Communication in Crisis: How Leo Varadkar Led with his St. Patrick’s Day Speech 2020

In times of deep crisis, with a great speech, leaders can strengthen their people, elevate their spirits, and turn the tide from chaotic despair to common resolve. We only have to think of FDR’s “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” Elizabeth I’s “the heart and stomach of a king,” Churchill’s “we will fight them on the beaches,” to recall speeches that in real life helped change the course of a nation’s response to seemingly impending disaster.

On Saint Patrick’s Day 2020, Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar joined them.

In his response to the handling of the COVID-19 crisis in Ireland, through clear, calm and consistent decision-making and action, Leo has gone from being an outgoing Taoiseach whose party had got a hammering at the recent general election, a spanking from the public over his government’s failure to address housing and inequality, to a leader admired by his people and respected worldwide. Suddenly when push came to shove, Leo has shown true leadership skills that maybe even he didn’t know he had – of grace under pressure.

Key to this has been he and his government’s communication in this pandemic. Not only their constantly sensible and undramatic sharing of information and developments to the media and social media, but also Leo’s speeches to the public.

Most notable of these was Leo’s decision to deliver a rare televised address to the Irish people on the evening of Saint Patrick’s Day, when with the parade cancelled and the pubs closed, the nation would be home in front of their TV sets.

It proved to be a speech with huge impact. I’ve had friends of mine telling me they can never remember a speech by an Irish politician that so moved them and made them so proud. It has been praised by people across different fields for showing true leadership. And in a undeniable sign of its greatness, within days it was stolen and used almost verbatim by the CEO of Easyjet!

Why was it so effective?

Well, here are some elements I noticed that I believe contributed to its power – and which you can utilise when you need to make a crisis presentation and truly inspire your people.

You can see the speech here and read the text of it here.

Starting with a hook

“Tonight I want you to know why these actions are being taken and what more needs to be done.”

This statement is the key purpose of the speech – letting the Irish public know what measures were being taken to combat the spread of this coronavirus, and what impact the restrictions would have on each of us. But Leo doesn’t get to it until a minute in. That is because you need a hook to engage your audience and draw them in, before getting down to the nitty-gritty. Leo does this with the visually striking idea of an Ireland on Saint Patrick’s Day without celebration, without partying, without gathering.

“This is a Saint Patrick’s Day like no other.

A day that none of us will ever forget.

Today’s children will tell their own children and grandchildren about the national holiday in 2020 that had no parades or parties”

What could be big enough to cause such a change on our national holiday – one that other countries around the world take as a chance to join in with that unique Irish sense of joy, hospitality and craic.

Picturing all those windblown empty streets, maybe still with Saint Patrick’s Day green banners and bunting up – indeed the televised speech starts with an outside shot of Government Buildings all lit up in green – is an image that is meaningful, and draws us in for what is to come.

Using a single resounding metaphor that captures your one big idea

Leo’s use of the following phrase was bold and intuitive.

“Not all superheroes wear capes… some wear scrubs and gowns.”

With the knowledge that culture is currently surrounding us with images of Captain America and Wonder Woman and Superman, and knowing that young people were part of his audience for the night, Leo drew a striking contrast with our non-fictional heroes.

The idea of including phrases like this can scare us as speech-makers – it can feel like it may come across as naff, naïve, over-the-top. But being courageous enough to go for it can yield huge returns. This phrase rang powerfully true for people, moving them with the acknowledgement of the real-life bravery of our healthcare professionals right now. If people didn’t remember anything else from the speech, this one big idea stayed with them, and within hours, #notallheroeswearcapes was trending across social media – and the idea of supporting our doctors and nurses and paramedics in any way possible had taken hold with even more force.

Leo used other metaphors skillfully

e.g. “We must insulate our communities and the most vulnerable from the contagion of fear. Fear is a virus in itself.”

But this superheroes metaphor was the boldest and riskiest, and so when it clicked, had the most impact.

Sharing personal vulnerability

Leo took an aside at one point to note his personal connection to healthcare workers.

“Like you, my family has spoken about little else in recent days.

My partner… my two sisters… and both their husbands are working in the health service – here in Ireland and in the UK. They are all apprehensive. They have heard the stories from China and Italy of hospitals being overwhelmed and medical staff getting sick.

I am so proud of all of them.”

This beautifully showed how close the crisis was to him (his own partner is on the front-line), which in a tight-knit small country like Ireland is true for everyone – for me, some of my best friends are surgeons and nurses, many of my friend’s spouses work in healthcare, and some of our parents and colleagues have underlying conditions that will force them to cocoon. But even more powerfully, in a speech where it was crucial for Leo to show confidence and control, he was willing to also be vulnerable. And this can be scary for many leaders, it can feel like weakness when you only want to maintain a shell of command. But this vulnerability from Leo connected him with his people, and in fact showed even greater strength.

Using contrast to create clarity

Leo skilfully throughout used contrast, placing two ideas together, to amplify a point clearly. Examples included:

“We are asking people to come together as a nation / by staying apart from each other.”

“The national holiday in 2020 that had no parades or parties… / but instead saw everyone staying at home”

“Make sure those who are living alone / are not left alone”

“We need to halt the spread of the virus / but we also need to halt the spread of fear.”

Contrast is a key tool in creating clarity. For example, it’s the driving force that makes everything work in Shakespeare, through the antithesis of two ideas. And it can be done simply in your own speeches – for example, comparing present to future, singly to unitedly, problem to solution.

