Friday, May 9, 2014

Famous Speech Friday: Queen Noor's 1996 Kennedy Center speech

For more than 30 years, Her Majesty Queen Noor al Hussein has been a thoughtful and passionate supporter of education, the arts and women's rights in Jordan, a position that has required some careful diplomacy as the first American-born queen of an Arab country. Even after her husband King Hussein's death in 1999, her international portfolio has included work on behalf of anti-landmine and anti-nuclear weapons organizations and the United World Colleges.

Oh, and did we mention her hair?

"There seems to be an unwritten law that every press report about me must contain the phrase 'mane of blonde hair,'" she acknowledged in her 1996 Kennedy Center speech, part of the Greater Washington Society of Association Executives distinguished speakers series for that year. Threaded together with her personal experiences, it's a fascinating, free-ranging talk about the recent history of the Middle East and the mistrust that still characterizes many of the exchanges between the region and the West.

If you've ever had to handle expectations about your appearance in a talk, this one's for you. And there's loads more you can learn from this famous speech:

  • Consider using your venue as part of the story. Queen Noor takes advantage of the Kennedy Center setting to establish her background as a Kennedy-generation student (in the first co-ed class at Princeton) who had considered a stint in the Peace Corps. This information, right at the start, gives her audience a sneak peek at her international and idealistic orientation toward the challenges she met later in Jordan.
  • Your personal story may make a larger point. The Queen does an excellent job throughout the speech of showing how her personal experience has helped her reflect on the impact of stereotypes on larger economic and geopolitical issues. Here's one great example:
    Among the most frequent and frustrating interview questions I am asked, one reflects the prevailing stereotypes of the Arab world: how could I as an independent, well-educated working Western woman adjust to life in the Arab world? In fact, my first impressions of Jordan were formed by my women friends, who were involved in many aspects of life, who were working, running family-owned factories, teaching...
  • If appearance is an issue, don't be afraid to meet it head-on. The Queen recalls an earlier Washington speech that she delivered about the Arab-Israeli conflict, and how the Washington Post "ran a story in the style section and zeroed in on what I wore rather than what I said." She's already noted in the speech that comments on her appearance seem inevitable. But she moves beyond that here to discuss similar challenges faced by all women in the public arena:
    ...I was soon able to empathize with the frustrations of women around the world whose activism for public well-being commonly generated attempts to define them primarily in material rather than intellectual terms--in terms of gender and domesticity, their hairstyles and clothing.
  • These days, you're most likely to hear from Queen Noor on Twitter (@QueenNoor) where she maintains her own active account. In a 2012 interview with The Telegraph, she singled out social media as an especially important part of making women's voices heard during the Arab Spring uprisings. Social media, she added, also helped "people to understand that women in the region are not a subservient, passive and homogeneous group, but in fact they represent many different viewpoints."

    Freelance writer Becky Ham contributed this Famous Speech Friday post.

    (Creative Commons licensed photo from the Skoll World Forum photostream on Flickr)

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