Malala Yousafzai – remarkable!

Four days ago on 12 July – her 16th birthday – Malala Yousafzai, wearing a shawl that had belonged to Benazir Bhutto, delivered a speech to the United Nations. On 9 October 2012, along with two classmates, she was shot in the head and neck by Taliban gunmen, wanting to suppress the education of girls. I am reluctant to use terms like ‘icon’, still less ‘poster-girl’, but undeniably she quickly became a symbol for a struggle for freedom against forces of terrorism. Western governments and media seized her story; she was flown to Birmingham, UK, and treated in the Queen Elizabeth Hospital.

The shooting incident did not parachute her from nowhere onto the world’s stage. Nor was the speech to the UN her first. She had blogged anonymously and spoken publicly for some years about the drive for education for Moslem girls. She had chaired public meetings, made videos. She featured in a 2009 TV documentary about The Taliban’s attempts to close down her school; and this public profile undoubtedly had something to do with her school van having been sprayed with bullets that day last October.

Immediately I have to marvel at the extraordinary assurance she shows in the opening minute. She has learnt how to convey confidence by opening with a very measured pace. She perfectly reflects the decorum of the setting. The only incongruity, if I might nit-pick, is in the words, “I don’t know where to begin my speech”. Oh yes she does!

At that second the camera cuts to three people sitting in reserved seats. In the middle is Ziauddin, her father; so I assume the others to be her brother and mother. I think we are observing whence this speech came. I don’t mean they wrote it for her or coached its delivery, though they may have made contributions; but we see the family unit that provided the nature, nurture and support that has put an astonishing degree of fire in this young belly, steel in her backbone and eloquence in her tongue. We can no more than guess at the constant peril in which they live at home in Pakistan.

Did I say steel in her backbone? Listen to the defiant auxesis with which she declaims from 4:35 that the bullets ignited thousands of voices in support of her campaign. Did I suggest that she knew exactly what she was doing in preparing this speech? Listen to the epistrophe that begins at 5:31, or the anaphora at 7:31

Does she know how to work a crowd? Listen to, and marvel at, the list of her heroes beginning at 6:30. That is a lesson in inclusivity. The list concludes with her parents and could be desperately saccharine, even emetic, in less skilful hands.

Her enunciation is excellent. Never does she sound over fastidious, yet every word gets across. At 9:03 the word “asked” has both the ‘k’ and the ‘d’ discreetly and effortlessly yet clearly uttered. She is really very good indeed.

If bullets do not silence her she has a distinguished future, but what will be the nature of that distinction? If I were to pray for her it would be for the wisdom of Solomon. As with the fictitious Dictator’s Speech by Charlie Chaplin that I critiqued a few weeks ago she, her talent and her message could be used to support many creeds and philosophies, not all of them benign though plausible and backed by immense political strength.

She will need that fire; she will need that steel; she will need that eloquence; she will need that wisdom.

Imran Khan has huge charisma; but he needs a little tuition

In February 2013 Imran Khan addressed the Oxford Union.

There is an introduction from Adnan Rafiq. It ends at 3:45, and Khan begins speaking at 4:08.  The intervening 23 seconds is filled by ecstatic applause. This is from an audience too young ever to have watched him play cricket; but then the man does ooze charisma. My wife (who is old enough to have watched him play cricket) peered over my shoulder and remarked on how good looking he still is. I shall try nevertheless not to hate him too much to be dispassionate about his speaking.

Immediately I give him credit for shooting the speech from the hip. He could do it better, but at least he is doing it.

Let’s examine how he could have done it better. After a little too much preamble (about which I shall say more later) he launches the main thrust of the speech at 5:25. He does it with the single word, “Leadership”, and then proceeds to define it. He aims to operate a  tripartite structure by giving three essential qualities for leadership –

  • Vision
  • Conquering of fear
  • Integrity

That would be excellent except that he contrives that each of those elements has subdivisions and qualifications that muddy the clarity, not just for the audience but for himself – he slightly loses the thread a couple of times. This vision, he says, should be selfless; courage should involve a degree of self-criticism; and lastly he tends to confuse integrity with credibility (the one is purely moral, the other can be concerned with skill). Suddenly therefore the definition of leadership is not tripartite but manifold. He needs to revisit his three sections, slightly re-define and re-title them so as to encompass the qualifications and thereby achieve the tripartite aspect that he evidently was seeking.

