Friday, August 15, 2014

Famous Speech Friday: Angelina Jolie on sexual violence in conflict

She's better known for her acting roles, but it's her position as a special envoy for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees that puts Angelina Jolie in public speaking roles again and again. In London in June, she opened the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, speaking to the delegates from 100 countries to encourage them as they began deliberations. Jolie is no stranger to the work, having served for a decade as a UN goodwill ambassador, traveling to dozens of countries to visit displaced people, and contributing $5 million herself to the issue.

Recently, rape in war zones has been a recurring theme of her UN work, in less publicized testimony at the UN. But the summit, paired with a G8 meeting of heads of state, brought the topic into high relief, and Jolie's brief opening statement matched that focus, tackling the topic in direct and forceful language:
It is a myth that rape is an inevitable part of conflict. There is nothing inevitable about it. It is a weapon of war aimed at civilians. It has nothing to do with sex; everything to do with power. It is done to torture and humiliate innocent people and often very young children. I have met survivors from Afghanistan to Somalia and they are just like us, with one crucial difference: we live in safe countries with doctors we can go to when we are hurt, police we can turn to when we are wronged and institutions that protect us. They live in refugee camps or bombed-out streets in areas where there is no law, no protection and not even the hope of justice. They struggle to keep their children safe and if they admit to being raped they are likely to face more violence and social rejection. 
Her call to action to the delegates used her platform to speak about the issue in terms of the silence that more often surrounds it:
This whole subject has been taboo for far too long. War zone rape is a crime that thrives on silence and denial. The stigma harms survivors, it causes feelings of shame and worthlessness. It feeds ignorance such as the notion that rape has anything to do with normal sexual impulses. But most of all, it allows the rapist to get away with it. They feel..(applause)..above the law because the law rarely touches them and society tolerates them. As Eleanor Roosevelt once said 'The destiny of human rights is in the hands of all our citizens and all our communities' and this evil will continue, ruining the lives of millions of people unless we make this summit a turning point.
Now that's a call to action.

In an interview at the summit with BBC Woman's Hour, Jolie describes a change in her approach to the topic that was prompted by her public speaking: "My first few years with the UN, I would travel to a refugee camp and I would see hundreds of thousands of refugees and victims and young children, and I would cry. And it would be hard to get through a speech 'cause I would just keep crying....when I finally was able to get angry was I able to really feel have to have force and strength in order to make a difference." What can you learn from this famous speech?
  • Be a nerd on your issue: Jolie has put the time into understanding the issue firsthand, making herself an expert on an ignored issue. It shows in her remarks, loaded as they are with authentic content instead of easy platitudes. As a result, she's a more credible spokesperson.
  • Use clear, simple language on complex issues: There is nothing simple about war-zone rape, but everything about this statement is clear and simple. Take these sentences--"This whole subject has been taboo for far too long. War zone rape is a crime that thrives on silence and denial."--in which all the words but three are one syllable, and those three words (subject, silence, denial) have but two and three syllables each. It's a myth that you need multi-syllabic words to prove your expertise, and Jolie is smart enough to know that.
  • Quote women: This is primarily a woman's issue, and Jolie repeats Eleanor Roosevelt's words on civic involvement in human rights to good effect. One way women speakers can recapture an authentic female voice is to quote women speakers, too often ignored. Roosevelt's speeches on the UN human rights declaration, which she shepherded to consensus, are part of The Eloquent Woman Index.
Watch the video of Jolie's remarks below. What do you think of this famous speech?

I'll be leading Be The Eloquent Woman, my day-long workshop on women and public speaking, as a pre-conference session at the European Speechwriter Network's autumn speechwriters and business communicators conference in Amsterdam. The workshop is 23 October and the conference is 24 October. You'll learn how to speak with confidence, content and credibility to subvert the common expectations of women speakers. Please join me!