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The Z Factor

President Volodymyr Zelensky has become an icon of valor in the past few months. Aside from his obvious courage and bravery in the face of unspeakable tragedy, his communication has been stellar. In every address to leaders across Europe and North America, he has been hitting it out of the park, receiving long thunderous standing ovations from leaders and garnering more support and empathy from the public at large.

As a professional performer, Zelensky has always had charisma and a way with words. However, the Russian invasion of Ukraine calls for more. Zelensky has shown the ability to make his case in a spellbinding way and gain the confidence of the global community.

Here are just a few of the lessons leaders can learn.

1. He lasers in on each audience. Speaking to the British Parliament, he invoked former Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s famous speech during WWII, “We will fight on the beaches”. In his address to the Canadian Parliament, he asked "Justin" and other leaders to imagine the Ottowa Airport being bombed, Canadian flags being taken down in Montreal, and compared the unguarded nature of Mariupol and Kharkiv to Edmonton and Vancouver. And to the US Congress, he spoke poignantly about the attacks on Pearl Harbor and 9/11.

Surely he didn't have to do this. Everyone from CEOs to middle managers tell me they're too busy to re-write their talks every time they speak, so they recycle old ones. Well, in public speaking, recycling is not environmentally friendly. You show respect for your audience by speaking to their particulars. Show them you know their problems, context, and history. If you don't have the time to at least re-work your talk, why should your audience have the time to pay attention? Leave aside, remember or act on it. If anyone had an excuse to cut corners, it was Zelensky—he gave these talks from a bunker in the middle of a war. So, if he can make the time, so can you.

2. He's big and bold. This one is easier when you're fighting a war than when announcing a new product iteration. I'll give you that. But that's where you put in the work. When US leaders offered Zelensky a safe haven in the US, he could have said; I will not desert my people. Their fight is my fight. Please help us save innocent lives. That would have been brave and heroic enough. But he didn’t settle for that. He made his statement into a soundbite that the global community ingested with admiration and acted upon. "I need ammunition, not a ride." Mic drop. Zelensky said in six words what he could have explained in 60. And he made his message crystal clear and exigent.

Likewise, if anyone has a right to throw a tantrum, beg, or scream, it’s Zelensky. But he doesn't. He continues to get help from NATO, for which he conveys gratitude. He also continues not getting the help he feels he needs, and he could get belligerent given that people are dying every day, but he uses restraint. He makes bold requests and appeals to our better sides and emotions but never crosses the line to being brash, rude, or offensive. He keeps the world rooting for him on every level and never pits himself against any allies. This takes tremendous restraint, but it’s worth it.

3. He goes for the gut

Zelensky doesn't use tons of numbers or big data with PowerPoints graphs to show the destruction, even though those numbers are tragic. Numbers only satisfy one small portion of the brain (the prefrontal cortex, which is in charge of refined thinking). So Zelensky uses statistics as needed, especially when related to the deaths of mothers and children. But he always relies heavily on images, faces of people, and music. He goes straight for the emotions.

Business leaders need both. You can't leave out the data, and you usually can't rely on music. But too many presentations leave out the heart, where many decisions are made, whether people know it or not. In fact, neuroscientist Wolfram Schultz, MD, who was a pioneer in the field of dopamine research in the emotional centers of the brain, famously said, "Just as the process of vision starts with the retina, so too, the process of decision-making starts with dopamine."

Whether your battle is with your competition, internal turmoil, or a global pandemic, use the Z factor to get what you need, look good doing it, and empower the people around you.

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