The publication today of a letter from a member of the Taliban explaining why the organisation shot the 16-year old schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai, is just the latest twist in the remarkable story of this young Afghan.
In my capacity as a corporate speechwriter I was particularly struck by her speech last week at the United Nations. I’d like to examine it to show what makes a good speech and to explore why this particular address was so much more striking and memorable than so many of the very worthy and admirable but, let’s face it, rather dull speeches made to the UN.
Grabbing the attention of the audience and then establishing your authority and developing some empathy with that audience, in other words making clear why they should is listen to you, is very important in any speech. Malala does this immediately thanks to her remarkable experience.
Leaders of organisations and businesses can do something similar by talking about their personal story – why they are speaking today and how they got here. How they feel about speaking to the audience and why they’re saying what they’re saying is also useful to establish them and to attract attention.
She has a clear message – that education is a force for good not evil, as the Taliban have suggested. Again the people I write speeches for need a clear, simple message and this is something that I help them to identify and focus on. Malala mentions that she is wearing a shawl that was once owned by Benazir Bhutto. Not many of us can rustle up the clothing of a murdered former prime minister to make a point but we can still use a striking visual aid, which will resonate the audience. Something surprising and unusual always works.
English isn’t her first language. But, perhaps because of this, her choice of words is simple and direct. Malala uses short words and short sentences. She looks up regularly from her text and sweeps the room with her gaze. She gets top marks on both points here.
“Today is the day of everyone – every girl and every boy who has raised their voice for their rights,” she tells us. From talking about her personal experience she is now expanding her scope and addressing a bigger concern. She then takes the focus back again when she says “Here I stand one girl among many.” This is important because it’s the one girl who we can relate to not the many. If I look at the mass I will never act, Mother Theresa of Calcutta is reported to have said.
She then says of a member of the Taliban: “If there was a gun in my hand I would not shoot him.” This is a good visual image and visual images work very well in speeches. Recent research has shown that leaders you use a visual imagery I’ll seem to be more charismatic and worth following by their audiences.
Malala goes on to invoke the Prophet Mohammed’s message of peace – notice that she doesn’t attack the Taliban full on but appeals to their values, something that they too agree with and understand. If you want to persuade an audience or convince someone appealing to common values is key. She then mentions Martin Luther King, Ghandi and Mother Theresa – again she is developing and extending her appeal to others in the audience with different faiths and cultures. Thinking about your audience is book one, rule one of giving a good speech or presentation. Education, she says, is a duty under Islam, again appealing to the shared values of those she’s trying to convince.
“Dear sisters and brothers – now is the time to speak up,” she tells her audience. This is great – a direct appeal to the audience, a clear call to action. Every speech for presentation should have an agent, a call to action. To drive it home she adds: “We must not forget that millions of children are suffering from ignorance as they are kept out of schools. Our sister and brothers are waiting for a right and future.” This is positive and forward-looking – again two things to include in the speech or presentation.
She adds a line which uses that famous “rhetorical device,” the power of three when she talks about “Illiteracy and poverty and terrorism.” Finally she concludes with a striking and very simple statement: “One child, one teacher, one book and one pen can change the world.”
Not many of us will ever have the opportunity to make a speech like this, but it might work as a corporate speechwriter I always interested to see what I can use for my clients. Like millions around the world I wish Malala the very best for the future.