Friday, April 6, 2012

Famous Speech Friday: Dame Enid Lyon's "Strike a Human Heart" speech


(Editor's note: Sydney-based speech and communications coach Claire Duffy, who has a special interest in women and young speakers, took me up on my request to help us find more international speakers for this series, and gives us a fine and moving example from her home country of Australia. Thanks, Claire!)

"Everything that takes place in this chamber goes out somewhere to strike a human heart."

Enid Lyons was the first woman elected to Parliament in Australia. At  41, she was already a popular presence, the mother of twelve children and the widow of  Prime Minister Joseph Lyons, who had died in 1939. The importance of this 1943 speech was felt by all, opponents and supporters alike, which may be why it was recorded. Her biographer says she admitted later to not having eaten before her delivery and being extremely nervous: "My lips were stiff when I started but all the men were wishing me well."

Dame Enid was not a grand person. She came from a small community in Tasmania and had been a school teacher. She met Joe at 15 and married him at 17 when he was 35.  

She  was always "a tremendous speaker."  In 2003 her son said  "There was a joke in the family that she could move her audience, even if she was talking about the price of broccoli or lettuce."   Her voice is melodious, her diction superb, and in her modest way, her language sings.  But  perhaps her greatest gift  was to put her domestic experience to great public effect. 

In the first two minutes of this speech she acknowledges the occasion and its importance for the nation.  She goes immediately to  the gender  issue: "Any woman entering the public arena must justify herself not as a woman but as a citizen..."  but she will not deny her sex. She  warns that her colleagues "will have to become used to the homely metaphors of the kitchen"  as  "every one of us speaks broadly in terms of our own experience."  She says she is a new broom, "a very useful adjunct to the work of the housewife but undoubtedly very unpopular in the broom cupboard." 

Her genius is to link the personal to the  political. In 1943 Australia's empty land mass and declining birthrate were a concern.  She says she had pondered  '"the subject of population...not with my feet upon the mantlepiece but knee deep in shawls and feeding bottles"  and she knew she had " ...at least tried out some of the theories which would make for a better population."

Dame Enid believed  "Every subject, from high finance to international relations, from social security to the winning of the war, touches very closely the home and the family." Although a conservative, her speech asks for social security "so the weak shall not go to the wall." She wants maternity and nursing services, better houses, and for women to be prepared for the war's end  when the men will come home '"torn, worn and wrecked."

She was emotional yet practical. "Because of what has happened to me in this war I have become disillusioned. For years I went about the world preaching the gospel of peace and friendship and co-operation. I believed with all my heart in disarmament, but I can never again advocate such a policy. I believe that we must arm ourselves to meet whatever danger may threaten us, but I also believe that we must co-operate with all those forces of good that are working for peace, and with all those people who have a will to peace, so that we may do whatever lies in our power to preserve peace in our time."

She closes  with a moving tribute to her husband. For him, "the problems of government were not problems of blue books, not problems of statistics, but problems of human values and human hearts and human feelings. That, it seems to me, is a concept of government that we might well cherish. It is certainly one that I hold very dear. I hope that I shall never forget that everything that takes place in this chamber goes out somewhere to strike a human heart, to influence the life of some fellow being".

Tips for today's speakers: 

  1. Dame Enid  is unaffected, and real.  She knew exactly what she was talking about, and  as result so did everybody else. Authenticity works.  Stick to what you know. Be yourself with no apologies  and  no pretensions. 
  2. Build rapport no matter what the occasion. Parliament is a highly formal situation, but Dame Enid manages to undercut it and create a personal connection. Although a public forum, her choice of domestic language and her frequent references to personal experience create a sense of intimacy which change the dynamic. It's almost as if we were at the table talking together, sharing the wisdom of an aunt or a mother - not in the legislature, which is really rather intimidating.  Note how she speaks directly to the audience, transitioning from one section to another cordially saying 'now let us ....' 'now let me...' inviting her audience in and acknowledging that they are part of  the event. 
  3. Be pleasing to the ear. Dame Enid had a  lovely  voice, and a gift for rhetoric. Her words are well chosen and sonorous; her phrases are balanced, her  cadences flow. Nothing she says is fancy or convoluted or concocted, and 70 years on, it still impresses.  The issues have dated and some of the  views seem quaint, but she's interesting, easy to understand, and we like her still. Use simple language and be direct with your listeners. Your  voice  is like  a paintbrush to give light and shade and depth to what you say. 
You can listen to audio of this speech, either by downloading the entire speech, or downloading it in four parts. Or, read the transcript. 

Earlier this year, Noreen Le Mottee read an excerpt from this speech that you can watch on video:

(Transcript source:  Hansard, Parliament of Australia. Photo by Antoine Kershaw.)


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