Leo, leading by example, staying calm under pressure!

On 17th March at 9pm, like many other Irish families we sat, with more than a touch of trepidation as we waited for a speech from our Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar.

As the Taoiseach himself noted, this was a St Patrick’s Day we would all remember, with no parties and no parades. However, his speech was also a part of this St Patrick’s Day that we shall always remember.

So, what made this speech so memorable?

1.  Opening and immediately connecting

Being St Patrick’s Day – it was appropriate to open with a greeting in Irish to wish everyone a Happy St Patrick’s Day –  Lá Fhéile Pádraig shona daoibh.

However, he immediately connected by moving swiftly on to what was on all of our minds. Namely, it is St Patrick’s Day, and here we were sitting in front of the TV watching him, as opposed to either partying ourselves, or watching highlights of the parades and other people partying.

So, from the start, he had us hooked in to what he had to say.

Takeaway: When we have to deliver bad news, this is the best way to get started – just jump straight in, say what is on people’s minds, show you understand them and their world.


2.  Simple striking quotes

“Not all superheroes wear capes – some wear scrubs and gowns”

Fear is a virus itself”

“…together as a nation by staying apart…”

Watch this space – I think his superhero quote will be quoted globally and will be one that will possibly be associated with Leo Varadkar forever. I can hear some of you thinking … ‘but he wasn’t the first to say those words’! While the sentiment is certainly not original, he may have been the first to use those exact words. For now, that exact quote, will be attributed to him.

He had many more striking quotes, some also perhaps borrowed from others, for example, a version of Churchill’s “Never was so much owed by so many to so few”.  For me, borrowing in this instance did not reduce the impact and if anything, for our closest neighbours in the UK, it could even increase impact.

One thing to note, was that all of his quotes were delivered using simple words which made them simple to remember and very easily quotable in the media and on social media.

Takeaway: Deliver simple, but striking phrases which become “quotes”.  They can help others remember your message, and can also get you a nice plug on social media!


3.  Minimum statistics and predictions

There are so many statistics and predictions about the coronavirus – he avoided the temptation to overload us with them.

While he said we have a relatively small number of cases in Ireland, he did not state the current number.

He only shared 2 figures. Firstly, that the number of cases could well rise to above the predicted 15,000 by the end of the month. Secondly, and towards the end of his speech, that the Government had already signed off on a 3 billion euro package for health, social welfare and business.

This was not a speech about figures and statistics.

This was a speech to connect with people, predominantly those in Ireland and to a lesser degree, to the global audience.

It was not a place to be overwhelming or disturbing people with figures.

Takeaway: Know when it is appropriate to include figures and be careful of over-loading your content with so many figures that none of them are memorable.


4.  Making it about us

He used the word “we” 49 times, “you” 20 times and “us” 5 times.

Interesting and effective.

At a time like this, more than ever, we become self-focused on ourselves, our families, our communities. He was totally aware of this and successfully made this speech all about us.

Interestingly, he only used the word “I” 12 times. When he used I, he had very specific purpose and helped instil confidence that the situation was under control.

Takeaway: In most instances, your audience are thinking of themselves.  Watch your “I” to “you” ratio.


5.  Making it personal

He said, that like the rest of us, his family had spoken of little other than the virus for the last few days.

He spoke about how his own partner, his 2 sisters and their husbands are all involved in healthcare, both here in Ireland and in the UK.

I personally never knew his family were involved in healthcare.

This sharing of personal information, his pride for his partner and family in addition to sharing their apprehension (which we got the feeling he had too), all made him even more relatable.

The timing of sharing his own personal information was interesting. It came at 5:50 into his 11:22 speech.

Why did it not come sooner?

Well, this was a speech that was about “us”.  If he shared his own personal story too soon, there was a danger that people would feel he was making this about him.

Takeaway: Share a small bit of yourself, your own vulnerability and fears.  


6.  Pacing

This speech was 1,912 words and lasted for 11 minutes and 22 seconds. This gave an average rate of speech of 169 words per minute (wpm).

