Friday, October 7, 2011

Famous Speech Friday: Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai's hummingbird fable

She started a movement to reforest Kenya, provide jobs for women and stop damaging erosion, paying women a small sum to plant the trees--and eventually, caused 30 million trees to be planted, helping 900,000 women. No wonder Wangari Maathai, who died in late September at age 71, won the Nobel Peace Prize. Maathai, who spoke in forums large and small all over the world, also suffered for speaking out: She was hit with tear gas and beaten unconscious when protesting in Kenya. Her obituary notes that "Her husband, Mwangi, divorced her, saying she was too strong-minded for a woman, by her account. When she lost her divorce case and criticized the judge, she was thrown in jail."

The same persistence that she showed in her work comes through in a story she told again and again in speeches, a fable about the hummingbird, who alone among the animals affected by a forest fire, attempts to put the fire out, as tiny as it is. Here's what you can learn from this storytelling speech:
  • A fable works in settings sophisticated and simple: Fables, an ancient teaching tool, are analogies in story form, replacing humans with animals. They're the oldest of old-school storytelling tactics, and have fallen out of favor in modern times. But for Maathai--who spoke in tiny Kenyan villages to illiterate women and in major international diplomatic forums--this story worked wherever she went.
  • Move your story forward with your voice and your gestures:  The rise and fall of her voice and her gestures--here, the flitting hummingbird going back and forth, there, the elephant's trunk--means Maathai needs no slides and no video to put across the story. The gestures underscore what she's saying, and they make sure the audience will more readily recall parts of the story.
  • A fable makes a strong ending: Some speakers trail off and ask for questions. But by using a fable  to tie her remarks together, Maathai ensures that her audience will be left with strong imagery, an easy-to-repeat story, and a straightforward lesson and call to action. "Be a hummingbird in your community, wherever you are," Maathai tells the audience. After this story, who would say no?
Watch Maathai tell this tale in the video below:

(Photo from World Agroforestry Centre's Flickr photostream)

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