Volodymyr Zelensky Gives a Master Class in Storytelling
The last decade has been a gloomy one for advocates of self governance. The complex system of beliefs that uphold our society have been under sustained assault by opponents unbounded to truth. Traditional defenders of democracy—armed with briefcases full of facts and a deep respect for a rules-based order—have struggled to make their case in an increasingly skeptical world ruled through posts and tweets. This was until a Ukrainian comedian-turned-President found a spotlight and began telling his story to the world.
Yet almost equally impressive is Ukraine’s success in winning the war of narratives.
Zelensky’s storytelling seems to have crushed Putin’s oppressive propaganda machine.
Volodymyr Zelensky’s remarkable success comes on the back of two unexpected victories. Ukraine’s triumph on the battlefield has been understandably the dominant narrative. Most didn’t expect Kyiv to hold out for more than a week against a massive Russian invasion across multiple fronts. Yet almost equally impressive is Ukraine’s success in winning the war of narratives. Zelensky’s storytelling seems to have crushed Putin’s oppressive propaganda machine.
Vladimir Putin has built an empire around a cynical instrumentation of disinformation. By unleashing torrents of lies and threats, he has corroded public trust and confidence in the traditional institutions of democracy. His goal has always been less to create an attractive alternative to democracy than to so confound and frighten his opponents that they are unable to mount a response. Putin believed that it would always be easier to destroy belief than to create it.
Zelensky has proven that cynicism is powerless against a better story. His narratives have created overwhelming support for the Ukrainian cause and rekindled the embers of belief in our global institutions and a unified world order. His words have resonated across both sides of the political aisle in Washington and abroad. So how did this happen? How did a few speeches undo a years-long global march towards nationalism and isolationism. We thought it would be helpful to investigate the power of Zelensky’s message and remind everyone that not all stories are created equal.
Zelensky’s stories are personal
In the first days of the war, Zelensky established himself as chief narrator of his country’s struggle. Zelensky understood that speaking to lived experiences in a direct and passionate way would triumph over statistics, facts, or worse, words that personify intangible entities. There is no infographic that can convey the human suffering of a war-torn nation, and he never uses words like “the media,” “The West,” or “The Russian Government.” Zelensky appears on the streets of Kyiv and speaks directly to his audience, addressing “President Biden” or “Vladimir Putin” by name. This tactic creates a human connection between storyteller and recipient.
“[I’m] grateful to Joe Biden and the American people for the leadership in supporting Ukraine …”
Zelensky’s stories are relevant
Zelensky recognizes that different audiences have different reasons for supporting Ukraine’s sovereignty. In his carefully constructed speech to Congress, in order to make an effective argument to a divided country, he connected his country’s fight to the universal ideals that underlie American society.
“It threw tanks and planes against our freedom, against our right to live freely in our own country, choosing our own future, against our desire for happiness, against our national dreams, just like the same dreams you have, you Americans.”
As the speech went on, however, Zelensky intertwined Ukraine’s quest for the American dream with themes that more specifically spoke to different parts of the audience. He related Ukraine’s struggle in the air to 9/11, an event that shaped the security concerns of many of the more hawkish members of Congress.
“Remember September the 11th, a terrible day in 2001 when evil tried to turn your cities, independent territories, in battlefields, when innocent people were attacked, attacked from air, yes. Just like no one else expected it, you could not stop it.”
He balanced this framing of the conflict later with one that spoke more to the progressive members of the audience by harkening back to the Civil Rights movement.
“I have a dream. These words are known to each of you today. I can say I have a need. I need to protect our sky. I need your decision, your help, which means exactly the same, the same you feel when you hear the words, ‘I have a dream.’”
Throughout the speech, Zelensky was consistent about what he stood for. He did not compromise what he believed to better appeal to his audience, but rather constructed different frames to better connect his ideas to his listeners’ backgrounds.
Zelensky’s stories focus on a better future over nostalgia
The world’s autocrats seemed obsessed with what once was. Putin laments over the collapse of the Soviet Union: “We turned into a completely different country. And what had been built up over 1,000 years was largely lost.” In contrast, Zelensky’s words look forward, helping Ukrainians and Europeans alike visualize a stronger future state of the European Union.
“…but we are fighting, also, to be equal members of Europe. I believe that today we are showing everybody that’s exactly what we are. The European Union is going to be stronger with us. That’s for sure.”
It’s possible that we are getting this all wrong, as we are making assumptions about Putin’s motives. It may be that his goal was to energize democracies around the world, strengthen the ties between NATO members, and find a topic that would unite the Democratic and Republican parties. But one thing that cannot be argued is the power of Zelensky’s stories. By making his narratives personal, relevant and hopeful, Zelensky has created a global emotional reaction to Ukraine’s plight. Converting intangible ideas like democracy and sovereignty into strongly held feelings around the world might just save his country. We certainly hope so.
* Mythos blog writer, Jack Budington, contributed to this post
Featured image: https://www.president.gov.ua/