This would be quite a bit faster than one of the most famous speeches ever – Martin Luther King, I have a dream, 106 wpm.


Two key reasons.

Firstly, our Taoiseach was delivering a message that was not given in front of a live audience – so there was no pausing for applause or for him to look out and engage with the audience.

Secondly, his pauses were frequent, but slightly shorter than one would expect. This is because the speech was not just being delivered via TV – it was being broadcast live on radio.  On radio, we never pause as long as we would on TV or face to face.  One reason for this is that listeners could think that the connection to the station is lost.

Takeaway: Watch your pace, aim to speak at an average rate of 120 – 180 words per minute.


7.  Talking to all of us

He made a concentrated effort to address every age demographic and many segments of the community here in Ireland and the challenges they may be having.

He spoke to grandparents and referenced how he understood how hard it must be for them to not be able to give their grandkids a hug and a kiss.

He spoke to the young people and empathised with them being bored and possibly fed up.

He spoke to the parents, through their young people, suggesting that they ask every day what they can do to help.  As a parent of two twenty-something year olds – this was particularly pertinent!

He spoke to the older people and those with long-term illnesses. I particularly like that he used the word “cocooning” – a word which sounds more comforting than “isolation”.

In a few sentences he mentioned and thanked army cadets, librarians, civil servants, early education and childcare workers, teachers, lecturers, people stocking our shelves, people servicing customers, hauliers, all those in supply chain movement, journalists, broadcasters.

In addition to this, he spoke to people who may have lost their jobs or had their hours cut and also to those in business and acknowledged the stress and anxiety caused to them.

He followed all of this with what the government could do to help and what we could do to help ourselves.

In short – he aimed to talk to each and every one of us, people may argue that he missed some – but with close to 5 million of us, I think he did well.

Takeaway: When speaking to a group of people, whether face to face or virtually, do your best to make everyone feel like you know that they are there and make a concerted effort to connect with them.


8.  Simple language

This was a speech that was for the young and the old.

This was a speech that could have been understood by anyone.

I have no doubt that when it was scripted, the words were chosen so that even the youngest listener could understand.

For example, when referring to the WHO, an acronym most adults would be familiar with – he used the full title World Health Organisation. Similarly, the CMO became the Chief Medical Officer.

Takeaway: Use language you know your audience will understand and avoid jargon and acronyms.  


9.  Being congruent

This was a sombre speech with a sombre message, and that is exactly how the Taoiseach delivered it. He was totally congruent with his visual, verbal and vocal communication all being in sync.

Apart from the slight hint of humour, when he referred to young people possibly wishing they were in school, it was delivered with neutral facial expressions, a serious tone and minimum gestures.

This reinforced his genuineness and his credibility.

Takeaway: Always ensure your visual, vocal and verbal indicators are in sync if you want to come across as genuine and credible.  


10.   Achieving his overall Purpose

As Stephen Covey said “start with the end in mind”.

I would imagine that when this speech was crafted, the first thing that was considered, was “what do I want the local (primarily) and (secondary) the global audience to take from this address?”

My assumption is that it was to lay out the factsre-enforce previous messages, re-assure and offer some hope for the future. As you listen to his speech, you can see he achieved this in spades.

Takeaway: Know what your audience will take from your presentation – be crystal clear on this and make everything you say link back to this.   


11.   Closing with hope

All throughout the speech he stuck to facts with no expectation of an early resolution.

However, in his close he mentioned “vaccine” and “hope” in a sombre but positive way.

In his closing sentences he referred to:

“…the shared enterprise of all humanity that finds a treatment and a vaccine that protects us.

Tonight I send a message of friendship and of hope from Ireland to everyone around the world.”

Managing to weave the word hope into this final sentence, was a particularly masterful piece of scripting. In my opinion, this was a fitting closing to a difficult but indisputably memorable speech.

Takeaway: Wherever possible and appropriate, aim to end on a positive note.

