own people, the international community and both the Russian armed forces and the Russian public.
However, Zelensky knows precisely who they are and what they want to hear. He moves between Ukrainian and Russian, depending on who he’s addressing.
Secondly, he knows the medium to use. The day after the outbreak of the war, Zelensky filmed himself on a smartphone standing in the dark by the presidential building with his advisors around him. “We are all here,” he said, in order to counter Russian disinformation that he had fled. Not only did the image dispute this claim, but the use of a smartphone added urgency to his message while also making it reassuring and familiar as these days, filming yourself is a regular activity for many people. There’s no presidential flummery here – that’s for another occasion.
It’s also worth noting his unscripted language in this case. “Our military is here,” he tells his audience. “Citizens in society are here. We’re all here defending our independence, our country, and it will stay this way,” he said. He’s speaking to all of his various audiences in this message, using simple words and short sentences.
What is good about how Zelensky has spoken?
This brings us on to his language, which is usually along these lines according to the translations. From time to time, he has reached for an interesting metaphor, such as his reference to hasty action by the Russians being “a spark that could burn everything down”, and he has included the occasional rhetorical flourish to complement this down-to-earth style.
But he also knows that once in a while, a witty sound bite can say more than a hundred words of standard text. Witness his Tweet aimed at US President Joe Biden’s kindly but perhaps misjudged offer of help to get him out of the country: “The fight is here. I need ammunition, not a ride.” He then contrasted this with a warning about himself delivered to EU leaders via a teleconference that: “This might be the last time you see me alive.” It’s a truly shocking comment to hear from a European leader, and it spurred other politicians to act.
Like any great communicator, Zelensky knows when to make a personal reference. Speaking to the Russian people (in Russian, of course) on 24th February to counter President Putin’s claims about liberating Ukraine from Nazism, he says: “How can I be a Nazi, when my grandfather survived the whole war as part of the Soviet infantry.”
On this occasion, he wears a dark suit and a matching dark tie set against a white shirt. We make up our mind about a speaker even before they’ve opened their mouths, of course, and Zelensky switches between sombre suits and T-shirts effortlessly, depending on his surroundings, his message and his audience.
The stakes for Volodymyr Zelensky could hardly be higher, and even as Russian troops fail to make the impact that they had hoped for, the war is far from over. But the Ukrainian president is undoubtedly winning the battle for effective communications.