Friday, June 3, 2016

Famous Speech Friday: Empress Theodora's throne-saving speech

Some of the most stirring and famous speeches by women in history occurred when they helped their more-famous husbands retain power in a perilous situation, as Eleanor Roosevelt did at the 1940 Democratic National Convention, saving husband Franklin D. Roosevelt's nomination for a third term as U.S. president. In this, she might have been inspired by a much earlier force of nature, the sixth-century Empress Theodora of Byzantium.

The Nika riots, which began during a hippodrome chariot race as a rivalry between two political factions in the year 532, declared a new emperor and overwhelmed sitting Emperor Justinian and his forces. Justinian and his government council were ready to flee the country when the empress spoke up in the meeting. And because she used part of her short remarks to shut down complaints that a woman should not be speaking in public, we today get a glimpse of how unusual her speech was for its day. Here it is in full:
My lords, the present occasion is too serious to allow me to follow the convention that a woman should not speak in a man’s council.  Those whose interests are threatened by extreme danger should think only of the wisest course of action, not of conventions.
In my opinion, flight is not the right course, even if it should bring us to safety.  It is impossible for a person, having been born into this world, not to die; but for one who has reigned it is intolerable to be a fugitive.  May I never be deprived of this purple robe, and may I never see the day when those who meet me do not call me empress. 
If you wish to save yourself, my lord, there is no difficulty.  We are rich; over there is the sea, and yonder are the ships.  Yet reflect for a moment whether, when you have once escaped to a place of security, you would not gladly exchange such safety for death.  As for me, I agree with the adage that the royal purple is the noblest shroud.
Instead of fleeing, the emperor and his officers attacked the rebels, killing a reported 30,000 and saving the throne. No wonder this short speech has been retold again and again through the centuries. What can you learn from it?
  • Set up a contrast to create drama and underscore your point: "If you wish to save yourself, my lord, there is no difficulty.  We are rich; over there is the sea, and yonder are the ships.  Yet reflect for a moment whether, when you have once escaped to a place of security, you would not gladly exchange such safety for death." This passage takes the time to set the scene for the alternative: A safe, comfortable flight and exile. Then she asks the real question: Would that truly be more comfortable?
  • Use an invisible visual to get into the mind's eye of your audience: Theodora refers to "this purple robe," visible to her original audience. For those of us reading it down the centuries, however, it's a picture in the mind's eye, invisible, yet still vivid. She also repeats a reference to her purple robe at the end of the speech for added emphasis, in the line that is most cited today: "Royal purple is the noblest shroud."
  • State your opinion clearly when it counts the most: "In my opinion, flight is not the right course, even if it should bring us to safety" could not be more clear--and clarity of opinion makes for a stronger speech. Again, she uses the ending of her short speech to reiterate her opinion with "As for me..."  Don't be afraid to have and share your opinion when it counts.
Theodora began her career as an actress, then a shunned profession considered unworthy of polite society; eventually, she became an empress who was the strongest defender of the throne. That's quite a journey. And now, her speech is the oldest speech in our collection of famous speeches, by many centuries. You can find out more about Theodora and her amazing life in a BBC documentary series, The Ascent of Woman, now available globally on Netflix. Here's a trailer for the series, which is a great way for you to catch up on the history of women around the world.

(Image of Theodora in a detail of a Byzantine mosaic in the Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna)

Join me in Edinburgh, Scotland, on October 20 for a new workshop, Add Meaning with Metaphor: Improve your Speeches with the Most Powerful Figure of Speech. It's a pre-conference workshop at the Edinburgh Speechwriters and Business Communicators Conference, designed to help both speakers and speechwriters use this powerful tool. You can register here for just the workshop, the conference, or both, and you'll get the best discount if you sign up by August 1.

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