Friday, July 21, 2017

Famous Speech Friday: Malala Yousafzai at the Canadian Parliament

(Editor's note: Leonoor Russell, a speechwriter from the Netherlands, calls this speech "a joy to watch," something we often forget about speeches. They can be fun, funny, and joyous, even in a staid parliament setting. I asked Russell to write about this speech for Famous Speech Friday.)

Malala Yousafzai - to many simply known as 'Malala' - is a Pakistani activist for female education. At age 11 she started writing a blog for the BBC about her life during the Taliban occupation. Originally, the blog was anonymous. But in the three years that followed she started doing more and more public performances, which led the New York Times to do a documentary on her.

Her public criticism of the Taliban's restrictions on girls' primary education caused Malala to receive various death threats. In 2012, a Taliban gunman shot her in the head as she rode home on a bus after taking an exam. The attempted murder was unsuccessful, but nevertheless left her very badly injured.

A traumatising event like this would silence the bravest of hearts; but instead Malala chose to let her voice sound louder than ever before. She continued her activism and started giving speeches all around the world. At age 17, Malala became the youngest-ever Nobel Prize laureate.

Last April, the Canadian government awarded Malala an honorary Canadian citizenship. In a moving, inspirational (and funny!) speech to the Canadian House of Commons, Malala accepts this rare honor. The speech is a joy to watch.

The speech touches on a number of highly political issues.

On immigration: "Welcome to Canada is more than a headline or a hash tag. It is the spirit of humanity that every single one of us would yearn for, if our family was in crisis. I pray that you continue to open your homes and your hearts to the world's most defenceless children and families — and I hope your neighbours will follow your example."

On education: "Education is vital for security around the world because extremism grows alongside inequality — in places where people feel they have no opportunity, no voice, no hope."

On emancipation: "We can gain peace, grow economies, improve our public health and the air that we breathe. Or we can lose another generation of girls."

Her most important message: "I used to think I had to wait to be an adult to lead. But I've learned that even a child's voice can be heard around the world."

What can we learn from this magnificent speech?

  • Be in control of the situation. After about 5 standing ovations in 10 minutes, Malala warns the audience that she is only on page 7 of her speech; so that they had better pace themselves before they get tired. A brilliant tongue-in-cheek remark that immediately puts her in control of the situation. She alone sets the pace for her speech and determines when and where there will be a pause. A remark like that requires confidence. What we can learn from this is that when you radiate confidence on stage, you put the audience at ease. Your listeners will feel comfortable, knowing that the speaker is in full control of the situation. 
  • Don't be afraid to keep it light. Despite the many weighty issues she addresses, Malala still manages to keep the speech light. She hilariously refers to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's age, tattoos and yoga-practice. She then uses her joke to make a serious point: "While it may be true that he is young for a head of government, I would like to tell the children of Canada: you do not have to be as old as Prime Minister Trudeau to be a leader!" By doing this, Malala manages to strike the perfect balance between playful gags and sincere gravitas. 
  • Write from the heart, speak with skill. This is a skill I had never recognised as such until Denise pointed it out to me in a speech from Michelle Obama. Showing emotion when you talk about personal experiences in a speech is a good thing, but you must always make sure you don't let that emotion distract from your main message. It is better to put your emotions in when you are preparing the text in advance. But when you read it out loud, you must to so with skill and tact. The audience will know a heartfelt message when they hear it. 
Malala masters this to a T. She refers to the fear she felt when she used to go to school and how she would hide the books under her scarf. When her mother tears up, Malala continues with a steady voice. This is impressive, given the horrible experiences that she has had to endure. (And don’t get me started on the fact that she is 19 years old and standing in a foreign parliamentary plenary hall filled with dignitaries.)

I hope to listen to many more of Malala’s speeches in the future.

Denise adds: Don't miss the amazing opening, after her thanks to various dignitaries. You can see the full text of Malala's speech, and watch the video here or below. You'll have to wait for three ads, but the speech is worth it:

Malala Yousafzai's full speech to the Commons

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