Well done Taoiseach Leo Varadkar.

You can watch his full speech here.


Below is the full transcript of his speech:

Full transcript Ministerial Broadcast by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar about the Covid-19 pandemic St Patricks Day 2020

Lá Fhéile Pádraig shona daoibh!

This is a Saint Patrick’s Day like no other.

A day that none of us will ever forget.

Today’s children will tell their own children and grandchildren about the national holiday in 2020 that had no parties, had no parades, but instead saw everyone staying at home to protect each other.

In years to come, let them say of us, when things were at their worst, we were at our best.

Our country is making big demands of our healthcare staff, big demands of every single one of us.

Tonight, I want you to know why these actions are being taken and what more needs to be done.

We are in the middle of a global and national emergency – a pandemic – the likes of which none of us has seen before.

So far the number of cases in Ireland has been relatively small.

However, we believe that number will rise to fifteen thousand cases or more by the end of the month and rise further in the weeks thereafter.

The vast majority of us who contract Covid-19 will experience only a mild illness, but many will be hospitalised and sadly some people will die.

We cannot stop this virus but working together we can slow it in its tracks and push it back.

We can, as you have heard by now, flatten the curve. But only if everyone takes sustained action. Nothing less will do.

We all need to take steps to reduce close human contact. That is how the virus is spread. Not just at public gatherings or in public places but also in our own homes, places of leisure and places of work.

Large public gatherings are cancelled. All pubs and bars are shut.

We have also asked people to curtail or cancel social gatherings like parties, weddings and other celebrations. I know these choices won’t be easy, but they are necessary.

More will be required in the coming weeks to reduce the spread of the virus. At all times we will be guided by, and take the expert advice, from our Public Health Emergency Team led by the Chief Medical Officer.

We will always put your life and your health ahead of any other concern. All resources that we have, financial and human, are being deployed to serve this great national effort.

We are watching what’s happening around the world and will learn from the experience of other countries affected by Covid-19 before we were – what works and what doesn’t.

We know the best strategies focus on testing, contact tracing and social distancing. So, that is our strategy.

We will keep our essential services, supply chains and utilities operating.

Many of you want to know when this will be over.

The truth is we just don’t know yet.

This Emergency is likely to go on well beyond March 29th. It could go on for months into the summer so we need to be sensible in the approaches we take.

We will deploy our full resources to ensure that essential shops, workplaces and public transport can continue to operate. People will still need to buy goods and avail of personal services in the weeks and months ahead.

However, to do so, will need your co-operation and that of business and industry to make social distancing workable. This may mean changing how you do your business… but we will work with you to find safe and creative ways to do exactly this.

It may mean adjusted opening hours, staggering breaks, phone calls and video conferences rather than meetings, and if possible working from home.

It will mean avoiding unnecessary journeys. Shopping online from local businesses and getting things delivered rather than physically going to the premises.

In short – we are asking people to come together as a nation by staying apart from each other.

The most basic messages of washing your hands properly and practicing good hygiene around sneezing and coughing are still the most important.

And, if you have a new cough that isn’t going away or a high temperature, or both… stay at home, phone your doctor and a test will be arranged for you within a few days.

At a certain point we will advise the elderly and people who have a long-term illness to stay at home for several weeks. We are putting in place the systems to ensure that if you are one of them, you will have food, supplies and are checked on.

We call this “cocooning” and it will save many lives, particularly the most vulnerable, the most precious in our society.

I know it’s going to be very difficult to stay apart from our loved ones.

Most grandparents just want to give their grandkids a hug and a kiss around about now – but as hard as it is, we need to keep our physical distance to stop the virus.

Technology can help – check in with your loved ones on Skype or Facetime and promise them you’ll see them again soon.

We’ve already seen our fantastic community spirit spring into action.

Phone your neighbours, see if they need help, and make sure those who are living alone are not left alone.

