The Thinking Behind the Remarkable Zelensky Speeches
‘You must respect the audience, must understand what is in their hearts, and never lie in speeches.’ An exchange with a member of the Zelensky team.
Five days ago, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky made his eloquent and powerful speech to a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress and to a live audience of many millions.
Three days ago I explained why I thought the speech was so skillfully crafted and effective. One of the things I said was, “Zelensky and his team knew what allusions to make, what chords to strike, what historical and cultural parallels to draw… Zelensky has someone who is good, and is good in English, working with him.”
Today I have been in electronic touch with one of those “someones”—one of the people involved in creating Zelensky’s sequence of exceptional wartime addresses. This is Dmytro Lytvyn, whose title is advisor to the Head of the Office of the President.I am extremely grateful that he took the time to answer my questions today, with everything else that is going on.
Lytvyn emphasized, as effective writers for political leaders always should, that responsibility for a speech’s quality, good or bad, ultimately rests with the leader rather than the staff. This is the person who chooses the writers, who decides what themes to stress or avoid, who conveys a tone when speaking to a camera or a crowd.
Posted below are a series of questions I sent by direct message to Lytvyn, and the answers he sent back. As you’ll see, my questions mainly concern craft: how a team based in Kyiv manages linguistic and cultural divides in explaining their case to the world.
I present both questions and answers without comment, and with very minor copy editing. On both sides we were typing quickly, with resulting shortcuts, but of course I had the benefit of operating in my native language.
Questions for a member of the Zelensky team.
1. How to think about speeches written in Ukrainian, which much of the world will hear in English.
Question: President Zelensky’s speeches have been noted for their power and grace in English, though of course they start in Ukrainian and mostly have been delivered in Ukrainian.
When the president and his team are composing them, how do you think about the fact that they’ll mainly be heard in a different language? Do you sometimes choose a Ukrainian phrase, based on the English phrase you’re looking for in translation?
Answer: It depends on the audience. The President feels our people well, so speeches in Ukrainian and for a Ukrainian audience we make faster.
For speeches in other countries, we are trying more & searching more & discussing more. The President wants to be accurate on how the speech would be heard if the speech is in English or is translated. He is looking for the right words and the imagery or things to say in feelings.
So, we always think about some cultural differences – if it is about foreigners, sometimes there are key phrases in English which we choose, and based on them, parts of the text are made.
2. How to judge what will ‘sound right’ in English.
Question: Among your team, are there people who “grew up” as English-speakers? How did you become *confident* about command of nuance, rhythm, tone?
Answer: We always can ask native speakers. Not only in English-speaking countries. The President addresses different people – in America, Europe, Asia.
Whether he is speaking English, or Ukrainian – no matter which, we try to make the words correct for one or another culture. It’s very important to keep cultures in mind.
3. Where the historical allusions come from.
Question. The speeches to international audiences have shown precise awareness of culture and history – the Shakespearean references at Parliament, the Battles of Saratoga and Battle of the Bulge for US Congress, etc. Who has been your guide or guru on these touches? Local historians? Your own general knowledge?
Answer: Depends on what speech. The President always mentions some things, ideas, phrasing when we are preparing. Some things I propose, some things the team proposes. We have the President's team always ready to help, three or four people from a close circle. If it is needed, we can ask any others to help.
4. The decision to speak to the Congress in English.
Question: Was it a difficult decision to have the president *deliver* the Congressional speech in English?
Answer: He wanted to speak in English. The main thing of that speech in Congress was to thank to all Americans, and it would only be right to say such words in English.
5. What is different about political rhetoric.
Question: I understand that many of you who now work with the president had previous TV experience with him. Did any of you have experience in this sort of “formal” rhetoric before? Or is this something you have learned along the way?
Answer: When you talk to people, you talk to people. It can be on TV, in life, or in the Parliament. It’s the same thing everywhere, if you are candid.
I don't think one has to learn how to make a speech. You just must respect the audience, must understand what is in their hearts, and never lie in speeches. How to make a good text – that must be learned, of course.
6. The beginning of Zelensky’s leadership through social media.
Question: I wrote, at the time, that President Zelensky’s very early “we are here” video had enormous, history-changing effect. Was that appearance “written” in any way? Or was it in the moment?
Answer: That is him.
The President just went to the street, to the place which every Ukrainian knows, and said what he thought was needed. He often does such things. He feels it.
7. What else Ukrainians would tell Americans.
Question: Is there anything else you would like a mainly-English speaking audience to know about the process of conveying Ukraine’s message, while a war for survival is going on?
Answer: Of course, it is important to say words which are familiar and close in a particular country. It is important to respect a particular culture.
But we are all people after all. We all value the same things – freedom, life, family, love, peace. And we talk about such things.
