Editor’s Note: Bill McGowan is the founder and CEO of Clarity Media Group, a global communications coaching firm based in New York. He is the author of “Pitch Perfect: How to Say It Right the First Time, Every Time.” Juliana Silva is a strategic communications adviser at Clarity. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the authors. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is trying to prove there’s truth in the old expression, ‘the pen is mightier than the sword.’ Or in his case – the selfie video is mightier than the Russian fighter jet.
There’s no doubt Ukraine’s military is outmatched; it is the David to Russia’s Goliath. And yet Zelensky is wielding a modern-day slingshot in the form of social media tools and modern communication skills that are helping him gain an upper hand in what is also a crucial battle: the struggle to control the narrative of war.
Influencing people’s perception depends on messages that are simple, memorable and impactful. In Zelensky’s communication – ranging from Twitter posts to media interviews and video addresses to foreign parliaments – he has checked all three of those boxes. This messaging, in addition to powerfully persuasive optics, will guarantee Zelensky’s words have a place in future history books.
Though right now, Zelensky is likely less concerned with his legacy and more focused on keeping his citizens alive. It’s one thing to arm your soldiers with advanced weaponry – the importance of which is unquestioned. But it’s a gifted leader’s responsibility to arm their people with something equally powerful: inspiration, motivation and national pride.
Zelensky appears to be outdueling his Kremlin counterpart in that regard, if intelligence reports citing low morale among Russian troops are true. Indeed retired US military experts have expressed shock over how poorly-trained the Russian soldiers appear to be, while marveling at how determined and spirited the Ukranians are.
That imbalance of fighting spirit could be costly to the Russians, if you subscribe to the theory of legendary Second World War General George S. Patton, who said, “Wars may be fought with weapons, but they are won by men. It is the spirit of men who follow and of the man who leads that gains the victory.”
Channeling his inner Winston Churchill during a House of Commons address earlier this month, Zelensky echoed a line from the former British Prime Minister, vowing to fight the Russians “in the forest, in the fields, on the shores, in the streets.” Churchill used these very lines to lift the spirits and resolve of a war-weary Britain during the darkest hours of the Second World War, when England was believed to be the next Nazi conquest.
But the Ukrainian President isn’t just repurposing lines from the past. He’s also crafting memorable sound bites that seem to rise above the rest of the noise. For instance, his warning to invading Russian soldiers was meant to underscore that Ukranians are not quitters: “When you attack us, you will see our faces, not our backs.”
This is just one of several powerful oratory techniques Zelensky has frequently employed: using your words to help audiences visualize a successful outcome. Like Churchill, Zelensky declared to British lawmakers, “We will not give up, we will not lose.” The Ukrainian president demonstrated a full appreciation for the power of positive thinking, to get buy-in from an entire nation that your campaign is winnable.
There is scientific evidence to back this up. Neuroscientific research has shown a single word has the power to regulate physical and emotional responses. Positive thoughts and words stimulate specific brain activity that moves people into action. Zelensky seems determined to have his words prompt his people – and many more across the globe – into the kind of action that could save his country.
Like Franklin Roosevelt, Martin Luther King Jr. and other great orators in history, Zelensky’s calls to action use metaphor and powerful imagery, some of which have moved western politicians to tears during his recent speeches.
During these parliamentary addresses, Zelensky tailors his message to the particular group he’s trying to persuade. For instance, when addressing US lawmakers, he conjured up imagery of Mount Rushmore and evoked Martin Luther King, Jr’s, “I Have a Dream” speech, in stating “I have a need.” For good measure, he cited both Pearl Harbor and the 9/11 attacks to heighten his audience’s ability to feel his country’s pain. Likewise, to the British Parliament, he quoted Churchill and Shakespeare. And to the Germans, Zelensky made references to the post-Holocaust phrase, “Never again.”
Zelensky has gained the narrative upper hand not just with words, but with optics. The visuals of the two opposing leaders are riddled with contrasts. Zelensky physically stands with his people on the darkened streets of Kyiv in a fatigue-green T-shirt and military-style jacket. He embodies the image of a courageous and defiant rebel who appears as one with the soldiers he’s sending into battle.
Putin, on the other hand, is dressed like a politician, isolated at the end of an enormous conference table, or alone in a TV studio recording a taped message. Zelensky’s selfie videos are gritty, modern and real. Putin’s appear staged and dated.
Perhaps Putin’s realization that this stark contrast did not favor him, prompted him to hold a pro-war rally in a crowded stadium (attendance was reportedly mandatory for state employees) to show he had support from the Russian people. But even then, his choice of a puffy, down coat made him look more like a malevolent Michelin Man than an omnipotent leader to be feared.
Putin tried to tear a page out of Zelensky’s modern communications playbook by ditching the suit and getting out among the people. But the feeble attempt proved that you can’t teach an old bear new tricks. To make matters worse, even the televised feed of Putin’s speech abruptly cut out in mid-sentence, due to what was called “technical difficulties.”
History is kind to the brave and courageous, especially when they defy odds that are stacked against them. Zelensky, through his fearless calls to action, is defining his legacy more and more with each passing day, while Putin’s exposed weaknesses run counter to the reputation of strength he’s worked hard to propagate.
It’s difficult to say to what degree Zelensky’s gifted communication skills are responsible for the surprising strength of the Ukrainian resistance. But if Churchill’s thesis on the power of oratory is correct, then history is likely to assign outsized credit to the role Zelensky’s words have played.
As Churchill wrote: “Of all the talents bestowed upon men, none is so precious as the gift of oratory. He who enjoys it, wields a power more durable than that of a great king.” Or in this case, a dictator.