Friday, August 5, 2011

Famous Speech Friday: Margaret Thatcher's "Iron Lady" speech

Public speaking helped to fuel and sustain the rise of Margaret Thatcher, who became the first woman to lead a major Western democracy, re-elected three times as Prime Minister of England. But long before anyone knew her, it was her speaking that made her stand out. In the early 1950s, during her first run for a seat in Parliament, she was the youngest woman candidate in England, and her biography notes that:
Unlike many Conservatives at that time, she had little difficulty getting a hearing from any audience and she spoke easily, with force and confidence, on issues that mattered to the voters.
Thatcher, who said in an interview as late as 1973 that she didn't think there would be a woman prime minister, was the Conservative party leader and a few years away from that role yet when she gave her so-called "Iron Lady" speech, titled "Britain Awake," making the case for strengthening the nation's defenses, particularly against the threat of an attack from Soviet Russia. This Cold War speech gave Thatcher the nickname she would carry from then on: Within a few days of this speech, the Soviet Army newspaper Red Star had dubbed her the "Iron Lady," and the nickname stuck.

The "Iron Lady" tag was used, variously, to describe her strong conservative principles and defense strategies, but also to suggest that she was "harsh or uncaring in her politics." Thatcher--whose face was put on everything from china cups to toilet paper during her terms as Prime Minister--made light of the title in a dinner speech to British conservatives:

What puts the spine in the "Iron Lady" speech? Here's what to look for:
  • A strong, declarative voice:  No hesitating "you knows" or "likes" in this speech. "Let us," "Let's," "we must" are her call-to-action constructions. This is old-school rhetoric, and it works in a speech that ultimately helped her to rise to lead a nation. It's strong and confident, and doesn't back into any of its points, but meets them head-on. Her words embrace the policy and push it forward.
  • Using opposites to create contrast and transition: "I would be the first to welcome any evidence that the Russians are ready to enter into a genuine detente. But I am afraid that the evidence points the other way" allows her to move from positive to negative points while appearing measured and balanced. It moves the speech forward, and the contrast helps to make this a memorable line. It also tells you where she stands, both by clarifying her position and taking the time to look at her opponent's stance--a double reinforcement of her point.
  • Wry humor, even when discussing serious topics: "If there are further cuts, perhaps the Defence Secretary should change his title, for the sake of accuracy, to the Secretary for Insecurity" typifies a Thatcher tactic of looking for a laugh, even a small one, well into a speech in which she's laying down a strict policy proposal. It provides needed relief to the speech, and lets the audience release emotions that might be building--a great tactic any speaker can use to good effect.
Few leaders have to announce a retirement from public speaking, but because she was such a frequent speaker throughout her career, Thatcher did just that in March 2001, after a series of small strokes. She's the subject of a film titled "Iron Lady," starring Meryl Streep, that's due out in January 2012. In this preview clip, you can see her in a meeting early in her political career with two male advisers, discussing her public image and her public speaking. And she schools them a bit:

Thanks to the Margaret Thatcher Foundation, you can find a stunning archive of her speeches from 1945-1990, often with notes about delivery, the hall in which it was given and how news accounts covered the speech. It's a goldmine.

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