As I wrote in my article about Leo Varadkar’s St Patrick’s Day Covid-19 speech, the Irish Taoiseach delivered a powerful and impactful call to his people in a time of crisis, words that have inspired the Irish population to take hard actions which have helped slow the spread of the virus in Ireland.
In his most recent update to the Irish public, on Friday April 10th 2020, extending the lockdown measures by a further three weeks, he again made a strong presentation.
So what was good in his Good Friday speech? Here’s a quick rundown of the elements that I think made this speech effective:
Connecting to inspirations common to the audience
In a speech whose goal is to urge further strength to handle extended curtailments and limitations on daily life, Leo turned to inspiring references his audience would find resonant and timely. Giving the speech on Good Friday, he opens the speech by tying into the Easter theme of rebirth, recovery and hope:
Throughout our history, Good Friday has had a special meaning. It’s a day associated with … new beginnings. The promise of rebirth and renewal and better days to come.
And in referencing the famous Good Friday Agreement which brought new peace to Northern Ireland, he appealed to Irish people’s resolve and capacity, with patience, to overcome what seemed impossible.
It’s also the day an agreement was signed in Belfast to bring peace to our island ending the troubles in the North.
References of this type connect us invigoratingly to our common pride, memory and sense of identity.
Use of quotations
Quotes in presentations can often seem forced and hackneyed, especially when people drag out overused quotes by the likes of Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde or Steve Jobs. They feel like the verbal equivalent of old Microsoft clip-art! The best quotes are not just grabbed from an online list or a handy book of “world’s best quotations,” but are thoughtfully recalled from personal experience or searched out. In this speech, Leo smartly quotes from Seamus Heaney, the latest in Ireland’s long proud line of masterful poets, and a much-loved figure in modern Ireland, due to his combination of plain connection to ordinary people and a mythical sense of beauty and of relationship.
During the worst year of those Troubles the poet Seamus Heaney spoke about what was happening and predicted that ‘if we winter this one out, we can summer anywhere’. I know these words have provided inspiration to many Irish people as we deal with this Emergency. They remind us that we are in this together, we can get through it, and better days will come.
And he uses this poetry brilliantly in a structural way, quoting Heaney not once, but twice – a few lines into the speech and a few lines from the end.
In one of his best collections of poems, Heaney celebrated the human chain of help that can bring about an almost miraculous recovery. As Heaney wrote, we were ‘all the more together for having had to turn and walk away’. In the days ahead we must continue to turn and walk away from each other and from doing the things we would like to do. But we will be all the more together for having done so.
This leads to a feeling of symmetry, and a natural arc to the speech, so there is a satisfying feeling when Leo brings it to a close.
Again Leo is not afraid to selectively use quite heightened language to make key points pop. This time around these tools include:
A day associated with suffering, and sacrifice, and sorrow.
Stay strong, stay safe and stay at home.
This also strongly uses a line only of monosyllabic words, which has a muscular impact on the ear for points you really want to drive across. Leo also uses this to express the biggest enemy to his call to action against complacency, the urge to break these restrictions:
We want to be free.
Those short lines are punchy and unwavering, and best saved for only the highest stakes sentences.
- Deliberate use of impactful contrast:
Leo particularly in this speech uses such contrast between those doing the right thing and those failing their community, in his call to action towards the end of the speech. Example include
To choose hope and solidarity / over self-interest and fear.
What is an inconvenience for some / will be a lifesaver for others.
To think about each other / before we think about ourselves.
One Big Idea
To me it is essential that the speechwriter is utterly certain what is the One Big Idea guiding the speech – what is the one thing, if nothing else, you want your audience to walk away with? Leo makes very clear what the purpose of this speech is. Yes, it’s to announce continuing restrictions, but that could be done via a tweet. He uses a speech because he wants to inspire people’s actions in these updated circumstances. And he reveals his OBI mid-way through the speech very clearly and openly:
Today’s message is that we cannot be complacent
There’s no need to be cute or overly subtle about sharing your One Big Idea. At some point, at least once, state it in clean, clear prose.
Range of tone
Again Leo relies not just on a mono-tone of sombre importance, but also uses other colours. For example, he multiple times turns his eyes to camera with a smile and a warm tone, expressing his empathy. For example
I know many people are feeling frustrated, and I know the fine weather makes it even harder.
From this, we get the sense that he feels this pain too, and is not just dictating from on high.
While not as dramatic or as widely seen as his St. Patrick’s Day speech, Leo and his communications team again provide a strong example of how to communicate in a crisis – with clarity of thought, consideration of ideas and courage of words.