There are few politicians who have been such a so impactful as Volodymyr Zelensky in recent times. A year ago, few outside of Ukraine knew the name. Twelve months later, many voters around the world wish they had leaders as inspiring as Time’s person of the year for 2022.
As the Ukraine war nears a year since it began, keeping the world’s focus on the conflict is an imperative for Ukrainian president, as is maintaining the continued morale of the population. Volodymyr Zelensky’s New Year’s speech was a masterclass in projecting empathy, consolidating morale and seeking to inspire a victorious outcome in 2023.
While ‘threes’ was a theme used throughout, this was also a speech which was populated by short sentences, punctuated by minimal words which carried maximum weight. From the very beginning, this speech grabbed its audience. “This year began on February 24. Without prefaces and preludes. Sharply. Early. At 4 o’clock…” is how the speech began.
As Winston Churchill had done just over 70 years before, he continued to exhume a sense of passion and pride into his New Year address as well as fostering a sense of togetherness. Many of Zelensky’s phrases channelled the rule of 3, ramping up the use of keywords for maximum effect. Examples included: “It was our year. Year of Ukraine. Year of Ukrainians” and “It’s impossible to forget. And it’s impossible to forgive. But it’s possible to win.”
I have written before about politicians’ use of devices such as the ‘rule of three’, but there is a big difference between using them to add dramatic effect to a political speech against a stable national backdrop and using them within the context of a rallying cry to defend one’s homeland. One wonders if Zelensky was perhaps taking notes from Winston Churchill’s playbook. The wartime leader of Britain steals most of the headlines when it comes to utilising the power of language.
He was also fond of the power which comes from the rule of three encapsulated in a speech, also alluding to victory, which serves as a powerful example of the rule of three: “You ask, What is our aim? I can answer in one word: Victory – victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival.”
The rise of Zelensky has been a most remarkable tale, and one that will no doubt be turned into a blockbuster movie or streaming service box set in the not too distant future. Much has been written about his unlikely background, but it is worth noting that he came to power after a successful career as a comedian, actor and writer. Many commentators have speculated about how this performance-focused background has prepared him for his current role as a charismatic leader at home and on the world stage.
He came to prominence as a comedy actor, but it was his role as an ordinary guy who becomes president, in the 2016 comedy series Servant of the People, which cemented his reputation as one of Ukraine’s leading men on the small screen. In a major case of life imitating art, his starring role became a springboard to becoming the actual president of Ukraine in 2019. His popularity was sliding until the Russian invasion, and his response to it, saw him become the crystallizing element to rally Ukrainians to defend their homeland, prompting some to observe that the Ukraine war was like the plot for the next season of Servant of the People.
Zelensky’s training therefore makes him a formidable communicator who understands what works with an audience, and as a former comic he is inevitably experienced in what doesn’t work with an audience too. Much to the chagrin of Vladamir Putin, Volodymyr can also communicate his message in Russian, allowing him to address the Russian people directly. It is worth noting here that the leader who forged the shape of Russia in the 20th century also understood the power of the rule of three – Lenin and his Bolsheviks rallied the people under the banner of “Peace, Land and Bread” in 1917.
While it would be trite to urge presentation makers to channel the inner Zelensky when delivering a key speech, he – along with Winston Churchill – should be studied and appraised for managing to expertly deliver words which count in the most difficult of circumstances.