By reason or by feeling? This is how you speak about difficult issues such as climate change

On November 1 and 2, dozens of world leaders gathered in Glasgow for the World Leader Summit. During those days, each head of state was given the opportunity to give a speech of about three minutes.

Go for short, but powerful

That sounds short, but sometimes shorter is better, says speech expert Marije Wielenga. “It is not necessarily the case that if you have more time to speak, you will also make more impact. We can remember three to a maximum of seven things from a speech. Then it is better to have three minutes with a specific goal than a 15 minutes of talking about a ten-step plan.”

What did world leaders do with their time? The Prime Minister of the Caribbean island of Barbados, Mia Mottley, gave a fiery speech that spread like wildfire on social media:

“Mottley really appealed to the leaders and their leadership in her speech,” says Wielenga. “She pointed to the whole room, including herself, and said, ‘What are we going to do to support the frontline dealing with climate change?’

Mix emotion and facts

People prepare one speech with five points and do not realize that many such speeches take place in succession, says Lars Duursma, founder of Debatrix. “Mottley made fewer points, but the points she made came across very well. She was able to convey well that there is a lot at stake. With emotion, but also with a number of numbers.”

It was absolutely a very nice and good speech, says Duursma. “It is important to realize that some leaders do not necessarily want to address those present in the room, but especially the inhabitants of their own country. That explains why many speakers work on this. You increase your credibility as Joe Biden and Boris Johnson in the cut shots are nodding along.”

As head of government you have to pay attention to three things in a speech, Wielenga believes. “As a leader you have to think about the issue, from your position. But the question is at least as interesting: what does that mean to you personally? And you have to call on people to do something, instead of your speech being just inspiring.”

Make it personal

Mark Rutte started well with the personal, she says. “He started by standing near the Maas and how high the water was. He put his own experience into it. It was really a shame that he generalized it so quickly afterwards. I would have loved to hear what HE thought of it , whether he was afraid, for example.”

A major disadvantage of Rutte is that his English is crooked, says Duursma. “Of course that doesn’t help. He did think about his story, clearly focused on action and implementation. It was also quite a rational story with few examples.”

Not necessarily the rational or emotional approach is important in these speeches, says Duursma. “The art of speaking on a topic like climate change is to make something very complex understandable. David Attenborough did that very well. He wasn’t going to explain the whole of climate change, but just picked one part out.”

Do something positive

The biologist and television producer did even more good, Duursma thought. “He gave his story urgency with that one number and he added another element: the message that it was not too late. If you only say: the world is going to the buttons, then people at home turn off the television. Then you see the wider public drop out. Attenborough said very explicitly: ‘We can still achieve so much together’.”

American president Joe Biden did not think Duursma and Wielenga were the most sparkling performance of the afternoon. “It was actually a summary of things he had already accomplished and a few favorite one-liners,” says Duursma. “It seemed like he deliberately didn’t want to come across as too passionate.”

Wielenga got a strong ‘old boys currant bread’ feeling with Biden’s speech. “We’re going to do this now, we’re going to do that now. Why can’t the person behind the world leader come forward a little more?

Two things may have gotten in the way of leaders delivering their speeches. “In the end it’s all egos who want to win something in Glasgow, for their country, for themselves,” says Wielenga. “It takes guts to do it differently than the standard.”

Let your words ring out

And they are all leaders, aren’t they, adds Duursma. “Leaders who are used to being the center of attention. They are the center of attention everywhere they go – it can be quite a task to suddenly have to listen to others for four hours.”

He would like to add one more speech, that of European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. “In her first two sentences, she already used the words ‘whatever it takes’. That’s what Mario Draghi said in 2012, to indicate that the European Central Bank would do everything it can to avert the euro crisis. These words really had an impact then. and it’s no coincidence that they ended up in von der Leyen’s speech.”

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