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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.1 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.2
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.
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.