Friday, September 30, 2011

Famous Speech Friday: Princess Diana and the Ban on Landmines

Three weeks before she died in a Paris car crash, Diana, Princess of Wales was making headlines in Bosnia. Her 1997 visit to the country was the last in her world tour to raise awareness about the persistent dangers of anti-personnel landmines. Earlier that year, she had visited Angola to meet with several generations of landmine victims--and was criticized publicly by members of the British government as a "loose cannon" for her outspoken insistence that nations sign on to an international treaty banning landmines.

Outspoken was not the word for Diana as she began her career in the public eye. Early on she was dubbed "Shy Di" for her way of shrinking from photographers and podiums. She admitted that she giggled too much when she became nervous during a speech. But she was also aware that public speaking must become one of her strengths. Her speaking coaches included the actor Sir Richard Attenborough, Peter Settelen (who later become infamous for his candid recordings of Diana), and communications strategist Richard Greene.

They encouraged Diana to overcome her fears of public speaking by allowing herself to speak more conversationally and more passionately. One of her greatest strengths as a public figure was her sense of warmth, which conveyed beautifully in photos and video when she was filmed hugging a person with HIV or playing games with children in homeless shelters. Speaking would feel more comfortable, Greene told her, if she drew from the sense of compassion that seemed to come so easily to her.

Her Angola visit was highly publicized, and for the first time Diana found herself political news as the British government--not ready to sign on to a landmine treaty--was dismayed by her strong words on the topic. Arriving home, she gave a speech on landmines at the Royal Geographical Society in London that was anything but shy. Here's what you can learn from her famous speech:
  • She acknowledged what was in front of her audience--herself: Early in her speech, she addresses the controversy surrounding her Angola visit, defusing the question and defining her role in the cause: "Some people chose to interpret my visit as a political statement. But it was not. I am not a political figure. As I said at the time, and I'd like to reiterate now, my interests are humanitarian. That is why I felt drawn to this human tragedy."
  • She dressed for the occasion: Her choice of business-like black and white for the speech--severe and plain by the standards of the wardrobe of the world's most photographed woman--kept the focus on her words. She wore a similarly unadorned suit for another famous speech on the treatment of AIDS patients in 1993.
  • The problem belongs to all of us: Diana used several strategies throughout the speech to encourage the idea that landmines are a problem for all countries to solve. "We," "ours" and "us" appear frequently, and her rhetorical questions are some of the most passionate lines of the speech: "How can countries which manufacture and trade in these weapons square their conscience with such human devastation?"
In the following weeks, she repeated much of the speech in interviews and at other public events. Less than a year after her death, the United Kingdom became an official signatory to the Ottawa Treaty outlawing anti-personnel landmines around the world.  Watch this news report of her London landmines speech, with excerpts from it:

(Frequent contributor and freelance writer Becky Ham wrote this edition of Famous Speech Friday for the blog.)

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