Friday, May 31, 2013

Famous Speech Friday: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: "If your dreams do not scare you..."

Focused as I am on women and speaking, this commencement speech by the powerful Ellen Johnson Sirleaf --the president of Liberia and the first female head of state in Africa--is remarkable because it details how public speaking got her into serious trouble more than once in her career.

The first time, she was a junior official in Liberia's treasury department, and at a conference, "my remarks, which challenged the status quo, landed me in my first political trouble." Harvard officials at the conference helped her land a fellowship at the university to study public administration. But on her return, giving a commencement speech at her high school alma mater, she "questioned the government's failure to address long-standing inequalities in the society. This forced me into exile and a staff position at the World Bank." Sirleaf has been jailed for speaking out, as well.

These dramatic episodes, smoothed out and made crisp for the lectern at a formal speaking event, are only hinted at in her words. Instead, you'll catch her lively and strong voice when she uses sly humor throughout, tweaking the noses of her hosts, history and herself. Recalling George Marshall's speech in the same spot where he unveiled what's now known as the Marshall Plan, she said, "He began, 'I need not tell you gentlemen'," then added "I don't know where the ladies were."

Johnson recounts her administration's accomplishments against tall odds, then tells the graduates:
The size of your dreams must always exceed your current capacity to achieve them. If your dreams do not scare you, they are not big enough. If you start off with a small dream, you may not have much left when it is fulfilled because along the way, life will task your dreams and make demands on you.
    Here's what I think you can learn from this famous speech:
    • Big ideas don't need big words: Sirleaf demonstrates this tenet in the way she shares the measure of her success in building a peaceful nation: "Our seven-year-olds do not hear guns and do not have to run. They can smile again." It's an evaluative measure anyone can use, from an economist to a grandmother.
    • Mention women in many roles: It's only when you hear a strong woman like this deliver such a speech that you realize how frequently and easily she mentions women, saluting Harvard's first woman president, asking where the women were at George Marshall's commencement address, talking about moving more women into leadership roles in her country. This is decidedly not a speech that only casts women as "mothers, wives and daughters."
    • Add mirth to the mix: Sirleaf could be excused for giving a speech with an unrelenting catalog of serious issues. Instead, she pokes fun and prompts smiles throughout, not to make light of her nation or its challenges, but to take the mighty down a peg or two. It's a balancing act that makes this speech more personal and ultimately, more powerful and effective.
    You can read the text of her speech here, and watch the video below. What do you think of this famous speech?

    (Harvard University photo)
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