Communication skills 101: Why Zille fails to influence

John French

Overview :

I explore the reasons Helen Zille’s communication style fails to resonate and influence the majority of South Africans by examining the psychology of influence.

Helen Zille can really improve her communication skills

Helen Zille: a communication skills case study

Back in 2012, I wrote several commended articles for The Star, The Argus and Cape Times newspapers on Helen Zille’s communication style. I attempted to explain why Helen does not resonate with and had failed to win over black voters.

Seven years later: last week Helen Zille was almost breaking the internet, making huge headlines with her epic political comeback and shaking our political landscape to its very core.

In 2019, South Africa is now in a far more desperate political and economic situation. So many South Africans are searching for an alternative to the ANC and seeking a political saviour.

One can only ask: why isn’t Helen Zille’s political track record being acknowledged, embraced and voted for by the majority of South African voters? Why the enormous disconnect? Why is Helen Zille still failing to win over the support of the very people who are desperate for change and a better future?

My thought piece written over seven years ago, hopefully will provide you with some strategic insights.

Helen Zille: an interesting political and communication case study written 7 years ago

She has been hailed as the hardest-working politician in SA, with an unparalleled track record of professionalism, successes and service delivery excellence.

Helen Zille should be perceived as a paragon of national strength, patriotic loyalty and determination, yet this “Iron Lady of Africa” is failing to win over the majority “black vote”.

Unfortunately for Helen, politics is not a logical game. Politics is rather the ultimate strategic game, based on managing public perceptions, and earning and winning emotional loyalty and buy-in from the voters.

Votes are directly linked to our core values, our powerful subconscious drivers and our deeply entrenched belief systems. No one is going to vote for a candidate or party that doesn’t resonate with them at a core, fundamental level.

Helen Zille, the communicator

To examine Helen Zille as a communicator, I first need to assess her personality type, which will give rise to her communication style, her strengths and indeed her communication weaknesses. In my opinion, I observe Helen as a blend of the two logical personality types – an Analytical-Driver personality type. This is what I call “double-logic”. This means Helen approaches life, situations and people with a very logical lens and filter. She is straightforward, direct, determined and highly logical and practical.

The downside of highly logical people is that they fall very short on all the communication deliverables at the emotional end of the spectrum. Emotional Intelligence, empathy, warmth and likeability are often the communication and personal brand elements that are missing. Highly logical people tend not to be warm nor highly likeable personalities, and politics is a popularity game.

The downside is that these strong and often stroppy logical politicians is that they tend to be too direct and often insensitive in the tone of their messaging. They lack sensitivity in a highly woke world. Just think about Helen Zille’s many disastrous tweets. Think what you will: most will agree that these tweets were totally inappropriate and very insensitive in our highly polarised and highly-charged society.

No wonder Helen has given easy cannon fodder and ammunition to the media as well as to her detractors and political enemies. She has naively and stupidly tweeted explosively insensitive tweets that have caused online explosions which could easily have ended her career.

Emotional Intelligence, being more sensitive about the TONE of one’s communication messages, and having greater empathy are the major learning curves for logical communicators.

Learn, Helen, learn.

Helen Zille’s voice analysed by John French
Another article from the Argus Newspaper circa 21012 written by John French

Helen Zille’s voice

As a highly experienced voice coach with 23 years of vocal coaching experience, I now analyse Helen Zille’s voice.

It was the great British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli who captured it quite aptly, more than a century ago, when he concluded: “There is no index of character so sure as the voice.”

A person’s entire psychological profile is embedded in this magical vocal instrument. The tone of a person’s voice projects their psychological persona and attitude and accounts for roughly 85% of their communication impact.

In the voice-training industry, we reckon that as much as 85 percent of our overall vocal impact is projected by our vocal tone. It is very much a case of “It’s not what you say, but how you say it” that makes by far the biggest impact when we communicate.

When I listen to Zille’s voice, I hear a strong and determined strength. Her voice has power, determination and she is unquestionably brave. Zille does endure major stress from time to time, which manifests in her evident chronic throat tension, causing her to sound very harsh, strident and gruff at times.

This was especially evident in the first 18 months when the Democratic Alliance came to power in the Western Cape, when the ANC was challenging the fragile DA control, at every turn. Zille’s voice was very hoarse and strident during this period, with the political tension strangling her vocal chords.

For me, the vocal coach, I would advise Helen to learn how to soften her harsh tone of voice.

On top of being a highly logical person, Helen Zille comes from a strong Germanic background, which has speech patterns that are pushed, hard and guttural to the ear. German is a far harder language than the softer more romantic lyrical languages like French, Italian and English.

This translates into harder vocal tones coming through in Helen’s voice, and I hear evidence of this hard Germanic vocal heritage coming through in Zille’s speech patterns.

Godzille the harsh communicator emerges

Helen’s strong logical personality with her Germanic vocal influences, compounded by her affluent “white”accent, combine to create Zille’s greatest communication and cultural barrier.

The moment she opens her mouth, Zille unfortunately sounds like the archetypal voice of the hard and strident white “madam”. This is the very stereotypical voice that has caused so much pain, dislike and collective hate during the traumatic Apartheid days.

The collective black subconscious can only, and quite understandably, resist and distrust Helen the communicator and politician. Black South Africans cannot bring themselves to vote for the “voice of the oppressor”, no matter her successful track record.

Putting it bluntly, Helen Zille could not sound worse than she does, if she is trying to attract the black vote.

Can Helen Zille improve her voice?

Is there any solution or way to overcome this political vocal dilemma? Fortunately, my answer is yes.

One only has to throw one’s mind back to the other “Iron Lady” (former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher), who, very wisely, recognised the power of the voice as a political tool and successfully underwent a total vocal metamorphosis.

Margaret Thatcher wisely and strategically lowered her high pitch by a whole octave, softened her tone to project greater warmth and empathy, and won over the British voters in several general elections.

Helen Zille needs to realise that politics and attracting voters is far more of an emotional than a logical political game. Great politicians need to win trust; they need to inspire emotional safety, and it is essential that they project warmth and empathy. These are all vocal development areas that can be taught and developed.

If you would like help developing your vocal potential, or want to learn how to present, influence and lead, feel free to contact Communication Guru John French at

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Stress Management is a vital module in all of our training programmes because stress is the greatest enemy of effective communication. Listen to this 8 minute beautiful guided relaxation by Jenny Ibbotson. It will help you to manage anxiety and develop a habit of calmness.


Stress Management is a vital module in all of our training programmes because stress is the greatest enemy of effective communication. Listen to this 8 minute beautiful guided relaxation by Jenny Ibbotson. It will help you to manage anxiety and develop a habit of calmness.


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