Not a Lone Voice, But Many: A Case Study in Harnessing the Power of Stories

“I tell my story, not because it is unique, but because it is not. It is the story of many girls. Today, I tell their stories too.”

-Malala Yousafzai

A young girl, because of the cultural, socioeconomic, and political circumstances in which she lives, is unable to go to school safely. This is a tragically common story for millions of women and girls around the world. But the story of a girl speaking out publicly against the violent forces attempting to keep her from going to school – being attacked by those forces –  and surviving potentially fatal injuries to speak out even more strongly about this issue is not a common story. This story is, in fact, unique – which is why the story of Malala Yousafzai has spread across the globe.

Malala Yousafzai, the now 18-year old Pakistani girl from Swat Valley who was shot by the Taliban in 2012 for speaking out for the girls’ right to education, has become a household name. Malala’s story has been told ever since she started writing for the BBC at the age of 11 under the pen name Gulu Makai. But her story has risen to greater prominence from the news coverage since the attack against her and her continued global activism, her book I Am Malala, and the documentary about her, He Named Me Malala.  This young girl has had the opportunity to address heads of state, to speak and travel internationally, and to build a global organization, The Malala Fund. This is not only due to her activism and laudable work, but in large part because of the power of her story. Malala has been able to harness her own story, and the story of other young girls, to build support for her organization’s work to advocate for and to create more opportunities for girls to receive an education.

One clear example of Malala harnessing the power of stories to build support for her work is her Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, in which Malala addressed dignitaries and distinguished guests from around the world, as well as the millions who would be able to watch her speech on TV and on the Internet.

On December 10, 2014, Malala Yousafzai became the youngest person ever to receive a Nobel Peace Prize. The Norwegian Nobel committee announced their decision to award the prize to Malala because of her advocacy for girls education, as well as to the Indian children’s rights activist Kailash Satyarthi, two months prior. “Despite her youth, Malala Yousafzai has already fought for several years for the right of girls to education, and has shown by example that children and young people, too, can contribute to improving their own situations,” the committee explained. “This she has done under the most dangerous circumstances. Through her heroic struggle, she has become a leading spokesperson for girls’ rights to education.”

In her 26-minute long acceptance speech, Malala masterfully spoke to her audience about the problem of girls being denied an education and why it is so important to solve this problem.

Let’s examine how Malala harnessed the power of stories in this speech:

Malala used her own story throughout her speech to address the larger issue of girls’ education. She spoke about her family and how they have encouraged her and her activism, joking several times about her relationship with her brothers: “I am pretty certain that I am also the first recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize who still fights with her younger brothers. I want there to be peace everywhere, but my brothers and I are still working on that.”

She framed her story around how some people describe her. “Some people call me the girl who was shot by the Taliban. And some, the girl who fought for her rights,” she said. “Some people, call me “Nobel Laureate” now.”

When she began to speak about why education is such a vital issue, she told her story to illustrate its importance. “Education is one of the blessings of life – and one of its necessities. That has been my experience during the 17 years of my life,” Malala stated. She described her deep love of learning in her home of Swat. She gave an example of how much she and her friends thirsted for knowledge. “I remember my friends and I would decorate our hands with henna on special occasions,” she said. “And instead of drawing flowers and patterns we would paint our hands with mathematical formulas and equations.”

Malala spoke about how her drive to learn, even amidst the changing environment as the Taliban came and took control of Swat. “Education went from being a right to being a crime. Girls were stopped from going to school,” Malala explained. “When my world suddenly changed, my priorities changed too. I had two options. One was to remain silent and wait to be killed. And the second was to speak up and then be killed. I chose the second one. I decided to speak up.”

She then spoke about how the Taliban attacked her and her friends, an attack that nearly cost Malala her life, and how that has motivated her and her friends even more to speak up against those forces that would keep girls from getting an education.

Malala then transitioned from telling her story to telling the story of other girls – ones that were sitting in the audience – who have faced similar challenges in getting their education.

Malala Photo 1--Credited

She spoke about her two friends – Shazia and Kainat – who were with her on the school bus that was attacked by the Taliban. She spoke about another friend from Swat—Kainat Soomro—who suffered violence and whose brother was killed, but who still went to school despite the risk. She spoke about 16-year old Mezon, one of the 1.4 million Syrian refugees living in Jordan, who “goes from tent to tent encouraging girls and boys to learn.” And she spoke about Amina, who comes from the region of Nigeria where Boko Haram preys on girls trying to go to school. Though she only mentioned them briefly, she captured the essence of each of these girls’ stories.

Malala then brought the issue into context through these various stories. “I am not a lone voice,” Malala explains. “I am many. I am Malala. But I am also Shazia. I am Kainat. I am Kainat Soomro. I am Mezon. I am Amina. I am those 66 million girls who are deprived of education. And today I am not raising my voice, it is the voice of those 66 million girls.”

Malala  3--Credited

There was one other moment in Malala’s acceptance speech in which she utilized the power of stories. After speaking about some of the other conditions that cause children to be deprived of education – war, social taboos, poverty, child labor or marriage – she spoke about another friend, one she did not name, from Swat. “One of my very good school friends, the same age as me, who had always been a bold and confident girl, dreamed of becoming a doctor,” Malala began. “But her dream remained a dream. At the age of 12, she was forced to get married. And then soon she had a son, she had a child when she herself was still a child – only 14. I know that she could have been a very good doctor. But she couldn’t…because she was a girl.”

Malala continued, “Her story is why I dedicate the Nobel Peace Prize money to the Malala Fund, to help give girls quality education everywhere, anywhere in the world and to raise their voices.”

She continues the rest of her speech by calling on world leaders – some in the room and some not – to act now to end this problem and ensure that no girl, no child, is without quality education.

At the time of writing this blog, more than 1 million people have watched the video of Malala’s speech on YouTube, and countless others have read the news coverage or watched clips of her speech. This speech is just one small part of her larger work around the world to address the issue of girls’ education. And harnessing the power of stories is as integral a part in her larger campaign, The Malala Fund, as it is in this speech. The Malala Fund’s advocacy work and public campaigns are also steeped in story.

So why does Malala tell these stories? How would telling her story and the stories of other girls help her raise awareness and support for girls’ education?

Malala 3

Stories, as I wrote a few weeks ago, provide a lens to understand problems in life in a safe way, without the emotional and tangible fallout that occurs in real life. Stories allow us to understand or connect to a situation that we may not have experienced ourselves.

As Malala said in her speech, 66 million girls are deprived of an education. This is a massive global problem, requiring multi-layered, complex solutions to meet the various contexts in which this problem occurs. The story of 66 million girls is so large, so abstract, that it is extremely difficult to picture what this problem really looks like in the world. And because of that, it is more challenging to get people who have not experienced this issue themselves to commit to helping to end this problem.

But one girl’s story – one person whom an audience can connect with through his or her experiences – can help an audience understand this much larger problem. And this way of understanding a problem through the lens of a person’s story that the audience connects with, that can picture and empathize with, compels the audience to action.

Malala’s own story is not ordinary, at least not anymore. But her story and the stories of those other girls struggling to get an education give those who have not experienced this struggle themselves the ability to understand a global problem affecting 66 million young people.

Malala harnessed the power of stories to give her audience a way to understand this problem and to compel them to act to end it. She used these stories to inspire action, so that, as she says, “it becomes the last time that we see a child deprived of education.”


This blog is part of a series “Lessons in Communication from a Dancer,” which uses principles and skills of dance as a way to better understand the key principles of effective communication.