Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky received two standing ovations from the U.S. Congress when he made an impassioned speech yesterday, pleading for more aid to help his country turn back an increasingly powerful invasion by Russia. His speech offered several powerful lessons that every business leader--and especially every entrepreneur--should learn. Consider his example whenever the stakes are high and you need a pitch or presentation to be truly persuasive.
Zelensky is asking for protection and help for a valiant people against a ruthless and widely reviled dictator. He has chosen to remain in harm's way rather than be evacuated to the West and safety--"I need ammunition, not a ride," he reportedly said. So when he speaks, most people outside of Russia are already inclined to listen and take his requests very seriously. At the same time, he knows that some of what he's asking for is a stretch for Western democracies, so he knows he needs to be as persuasive as he possibly can.
And so, he uses a masterful tool that you can use too: He makes it all about his listeners, understanding them as completely as he can, and making it clear how much he empathizes with them before ever asking them to empathize with him. It shows the true power of empathy as a persuasive tool, not just to help you understand what your audience wants, or get them to understand what you want, but to forge a bond to bring both of you closer together.
"When your sky was black from the planes attacking you"
Zelensky spends the first three minutes of his 17-minute speech speaking with great feeling--not about Ukraine, but about the United States. He reminds his audience of the attack on Pearl Harbor, "when your sky was black from the planes attacking you," and of September 11th, the two occasions when America experienced aerial attacks as Ukraine is now. He talks about the democratic principles on which our nation was founded and which Ukraine is now struggling to preserve against a more powerful enemy: "Democracy, independence, freedom, and care for every person." Only after that does he describe the effect on the Ukrainian people of Russia's continued attacks, and then show those effects for everyone to see in a video of everyday Ukrainians both before and during the war that is harrowing to watch.
Perhaps most important, Zelensky exhibits his empathy in one more way--by giving his audience requests that they can say yes to. He makes it clear that what Ukraine really needs is an enforced no-fly zone to stop the Russian bombings, but he is also well aware that this need will likely go unfilled, because enforcing a no-fly zone would require shooting at Russian aircraft, and both the U.S. government and most Americans are unwilling to risk a shooting war with Russia. So he offers some alternatives that perhaps we can say yes to: new and increased sanctions against Russia (he draws a direct line, noting that money paid to Russian companies can be used to finance the invasion), aircraft, and more weaponry. And he adds a further--very smart--request that individual members of Congress use their offices to pressure companies in their constituencies not to do business with Russia. That's something every member of his audience can do without even waiting for a vote.
In the last three minutes of the speech, Zelensky does one more thing to try to strengthen the empathy and the connection between himself and his audience--he switches into English even though he's not very good at speaking it. That vulnerability, that willingness to meet the audience where they are instead of where he is, is a powerful final element to his appeal.
The speech did have an immediate effect, in that President Joe Biden responded to it with a promise of $1 billion in new aid, including anti-aircraft and anti-armor systems, and drones that Ukraine has been requesting. Biden did not mention either the no-fly zone nor the aircraft that Poland has asked the U.S. to deliver, which also has the potential to draw the U.S. into a shooting war. Still, there's no question that Zelensky's unparalleled ability to understand and reach those who listen to him is one big reason Ukraine has gotten the help it needs to stand up to the Russian invasion so far. Will it be enough to turn back that invasion? We can't know, and we also can't know what will happen to him if Ukraine falls. No matter what happens next, there's a lot every leader can learn from him.