Speech of the Month, February 2022 - Volodymyr Zelenskiy

Volodymyr Zelenskiy knows how to use stagecraft to enhance his inspiring messages. Being a former actor, here's what he knows to think about...

Speech of the Month, February 2022 - Volodymyr Zelenskiy

I can’t tell you how delighted I was when I learned that Volodymyr Zelenskiy - everyone’s man of the moment - is a former actor. Actors often get a bad rap. At best we're viewed as flaky, impractical and self-absorbed; at worst we're considered insincere and fake - accusations that were frequently hurled at Meghan Markle. So seeing a thespian impressively and fearlessly resist Russia's invasion of his country is both thrilling and vindicating for me. 

Of course, his rhetoric must be truly inspiring. Ukrainian men over the age of 60 who could leave the country are staying to defend it. Younger men working in safety in Poland and Germany are returning home to fight for their country. But as the vast majority of us will never find ourselves needing to inspire like Zelenskiy, I’m going to talk about something else that he does brilliantly and can be attributed to being an actor, and that is his attention to stagecraft in the short videos he released to his people. 

While acting involves creating a character, stagecraft is about the material aspects of theatre or TV that enhance performance: set design, lighting, sound, costume and make-up. So stagecraft is as important to stand-up comedians and musicians as it is to actors. And it’s something that presenters should be mindful of too. 

What’s your background like?

Zlenskiy specifically chose to make the video above outside although it was night time, so that the people of Ukraine would know he was still in Kyiv, that he hadn’t ‘taken the ride’ and was very much with them, fighting. It was also a canny decision to have his ministers surround him, like the chorus in a Greek play, thereby cementing the message that a united team is at the helm. 

What’s your background like when you’re presenting. Is it messy? Is there something distracting in it? (I recently saw a person present virtually and on the handle of the door behind them was a bandana which looked like a pair of dotty knickers and rather drew the focus!) Could you put something behind you to enhance a message or remind the audience that you’re a key player in your field? 

Make sure you’re well lit

Even though Zelenskiy’s video was made at night, so no natural light was available, you can see he still managed to get light on his face so that he and his ministers were visible. If you’re not well lit, viewers can’t see your facial expressions and see how genuine and committed you are. 

I’m sure you’re well aware by now to face a window when speaking virtually but, given the time of year, you might still need a bit of extra help to be really seen. I’m still using my ring light in the morning for my virtuals. And I don’t expect to pack it away until April. 

Is your ‘get up’ playing to your message?

Zelenskiy didn’t change into his best suit to address his people. Instead he presented himself in military uniform. Again, to endorse the message that he is fighting with his brave people. 

It’s important that when you present you are comfortable; you need to access breath easily so wearing something roomy around the chest and waist is key. But, when facing an audience, it’s also important to consider your costume. And it might be that your favourite dress or trouser-suit is your perfect costume. But maybe not. A costume is an outfit that’s been put together to shoot through the performer’s persona and interests. Think Cruella de Vil. Do consider what you could wear that will enhance your credibility while also making the audience feel that you are one of them. 

Got your slap on? 

Zelenskiy will be no stranger to make-up. Male actors love nothing more than slapping on powder and paint and, as president too, he’ll have spent hours being made up before media interviews. But in his recent videos, he’s wearing no make-up, and that’s the way it should be. The less polished he looks, the more authentic the message. 

Nobody needs to wear make-up when presenting but, personally, for virtuals and videos, I’d never be without it. A virtual presentation is all about the face, so I wear a full-ish coverage foundation - Nars’ Natural Radiant is my go-to. This gives me a flawless finish without having to bother with concealer or powder. Also, over a camera, you never look as made up as you are. I don’t wear the Nars foundation any other time.

And men, don’t think you can’t get involved on the make-up front. Ever visited War Paint

I hope you’ll consider stagecraft before presenting in future. Getting these things right can elevate a good presentation to one that really connects and persuades.  

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