Ancient Yet Modern – How Today’s Leaders have Utilized Aristotle’s 3 Keys to Address the Pandemic with their People: Communication in Crisis Part III

In two recent articles, I marvelled with pride and even some surprise at the inspiring quality of speeches by Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar on the coronavirus, given on St. Patrick’s Day and Good Friday. But how have other leaders around the world delivered addresses to their people about the pandemic? Such speeches have required crisis communication with the necessary accuracy, empathy and inspiration to help populations to feel reassured, resolved and ready to face the tough days ahead. No easy task.

As you may know, I love how the Tools of Theatre can help make presentations more engaging, inspiring and powerful. One of the oldest tools for great oratory is Aristotle’s set of three key elements for an effective speech — ethos, pathos and logos.

Now, c’mon, you might say, that’s some guy in ancient Greece — how can he help me give my crisis speech to shareholders in a 21st century tech company?

Well, actually, his maxims are powerfully effective in the modern world, as we can see in these examples of how three global leaders utilized Aristotle’s three keys in their crucial addresses on the pandemic crisis: Queen Elizabeth, Boris Johnson and Angela Merkel.

Queen Elizabeth II: ethos and the power of pride

The Queen’s rarity of public addresses (this was only the 6th such non-Christmas speech to the nation in her many decades of rule) and her natural dignity means she would always have the attention of the British public, and around the world. She straight away has what Aristotle deemed one of three key elements in having an impactful speech: ethos or inherent trust and credibility with her audience.

So what she says has weight and how she uses that influence really matters.

The key thing in this speech is how the Queen utilizes that status to push on the British people’s pride in their history and identity, to take the hard actions, and do the right thing.

She states her hope that

“ … in the years to come everyone will be able to take pride in how they responded to this challenge. And those who come after us will say the Britons of this generation were as strong as any. That the attributes of self-discipline, of quiet good-humoured resolve and of fellow-feeling still characterise this country. The pride in who we are is not a part of our past, it defines our present and our future.”

She then recalls her own first public broadcast, when as World War II was growing in intensity for Britain, she spoke to the children being evacuated to the countryside, and being separated from their parents for who knew how long.

“It reminds me of the very first broadcast I made, in 1940, helped by my sister. We, as children, spoke from here at Windsor to children who had been evacuated from their homes and sent away for their own safety. Today, once again, many will feel a painful sense of separation from their loved ones. But now, as then, we know, deep down, that it is the right thing to do.”

What she is doing here? She is drawing on the hugely powerful resonance of the spirit shown by the British people in the Second World War, their resolve during the Blitz, their dedication, bravery and sacrifice that led to the UK resisting the Axis forces when doom was in the air and bombs landing, to turn it around, and win the war. For most British people, they have Agincourt, Waterloo and the 1966 World Cup, but ultimately what most would quickest identity as their greatest generation, the most shining moment in recent memory, would be World War II. (A war in which Elizabeth’s own father showed the transformative power of a speech to the British people, as dramatised in The King’s Speech.)

To fail the Queen, to fail to live up to the memory of the WWII generation – that is an unacceptable thought, to fortify the efforts of British people. And so the Queen uses her personal ethos, her story from 1940 of another public address, and her expectations that her subjects will make her proud, to give force to her call to action.

You can see why many people in the UK felt it was the example of inspiring leadership they’d been missing – and longing for.

You can watch the Queen’s speech here

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson: pathos and the impact of a personal, vulnerable story

Boris Johnson would probably have been rated at the low end of the league table for Covid-19 public appearances, with his statements lacking the clarity, accuracy and empathy key to effective crisis communication, and leading to much confusion, impatience and distrust in his population.

But in his Easter Sunday update to the British public, clearly something had changed. That change was that Boris had encountered the virus personally, and had been highly sick with it, spending a number of nights in intensive care.

From a man who had been accused of selling the NHS to American investors only weeks before, suddenly Boris became its passionate champion.

And how did he express this? Through a personal story.

In his first line, on screen still looking pale and clearly shaken, he states that “the NHS has saved my life, no question”. That clearly gets our wowed attention. Boris then spoke of how he had “seen personal courage” from a range of NHS staff as he was treated. And he comes to describe specifically how two nurses had stayed by his bedside and made crucial interventions when “things could have gone either way,” and went on to name them, and not only that, where they were from: Jenny from New Zealand and Luis from Portugal.