To all the young people watching – I know you are probably a bit bored and fed up by now. You want to see your friends and you might even be wishing you were back at school tomorrow.

But you’re going to have to wait a while longer for that.

I hope you remember that this time is tough on your parents as well.

So I’m asking you to ask your parents at least once a day what you can do to help them. Keep up your schoolwork and call your grandparents.

Like you, my family has spoken about little else in recent days.

My partner, my two sisters, and both their husbands are working in the health service – here in Ireland and in the UK. They are all apprehensive. They have heard the stories from China and Italy of hospitals being overwhelmed and medical staff getting sick.

I am so proud of all of them.

Not all superheroes wear capes… some wear scrubs and gowns.

All of our healthcare workers need us to do the right thing in the weeks ahead.

Our community services and hospitals are being tooled up.

Essential equipment is on the way.

Retired staff are returning to service. People are training for changed roles.

This is the calm before the storm – before the surge.

And when it comes – and it will come – never will so many ask so much of so few.

We will do all that we can to support them.

I am also grateful to the many people who have joined this great national effort.

Not just our healthcare staff but also our army cadets, librarians and civil servants who are now learning how to do contact tracing.

The early education and childcare workers offering to look after the children for front line staff so they can go to work.

The teachers and lecturers finding new innovative ways to teach students online and putting together contingency plans for the Leaving Cert and College exams.

The people who are stocking our shelves every day, and those who are serving customers.

Our hauliers, who leave their families on a Sunday evening and travel across the continent to ensure that we have the products, medicine and equipment that we need. All those who keep our supply chain moving, working in transport, we thank them, it’s a front line service too.

Our journalists and broadcasters who are helping us to inform and educate the public are all deserving of our respect and thanks.

Coronavirus is already having a deep impact on jobs and economic activity and will continue to do so.

Some people watching will have seen their jobs lost, businesses closed or their working hours reduced. More will be worried that this might happen to them too, especially as we do not know when the Emergency will end.

I know this is causing huge stress and anxiety to you and your families on top of the fear of the virus.

While we do not have all the answers now, we are doing and will do all we can to help you through the time ahead.

You will receive income support as quickly and efficiently as possible and when we are through the worst, we will get people back to work and get businesses open again.

Everyone in our society must show solidarity at this time of national sacrifice. For those who have lost their jobs and had their incomes reduced, there will be help and understanding from those who can give it, particularly the banks, government bodies and utilities.

We went into this crisis with a strong economy and the public finances in good order.

We have the capacity and credit rating to borrow billions if we need to.

I am confident that our economy will bounce back, but the damage will be significant and lasting. The bill will be enormous and it may take years to pay it.

The Government has already signed off a 3 billion euro package for health, social welfare and business – we will take further action as needed.

Tonight I know many of you are feeling scared and overwhelmed. That is a normal reaction, but we will get through this and we will prevail.

We need to halt the spread of the virus but we also need to halt the spread of fear.

So please rely only on information from trusted sources. From Government, from the HSE, from the World Health Organisation and from the national media.

Please do not forward or share messages that are from other, unreliable sources. So much harm has already been caused by those messages, and we must insulate our communities and the most vulnerable from the contagion of fear.

Fear is a virus in itself.

Please take regular breaks from watching the news and media, and from consuming social media. Constantly scrolling on your phone or obsessively following the latest developments is not good for anyone.

Look after your mental health and well-being as well as your physical health.

Tonight on our national holiday I want to send a message around the world that we are all in this together.

To the people of China, Spain and Italy who have suffered untold heartbreak and loss – we are with you.

To everyone who has lost a loved one to this virus – we are with you.

To all those living in the shadow of what is to come – we are with you.

Viruses pay no attention to borders, race, nationality or gender.

They are the shared enemy of all humanity.

And so will be the shared enterprise of all humanity that finds a treatment and a vaccine that protects us.

Tonight I send a message of friendship and of hope from Ireland to everyone around the world.

Lá Fheile Pádraig shona daoibh!

Oí­che mhaith.