In many ways it’s hard to think about three leaders who are more dissimilar than Donald Trump, Justin Trudeau and Volodymyr Zelensky. From contrarian provocateur (Trump), to woke empath (Trudeau) to inspirationally defiant (Zelensky) the three men are (rightly) perceived very differently.
What they have in common is that all three are very effective communicators. Whatever you may think of their politics or what they choose to do with their communications skills, there should be no denying that they are good at connecting with their audiences whether in person or mediated via other mediums.
The dramatic differences in their personas mask an important point for those of us who are interested in communications strategy – they are all expertly using the same fundamental communications building blocks.
Pacing and structure: All three leaders use lots of short phrases and sentences punctuated with clear distinct pauses. There is nothing wrong with long sentences mind you, but if your goal is to influence a wide audience, it is usually best to keep them short. Many speakers build energy in the first couple words of a sentence and then sort of trail off with the last few words. This can feel casual, natural and relaxed, but again if you are looking to influence be decisive. Start and end your (short) sentence crisply and then pause, if only for a fraction of a second before moving on.
Emphasise points with body language: Delivering media training around the world, I encounter cultures where the instinct is to be as still as a rock while being interviewed. I also see cultures in which people can’t seem to stop themselves from gesturing wildly no matter what they’re saying. Neither extreme is ideal. Body movement, including gestures are important parts of communication, but they should be intentional, rather than a random outlet for nervous energy. All three of our example communicators use distinct facial expressions, head movements and hand gestures in concert with what they’re saying to punctuate and emphasis their messages.
Short lists of things the audience is already familiar with: Want to appear credible? Provide (or appear to provide) supporting evidence. Short lists of things are a great way to do this. But remember, you need your audience to care, and the hard truth is that they’re not paying as much attention as you’d like them to, so, don’t challenge them. List things that they’re already familiar with – issues that they already care about, places they have a connection to, people they’ve heard of. Even if the link to the point you are making is a little tenuous, the fact that you’re listing things that they care about will draw them in.
Eye contact: Yes, this point appears on every list of tips for effective interviews and media engagement, but that’s because it’s important. Eye contact does not have to be constant (Trump looks away when giving the impression that he’s thinking) and the eye contact does not have to be with the journalist (in the Zelensky example below he is not in the same room as the interviewer and therefore looks at the camera instead), but whatever the details of the eye contact, when making an important point, be sure to make eye contact with the audience (interviewer or camera depending on the set up).
Can you visualise all three of our example leaders doing these things? See for yourself, here are links to recent long form interviews given by the three men. You only need to watch the first couple questions and answers for each of them to get the point.
Donald Trump on Meet the Press
Justin Trudeau on CityNews
Volodymyr Zelensky speaking to The Economist
While most of us may not aspire to be politicians and while, depending on your political strips, you may be reviled by the idea of copying the style of some (or all) of these men, if you aspire to communicate with an audience and if you want to be a good spokesperson for your organisation some copying is recommended.
Navigate Response delivers a lot of media training to our clients around the world. The starting point is usually figuring out what to say (key messages) and how to deal with difficult or aggressive questions (bridging) but what sets the great communicators apart from the good ones is how they deliver their messages. Get good enough at the how and the what starts to matter less and less. Just listen… really listen… to our three examples – would the what stand up to scrutiny without the gravitas of their delivery?