It was powerful to see the relentless champion of “getting Brexit done” in debt to these heroes not born in the UK.

This was vulnerable from Boris. Humble. And passionate.

To be honest, if we wrote this in a movie (Prime Minister slow to act, talking about herd immunity strategies, suddenly catches the virus and is on death’s door until saved by the very people he is kicking out of his country) you’d say it was too much, hackneyed, cliché. But truthful stories are often stranger than fiction. And more powerful.

Because stories are how we connect emotionally. They are the illustration of the idea we are pushing, and give it physical form that we can picture. After we heard Boris’s story, it made complete sense for him to make his vigorous key point, that the public needed to “protect our NHS,” that progress was being made because “the British public formed a human shield around this country’s greatest national asset – our NHS,” and the nation would succeed, “powered by love.” This intensity of feeling, after hearing his story of his own personal debt to the NHS, feels honest and authentic. And that makes a call to action feel integrous.

This is an example of the second element Aristotle felt was necessary in a successful speech: pathos, or emotional connection and empathy.

This speech also goes to show it’s never too late to change tack in a campaign and find the true message that will really engage your people …

You can watch Boris Johnson’s speech here

German Chancellor Angela Merkel: logos and the value of stating the complex conflict up-front

Angela Merkel on March 18th delivered a sterling speech to her public – clear, calm, with tones that moved elegantly from strong leader to pained individual to soothing maternal figure. As someone who rarely addresses the German public in this way, it had special power. And she does many things very effectively in her text.

She, like the Queen, draws on the memory of World War II

“Since German unification—no, since the Second World War—there has been no challenge to our nation that has demanded such a degree of common and united action.”

And she movingly pushes past her own natural, Germanic stoicism, to stress that action must be taken because these deaths are not just statistics, but each one is a living breathing person.

“Each is a father or grandfather, a mother or grandmother, a partner … It’s people … and we are a community in which every life and every person counts … Nobody is expendable.”

But what actually seems most impactful in the speech to me is how she sets up two powerful ideas in opposition, how she states the conflict inherent in what she is asking, and puts it out front and centre.

That is, the clash between what she calls “open democracy” – freedom of movement, choice, action – and a need for restrictions to protect people.

For her, giving up such freedoms is painful and personal:

“For someone like myself, for whom freedom of travel and movement were hard-won rights, such restrictions can only be justified when they are absolutely necessary … In a democracy, they should not be enacted lightly—and only ever temporarily. But at the moment they are essential in order to save lives.”

She wants to share what the government is doing, because the very idea of open democracy to her is that her actions should be transparent and explained – even if they seem to be limiting the very freedoms also inherent in that idea.

She acknowledges they are

“restrictions that have never before existed in the republic”

But they are being done only as utterly necessary and to save the afore-mentioned lives. So she asks people to buy into it, to take the requested actions

“not by being forced, but by collaboration.”

In this, Ms. Merkel is an example of the third element in Aristotle’s effective speech-making: logos, or logic and reasoned argument.

I think the key takeaway here is, if there is a strong force against your idea, something your audience feels they are loathe to give up, an ideal or an identifier that feels endangered by change, state it. Like a good lawyer, share both sides of the argument. You can admit, part of what you are asking is hard or scary. Don’t hide it and wait for a probing question in the shadows afterwards. Be up-front about the challenges, believe in your one big idea – and know then if you do that well, we are only more likely to buy into your proposal.

You can watch Chancellor’s Merkel’s March 18th address here

So for your next speech, stop and ask yourself: Do I have the credibility to ask my audience for this? Am I empathizing with their emotional state? Is my argument complete and logical, even if that means admitting flaws?

And when that test improves your presentation, just thank ol’ Aristotle…


What’s Good about Leo Varadkar’s Good Friday Speech 2020: Communication in Crisis Part II

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.

You can watch it here and read it here.

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.

Heightened language

Again Leo is not afraid to selectively use quite heightened language to make key points pop. This time around these tools include:

  • Alliteration:

A day associated with suffering, and sacrifice, and sorrow.

  • Repetition:

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.


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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