Friday, April 29, 2011

Famous Speech Friday: Elizabeth II tribute to Princess Diana

As Princess Diana's son, Prince William, marries today, I wanted to devote "Famous Speech Friday" to a pivotal televised live speech given by his grandmother, Queen Elizabeth II, in tribute to his mother after her death.

The queen's tribute to Princess Diana came only after Britain's royal family had been widely criticized for its absence from London, where mourners gathered in the streets and left as many as a million bouquets and other tributes at the gates of the royal palaces. This was, ultimately, a speech that had to be given. To my mind, the speech has to be evaluated while considering "What if she hadn't said this?" While it didn't satisfy all listeners, it filled communications gaps and gave voice to a collective mourning unlike any the world had seen at that point.

The first plan was to submit it to the networks as a taped address--something that had become customary for the queen, whose last live television address took place in 1959. The stakes were much higher in 1997. This time, hundreds of millions of people watched this speech around the world, simultaneously, as it was happening.  Here's what speakers can learn from this short but powerful speech:
  • It responds to questions in the air: The three-minute speech explains what the royal family was doing, ensconced at its Balmoral palace, but also answers with her presence the question the headlines were screaming: "Where is our queen?" 
  • It trades control for connection: In giving up the control of a taped speech, which could be redone, the queen gained the immediacy and connection that can be had with live television. It's powerful and something a recorded speech can't accomplish.
  • The setting reinforces reality: Behind the queen, you can see the thousands of people gathered outside the palace, a moving backdrop of the audience she was trying to reach. That gives the scripted remarks yet more immediacy.
  • She talked to the audience in person, first: Following a longstanding custom, the queen and other members of the royal family were in the square in front of the palace, shaking hands with the mourners and talking with them, one-on-one--just as you might do before a formal speech or presentation. That, too, helped to forge a stronger connection with the television audience and gave her the chance to hear directly what people were thinking and saying before she spoke to the nation.
  • It included the personal perspective: By speaking not just as a monarch but as a grandmother, and sharing family details that would ordinarily remain private, this speech fulfilled a challenge it had to meet: Making the queen seem, again, like one of the people. .
This speech worked for many because it took her listeners back to an earlier time of crisis.  Elizabeth had spent much of her early life as a symbol of solidarity with the people, from her childhood days when the royal family stayed in London during the blitz attacks of World War II. Her very first speech was delivered at age 14, in December 1940, on the BBC's "Children's Hour" program, to reach out to children evacuated from the city and the blitz.  For Britons of a certain age, the queen's live public speaking--even if on a broadcast--was a comforting touchstone. And while never referenced in her tribute to Diana, those early speeches came back to mind. Here's a recording of that first speech.

    After this famous tribute to Diana, the queen altered her televised annual Christmas address, making it longer and more personal, a change  "from the stuffy tones of broadcasts past."  Here's video of the tribute, wrapped in a news broadcast. What do you think of it?

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