Friday, May 11, 2012

Famous Speech Friday: Severn Suzuki's 1992 UN Earth Summit speech

It's been 20 years since Vancouver native Severn Suzuki, then 12 years old, took the microphone at the United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. Five minutes later, she'd delivered a speech that's still going viral, popularly known online as "The Girl Who Silenced the World for Five Minutes."

She was 9 when she started the Environmental Children's Organization with a small group of other children, and they raised the money to attend the UN Earth Summit, where Severn closed a plenary session with this speech.

One reason the speech worked so well was her tactic of addressing the adults directly as a child would. There's no effort here to sound older than her years, and it works in passages like this one:
I’m only a child and I don’t have all the solutions, but I want you to realise, neither do you!  You don’t know how to fix the holes in our ozone layer. You don’t know how to bring salmon back up a dead stream. You don’t know how to bring back an animal now extinct. And you can’t bring back forests that once grew where there is now desert. If you don’t know how to fix it, please stop breaking it!
And she was an effective ambassador on behalf of children everywhere, by turning on its head the reason adults usually cite that their efforts are "for the children." Here, with the speaker a child herself, she makes what would otherwise sound trite a more concrete concern:
Do not forget why you’re attending these conferences, who you’re doing this for — we are your own children. You are deciding what kind of world we will grow up in. Parents should be able to comfort their children by saying “everything’s going to be alright” , “we’re doing the best we can” and “it’s not the end of the world”.
Here are some tips you can use from this famous speech:
  • Real-life experience lends credibility: Suzuki speaks of spending time outdoors, so her high-minded ideals can be described in concrete terms, words that both connect her to the audience and build her credibility. Always underscore your position with real experience when you speak.
  • Go after the big speaking opportunity: She could have spoken locally, but taking the initiative to line up the UN summit and raise the money to attend demonstrates what can happen when the speaker swings for the fences--this hit a home run in part because of the audacity of seeking out such a platform.
  • Speak for yourself: Throughout, Suzuki used "I" statements -- "I am a child" -- and spoke firmly as the young person she was. It's authentic, and keeps her on point. 
Now Severn Cullis-Suzuki, the girl who silenced the world is still an activist involved in environmental causes, and has gone on to do many more speeches, television hosting and other types of public speaking. But it's hard to top this early effort. You can read the full text of her speech and do watch the video below. What do you think of this famous speech?