Elevating your audience

A highly effective way of engaging your audience to respond to your call to action is by appealing to what you love and admire about them, and what they are proud of in themselves. In your industry that might be a spirit of innovation, a history of elbow grease and endurance, a delight in overcoming the odds. For an Irish national audience, Leo appeals to our sense of history and identity, how with togetherness and care for each other, we’ve come through hundreds of years of trials and demands upon us, that didn’t crush us, whether it’s centuries of occupation or the Famine, right up to the banking crisis of 2008 and the bailout, and how the Irish economy bounced back from that to its 2020 strong state. He uses phrases such as:

“This great national effort”

“We’ve already seen our fantastic community spirit spring into action.”

“Everyone in our society must show solidarity in this time of national sacrifice.”

“In years to come… let them say of us… when things were at their worst… we were at our best.”

“The shared enterprise of all humanity”

“We will prevail.”

Leo also is aware of this in how much he uses the first person plural pronoun in the speech. He uses “we” and “we all” much more than “you”, and rarely uses “I”. This is deliberate and inclusive.

And he appeals not just to his audience’s strengths, but also to where it can help protect the weak:

“It will save many lives… particularly the most vulnerable… the most precious in our society.”

This kind of wording appeals to your audience’s sense of its best self, emboldening them to stick out their chest, take a deep breath and move forward with resolve. It breeds courage to take action. It inspires.

Range of tone

It’s not just the wording of Leo’s speech that is impactful – it’s also in his performance. Leo doesn’t just deliver the speech in one monotone. He could easily have given it with an omnipresent state of doom and gloom, or stone-faced seriousness. But no matter how important the content, if it is delivered in a wash of all the same style, we as an audience will disconnect. Deep down we know there’s multiple things going on in a, say, 12 minute speech, so we want to hear that differentiation.

Leo achieves this well by bringing a different tone to sections with differing purposes, for example:

  • Pride – for talking about workers are stepping up to learn new tasks
  • Sombre and serious – for explaining how this could continue into the summer
  • Empathic – for talking about grandparents wanting to just give a hug
  • Light-hearted – for joking that kids might even want to go back to school
  • Doctorly – for telling people to look after their mental and physical health and well-being
  • Stern – for talking about the spread of unhelpful information via messages

Know your audience

It’s crucial to know who you are going to be speaking to. No matter how brilliant the speech, you cannot give the exact same presentation to two audiences, because each audience is different, and so you need to put them first and tweak it for them, take account of them, if you want your one big idea to resonate with them.

Leo did this masterfully. He recognised he’d be talking to a spread of people, in many ways a “captive audience,” and it would have been easy to just blandly talk to “Ireland” or maybe focus on a key influential group, say middle-aged professionals. Instead, Leo at times talked to the Irish people – wide-rangingly but with a personal feel – but he also took specific moments to reach out to individual sectors who might otherwise disconnect.

For example, he motivated children and teenagers:

“To all the young people watching – I know you are bored and probably a bit fed up. You want to see your friends … I hope you remember that this time is tough on your parents as well.

So I’m asking you to ask your parents at least once a day what you can do to help them. Keep up your schoolwork and call your grandparents.”

He acknowledged the pain of older people:

“It’s going to be very difficult to stay apart from our loved ones.
Most grandparents just want to give their grandkids a hug and a kiss”

And he stressed the government’s support of businesses:

“This may mean changing how you do your business… but we will work with you to find safe and creative ways to do this.”

He also frequently acknowledges the audience’s fears, and indeed his own limitations:

“Tonight I know many of you are feeling scared and overwhelmed. That is a normal reaction.”

“Some will be hospitalised and sadly some people will die.”

“I know these choices won’t be easy”

“More will be required in the coming weeks”

“Many of you want to know when this will be over. The truth is we don’t know yet.”

If these issues – worries, impacts, weaknesses – in your proposed idea are left unmentioned, they will just crop up in people’s conversations afterwards. So, unpalpable as they may be, it’s better to get ahead of these problems in your presentation. This honesty is refreshing and reassuring. It is considerate and creates belief.

Use of rhetorical devices

You may feel formal rhetorical devices are a bit stiff and stuffy, antiquated, not really part of a 21st century presentation. But they are actually very powerful and effective when used with care and precision, and can make key moments in a speech pop.

Here’s two key examples from Leo’s speech:

Using the rule of three:

“And when it comes – and it will come – never will so many / ask so much / of so few.”

Using repetition:

“To the people of China, Spain and Italy who have suffered untold heartbreak and loss – we are with you.

To all of those across the world who have lost a loved one to this virus – we are with you.

To all those living in the shadow of what is to come – we are with you.”

Yes, these may sound like elevated language to the ear and feel like they were borrowed from a speech by someone like JFK, but that’s totally okay. Something about their sound, the shape of that language, feels right to us. Big. Standing tall. Important. To borrow those kinds of resonances, to state that this is no everyday speech, but one about saving lives, is smart and credible. For a speech that wants to do big things, using these rhetorical devices, which have served leaders for over two thousand years, is required to raise your language to the level that carries life-changing big ideas.

Yes, a speech is only one small action amidst hundreds of hard decisions and sterling sacrifices in a crisis like this. But done right, it can be a massive one. A considered communication to your people can be a reassurance, a representation and a reinvigoration. It can change careers – and maybe even help save lives.


#speechwriting #presentation #crisismanagement #leadership

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