Analysis of Malala Yousafzai’s speech to the UN General Assembly


by Peter Watts

Shot in the head by the Taliban simply for going to school, Malala Yousafzai has not only recovered from appalling injuries, but has gone on to become a champion for the rights of children everywhere to be educated.

Today, before the UN General Assembly, Malala delivered a speech of substance, power, and grace.

This speech deserves to be heard. This speech deserves to be read. This speech deserves to learned. Both for it’s incredible message, and for the incredible public-speaking skills of this 16 year old girl.

Unassailable ethos

The first challenge any speaker faces is to establish their ethos, their credibility to speak. For this speech Malala wished to establish herself not as a victim of violence, but as a champion against it.

“….it is an honor for me that today I am wearing a shawl of the late Benazir Bhutto.”

We sometimes speak of somebody “putting on the mantle” of a hero, but this is the first time I can recall somebody literally wearing the mantle. The mantle of a female Pakistani leader, a champion of education, assassinated by terrorists. Furthermore, the mantle of a woman who had spoken at the UN, and would have been known by many of those in the audience.

Indeed a mantle of power, yet contrasted beautifully against the phrase “dear brothers and sisters”, which appears in almost every paragraph, and reminds the audience of whom Malala ultimately represents: the young.

A triple trilogy of power

A similar evocation of power appears later, in a trio of trilogies:

“This is the compassion that I have learned from Mohammed, the prophet of mercy, Jesus Christ, and Lord Buddha. This is the legacy of change I have inherited from Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, and Mohammed Ali Jinnah. This is the philosophy of non-violence that I have learned from Gandhi, Bacha Khan and Mother Teresa”

To speak in groupings of three is a classical technique, and as Malala delivers this roll-call, she summons the presence of those leaders, alive and dead, to stand behind her on the stage. Malala then drops the power level, as she summons the presence of two more individuals:

“And this is the forgiveness that I have learned from my mother and father.”

Once again, she evokes humility, and the fact that this is a speech about children.

Climb and Collapse

This pattern of power-build followed by drop-back to humility reappears in the fourth paragraph. Malala uses the technique of climax, where numbers are grouped so that they climb in a sequence from small to large:

“There are hundreds of human rights activists,…. thousands of people have been killed by terrorists and millions have been injured.”

Hundreds. Thousands. Millions. The incrementum leads the audience to see an ever larger and more horrifying amount. The next number in the sequence? Surely Billions! But no. Instead we hear:

“I am just one of them. So here I stand, one girl amongst many.”

This is anti-climax. Having built up an image of afflicted millions, Malala collapses it all back down, to just her, one child. She is reminding us of the many for whom she speaks, while simultaneously using pathos, an appeal to the emotions.

Step-by-step to Logos

Logos is the logic of a speech; it’s argument. Malala’s argument is contained within paragraph eight, all of which I’m going to reproduce here, step-by-step, because the passage is so dense with power that each phrase deserves to individually understood:

“Dear sisters and brothers, we realize the importance of light when we see darkness. We realize the importance of our voice when we are silenced. In the same way, when we were in Swat, the north of Pakistan, we realized the importance of pens and books when we saw the guns.”

Light and darkness. Voice and silence. These paired opposites are examples of antithesis. They have a clean, binary logic that is enhanced by contrast. Malala then uses this foundation to create an analogy: “we realized the importance of pens and books when we saw the guns.

“The wise saying, ‘The pen is mightier than the sword’. It is true. The extremists are afraid of pens and books. The power of education frightens them.”

Here, the well known commonplace “The pen is mightier than the sword” is used to move the argument to it’s next stage: Extremists are afraid of education. The technique used is epicrisis, where a widely accepted commonplace or maxim adds weight to an argument built upon it.

“They are afraid of women. The power of the voice of women frightens them. This is why they killed 14 innocent students in the recent attack in Quetta. And that is why they kill female teachers. That is why they are blasting schools every day, because they are afraid of change and the equality that we will bring to our society.”

Having earlier set the argument that extremists are afraid of education, Malala then builds that argument to demonstrate the link between women’s education and society, until she concludes her argument with an anecdote:

“And I remember that there was a boy in our school who was asked by a journalist: ‘Why are the Taliban against education?’ He answered very simply by pointing to his book, he said: ‘A Talib doesn’t know what it written inside this book.’”

The anecdote provides a dramatic punchline to the logos, but also hints that the illiterate are more likely to become Taliban. This is the technique of adianoeta, where a more subtle meaning is hidden just beneath the surface of a comment: If Talibs can’t read, then the ultimate sword with which to win the war against the future Talib, is to teach the children to read.

Malala’s Key Message

Referring to how the Taliban sought to silence and intimidate her, Malala uses antithesis to deliver the words:

“….weakness, fear, and hopelessness died. Strength, power and courage was born.”

Strength, power and courage in the face of adversity are the key messages of Malala’s speech.

It is a speech filled with passion, with emotion, with skill, incredible belief, and daring hope.

It is a speech we all should hear, and delivered by a woman whom we all should hope we will hear a lot more of.

You can access a transcript of Malala’s speech by clicking here, or watch the speech on YouTube by clicking here.


  1. Very incisive analysis, Peter, thank you.

  2. Hi Peter – this is a truly insightful post on a most inspring speech. I had heard that this young girl was speaking at the UN but value so much your analysis. The clear step by step way that you have picked out the rhetorical terms and giving clear examples is a real value to anyone who is learning about public speaking or speech writing, this ought to be taught in classrooms across the nations. Thank you for your content.

    • Hi Peter. It’s my absolute pleasure and thanks for your kind and supportive comments. Malala’s speech was such an inspirational, and such a brave event. A good friend of mine is convinced that we’re witnessing the emergence of one of the 21st century’s leading figures, and based on this speech I think he’s very likely correct!

  3. Thanks for sharing. It’s very helpful that you show lots of short examples from the transcript, to pinpoint the phrases and techniques you’re discussing.

    In turn, you might enjoy this analysis of a talk about body language. I’d be delighted to hear any thoughts you might have on it, and links to other public-speaking blogs are always welcome on my posts.

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