Ukraine fights for life, which people know and enjoy everywhere – in the US and in Europe and in Japan and in Australia and in other places. We fight for that. And when we win, you'll have a possibility not to fight for others whom Russia wants to conquer too – your allies in Europe, our neighbors.
So our message is very simple, very candid, very audible. That's it.
That’s it. My gratitude to Dmytro Lytvyn for taking the time to tell us more about this moment in history. My admiration for the example that his colleagues and fellow citizens are setting for the world.
I’ve found one other appearance by Zelensky’s rhetorical team in English; it is this interview, by Luke Harding, last April in The Guardian.
In context, I should point out that 45 years ago, when I was in my 20s, I was for two years the head White House speechwriter for President Jimmy Carter.
How do the warmongers around the world live with themselves?
In the President Carter era, his top speechwriter wrote about the essential truth of human rights, essential to success in foreign policy. How everyone looked to America as the leader in human rights, an ideal that can be the highest human achievement...
Maine author Stephen King addresses how each person can save the world, one at a time.
Think of the lonely, freezing Ukrainian refugees, displaced, war victims, and soldiers, their President, the speech at the Capitol at least gives them hope in war. A little light like a warming fire in the brutal winter. (every small donation helps: https://www.rescue.org/topic/ukraine-crisis International Rescue Commitee IRC)
international nonprofit Heifer International editorial :
“No man was ever endowed with a right without being
at the same time saddled with a responsibility.” Gerald
Bestselling author, Stephen King, is most famous as the writer of horror novels. Sometime back he spoke to the graduates of Vassar College and offered some profound advice:
" What You Pass On," Stephen King
“A couple of years ago I found out what ‘you can’t take it with you’ means. I found out while I was lying in a ditch at the side of a country road, covered with mud and blood and with the tibia of my right leg poking out the side of my jeans like a branch of a tree taken down in a thunderstorm. I had a MasterCard in my wallet, but when you’re lying in a ditch with broken glass in your hair, no one accepts MasterCard. We all know life is fleeting, but on that particular day and in the months that followed, I got a painful but extremely valuable look at life’s simple backstage truths. We come in naked and broke. We may be dressed when we go out, but we’re just as broke. Warren Buffet? Going to go out broke. Bill Gates? Going out broke. Tom Hanks? Going out broke. Steve
King? Broke. Not carrying a dime.
All the money you earn, all the stocks you buy, all the mutual funds you
trade—all of that is mostly smoke and mirrors. It’s still going to be a
quarter past getting late whether you tell time on a Timex or a Rolex. No
matter how large your bank account, no matter how many credit cards
you have, sooner or later things will begin to go wrong with the only
three things you have that you can really call your own: your body, your
spirit and your mind.
So I want you to consider making your life one long gift to others. And
why not? All you have is on loan anyway. All that lasts is what you pass
on....We have the power to help, the power to change. And why should
we refuse? Because we’re going to take it with us? Please. Giving is a
way of taking the focus off the money we make and putting it back where
it belongs—on the lives we lead, the families we raise and the
communities that nurture us.”
(Heifer International helps the poorest of the poor around the world with livestock donations for struggling farmers, tribal peoples, and rural communities.)
put war and Russia's crimes in perspective: the brilliant Carl Sagan
photo is of a tiniest dot of light in a sunbeam, taken from satellite as it exits the solar system, our blue rock in space, adrift in an endless, seemingly empty universe
"A Pale Blue Dot"
"The following excerpt from Carl Sagan's book Pale Blue Dot was inspired by an image taken, at Sagan's suggestion, by Voyager 1 on 14 February 1990. As the spacecraft was departing our planetary neighborhood for the fringes of the solar system, it turned it around for one last look at its home planet. Voyager 1 was about 6.4 billion kilometers (4 billion miles) away, and approximately 32 degrees above the ecliptic plane, when it captured this portrait of our world. Caught in the center of scattered light rays (a result of taking the picture so close to the Sun), Earth appears as a tiny point of light, a crescent only 0.12 pixel in size."
Carl Sagan: "Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home.
That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you
know, everyone you ever heard of, every human
being who ever was, lived out their lives. The
aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of
confident religions, ideologies, and economic
doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and
coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization,
every king and peasant, every young couple in love,
every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and
explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt
politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader,"
every saint and sinner in the history of our species
lived there--on a mote of dust suspended in a
The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic
arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a
fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties
visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel
on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some
other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings,
how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent
Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the
delusion that we have some privileged position in
the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale
light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great
enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this
vastness, there is no hint that help will come from
elsewhere to save us from ourselves.
The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor
life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near
future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes.
Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the
Earth is where we make our stand.
It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and
character-building experience. There is perhaps no
better demonstration of the folly of human conceits
than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it
underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly
with one another, and to preserve and cherish the
pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.
— Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot, 1994