Omar Rajarathnam, in Factum, 22 November 2021, where the title reads “Factum Perspective – Speech lessons for Lankan leaders from Barbados PM”
Sri Lankan leaders in recent times have often struggled to effectively advocate for the country’s interest at international forums. The likes of Sirimavo Bandaranaike, J.R. Jayewardene and Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga during the pre-2000 era were exceptions. In the last 15 years, Sri Lankan leaders have failed to deliver show stopping speeches in international engagements. Why is this challenging, and how do leaders like Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley speak with impact at the world stage despite a population 90 times less than Sri Lanka?
Speeches at the United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP 26 World Leader Summit in Glasgow in October-November by Mottley and Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa make for a distinct analogy. Mottley began with a punch line “The pandemic has taught us that global solutions to natural problems do not work.’’ This clearly identified the problem at hand and world leaders had no choice but to listen to Molley’s fact-based rendition thereafter. She then began shooting out the statistics noting that finance pledges for climate frontline small-island developing states (SIDs) declined by 25% in 2019. The 8 minute 13 second speech carried approximately 57 sentences where the 65 year old lawyer delivered an average of seven sentences per minute. 19 sentences (33%) provided crucial statistics, 13 (23%) of them called world leaders into action, 16 (28%) of them were generic but relevant statements. The speech also featured 11 (19%) rhetorical questions which alluded to criticise the absence of China. She also asked if ‘’some world leaders think they can thrive and survive on their own even after the pandemic’’ during which US President Joe Biden was seen looking down. Mottley’s hand gestures during the speech were effective because she appeared to be familiar with every word, sequences and the value it added to the point she wanted amplified. Every sentence had emotion, logic, coherence and choreography.
President Rajapaksa’s speech was completed in 4 minutes and 40 seconds which featured 24 sentences, where the 72 year old retired military officer delivered an average of four sentences per minute. 17 (70%) of the sentences were generic statements, 5 sentences (21%) provided statistics, 2 sentences (8%) called world leaders to act to ‘’save humanity’’. The speech posed no specific question for leaders, nations or power blocs present. It however included reference to the chemical fertisliser ban introduced by Rajapaksa as if it were a grassroots success. Not once during the entire rendition did President Rajapaksa’s hands leave the sides of the podium which he tightly clung on to. His hands had no use because the speech featured no questions for the world leaders and neither did it have a unique call to action.
President Rajapaksa is not the only Sri Lankan leader who has had this struggle. His predecessor Maithripala Sirisena too was an unconvincing speaker. Sirisena’s government had unprecedented support from the international community that leaders of developed nations built into their event itinerary a photo-op with Sirisena to project endorsement to honour the hope he represented at the time. After all, Sri Lanka and Myanmar were the West’s model good governance projects which collapsed beyond measure within a span of five years.
Sirisena was either too detached from the international engagements or unusually star-struck to provide an elevator pitch of Sri Lankan policies at these settings. When he did speak, his speeches too had generic statements, pleasantries, explanations on what a selfless leader he was or rants about Nelson Mandela. Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa despite being an impactful orator in local politics suffered similarly in international settings, but his charisma and political expediency in most cases acted as his saving grace.
Leaders such as Ranil Wickremesinghe, Karu Jayasuriya, G.L. Pieris and the late Mangala Samaraweera kept policy agendas on track despite the hierarchy of engagements. However, addressing world leaders summits are mostly reserved for heads of state.
A good team of policy, speech and communications staff are vital for leaders to make the best representation of Sri Lanka within the few minutes allocated to them at bi-lateral and multi-lateral conferences. They allow heads of states to openly put country-specific interests and regional agendas on the table and provide timely and thematic opportunities to make policy statements and mostly importantly draw attention to what Sri Lankan cannot cooperate on. Policy teams therefore have a duty to provide open and critical feedback to a head of state at preparatory stage so they know what to expect, know how to stand, know how to use their hands, know how to make a policy elevator pitch and most of all know how to pivot to the talking points despite distractions. A cheer squad guised as a policy, speech or public outreach team is recipe for a public posturing disaster and has unfortunately been the dominant case.
International forums are based on the premise that ‘’all members are equal.’’ There is no need for Sri Lankan leaders to turn these forums into venues of endorsements for questionable policies. It has long been argued that the size of the economy is a decisive factor in being heard by the big powers. Mottley and Barbados with a GDP of 5 billion dollars, 75 billion dollars lower that Sri Lanka has proven otherwise. Some analysts also note that India or West-led international pressure on Sri Lanka since the end of the war has made it difficult for Sri Lankan leaders to use these forums as a platform to promote national interests because there is either pre-conference lobbying or Tamil Diaspora protests which distract the leaders.
Whatever the reason, despite good policy and communications staffers, the oratory skills of a leader are paramount in making sensible and impactful policy speeches. Practice is one way to improve lapses in the ability to orate well. Lobbying heads of state to participate in interactive media engagements over the preferred concepts of one-way address to the nation may be a good starting point in resolving this challenge.
The Writer is the Co-Founder of Factum and the former Head of Communications at the U.S. Embassy to Sri Lanka and Maldives.
Disclaimer – Factum is a Sri Lanka based think-tank providing international relations analysis and public diplomacy consultancies in Sri Lanka and Asia. Visit – http://www.Factum.LK