He follows all that with a section that can best be described as ethos. He talks about his cricketing experience and the leadership that is required of a team captain. He narrates the battle he had, building a cancer hospital in Pakistan. He speaks about how he refused to compromise his principles for self-advancement, and so on. It’s all good stuff, but the mistake here is that his ethos is following his argument, whereas it must precede it, because ethos should be an underpinning to provide the platform on which the argument stands. You could justifiably claim that Imran Khan has such a high public profile that he doesn’t need ethos to give his arguments credibility, but that is not an argument for putting ethos in the wrong place: it’s an argument for leaving it out.

So this is an overview of the layout of his speech.

  1. Preamble – principally Thankings, and with some slightly sentimental references to his sons being in the audience. Just over one and a quarter minutes of it.
  2. His definitions of Leadership
  3. His ethos.

I would either lose the ethos completely on the grounds of redundancy as argued above or I would slip little illustrative anecdotes into the three elements that define leadership.

And I would put the thankings somewhere else.

But where? Ay there’s the rub! Thankings are often overwhelmingly appropriate and we have to find somewhere for them. On the other hand bald openings are so powerful, that it is a terrible pity when your opening is forced to follow something else. If, for example, there is a formal greeting – “Your Royal Highnesses, my Lord Mayor, Ladies and Gentlemen…” then there is no way out. But thankings can be inserted towards the end…

“Finally, I’d like to say how much I appreciate having been given the chance to come here today. Your committee has been wonderfully welcoming… etc.”

Since this speech was delivered, he had that dreadful accident during his political campaign when he fell from a hoist. As I write, that was just over a month ago and he is now out of hospital. I wish him a speedy and complete recovery. 

Benazir Bhutto speaks her own epitaph

In August 2007, four months before she was assassinated in Rawalpindi, Benazir Bhutto appeared at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. The event was billed as ‘a conversation with…’. She was introduced by Richard N. Haass, president of the Council; she spoke for around 11 minutes; and then she joined Haass at a table where the conversation was conducted both with him and with the audience.

The above video material is almost an hour long (and a fascinating hour it is), but Ms Bhutto’s actual speech runs from 3:19 to 14:29.

After nearly 20 seconds of fairly formal preamble, thanking the council for inviting her, she actually begins at 3:38 with a strong anadiplosis which morphs into anaphora. “My country … is in a crisis. It’s a crisis which…  It’s a crisis which …” It is an opening which is silky smooth and very elegant.

Regular readers of this blog might be forgiven for thinking that I favour a more tub-thumping style of speaking, but it comes down to decorum. She is speaking in a manner which blends very well with the style of the occasion, her appearance, the timbre of her voice, the audience’s perception of her, etc. I have no quarrels whatever with the style of this speech.

She enjoys using anaphora. There are many examples. Beginning at 5:45 she has a small one on the words “a culture …”  At 6:31 there’s a more extensive one on the words “the freedom of…” At 8:24 she has a very long anaphora on the words “we see …”, and it’s not even hers! She is quoting a report from a US Intelligence threat assessment.

She has a script, but she doesn’t need it. You can tell that by how well she handles it – most of the time – with sustained periods with her face up to the audience rather than down and buried in the paper. I wish she had trusted herself to spend more time with her face up. There are several haltings which are of the type that typify those moments when the mind momentarily hunts for the next word that was written, rather than just trusting itself to utter the next word that naturally comes Those don’t happen later in the dialogue of the conversation itself, when she is perfectly fluent.

At 7:45 a sentence emerges that turns out to become the Face of the speech. “The choice is between dictatorship and democracy.”

At 12:38 she launches her peroration with the words, “Ladies and Gentlemen”, and stating that she plans to return to Pakistan to lead a democratic movement. The peroration is subtly slow to build, and indeed it never gets very strident; but with an element of steel in her voice and with the use of anaphora she makes it very clear that this is a Mission Statement – a statement of a mission which we with hindsight know will end in her death. As with all the best endings, you absolutely know when she has finished, even before she thanks the audience for their attention.