Fifty years after his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, Martin Luther King, Jr. continues to be a shining example of presenter and speechmaker.
To commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the “I Have a Dream” speech, many politically-focused analyses were done. Some experts, though, looked at the speech in different ways, looking at it in terms of other factors that make it memorable. Things like the non-verbal language, the tone of voice, the cadence of the words and the rhythm of the sentences.
The starting point for this latter effort was the idea that the powerful message is not the only explanation for the success and long-lasting power of the speech.
“I Have a Dream” is the top-ranked speech on the American Rhetoric list of the “hundred most significant political speeches of America in the twentieth century.” In a similar list by the London newspaper, The Guardian, the speech appears in eighth place.
So anybody interested in presentations should take a close look at “I Have a Dream.” With this in mind, we decided to explore this speech and present it to you in this post as “Martin Luther King’s Powerful Speech Tips,” to help you improve your own presentations.
CONTEXT, FOR LEVERAGE
The venue of the 1963 March on Washington, D.C., and making this particular speech at the Lincoln Memorial, with a statue of Abraham Lincoln in the background were not, of course, random choices. Washington is the U.S. capital, and Lincoln was the president who fought against, negotiated about, and in 1865 outlawed slavery.
In fact, the choice of venue provided the perfect scenario to enhance a speech on equality. Add to venue and location the fact that King chose to give this particular speech in 1963, the centennial of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation – the Emancipation Proclamation that was signed by the same great man in whose symbolic shadow Dr. King and his followers settled that afternoon of August 28.
A direct reference to the Proclamation also contributed to ensuring that the entire context was right for the message the speaker wanted convey: “This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice,” King said.
It’s easy in retrospect to see that all the speech choices created for the listener an instant identification with important moments in U.S. history: the Reverend was not leading a new, sectarian cause but was, in fact, giving continuity to something common to all that had been initiated by a “great man” whom history has since proved to be right in his persuasions.
So when you’re planning your own presentation, identify or create the elements that will form a reinforcing background. Date, place, scenario, references . . . everything counts! If used well, these elements can boost the impact of your message.
One of the first things King explained in his historic speech was that they were all there for a reason, the reason why some 250, 000 were then gathered in their nation’s capital. For this he made an analogy: “In a sense, we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check.”
In this analogy, the issuers who promised to pay would have been the “architects of our republic,” of the government, and the “check” would have been the “Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.” The value of the check: the “. . . unalienable Rights of Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” And the recipients: “. . . all men, yes , black men as well as white men.”
The fact that the analogy is so simple shows how it’s possible to convey complex issues like segregation in an effective way to an audience that isn’t totally conversant with the subject at hand. So, since everybody knows what it feels like to be owed something and not be able to collect, why not use a debt analogy to explain the message?
King then remarked, “It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked insufficient funds.”
After exposing the situation and identifying who owes what to whom, King completes the analogy by saying, “We refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt.” And so he implies that he will continue to go after the American government, because the “check” is the social contract that governs the country. It is implied that nobody can ignore the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence and what these documents say and provide.
Analogies, of course, are not 100%-safe for ensuring good communication. So be careful. They tend to work best in presentations if the goal is to communicate something without going into detail or without having to deal with several variables. Nevertheless, analogy is useful for relating a subject to the audience’s world. Think of how many times in childhood you heard analogies about storks and baseball.
Another widely used feature in “I Have a Dream” is the metaphor. There are some twenty in the speech. Presenters resort to metaphor for many reasons: aesthetics, personal style, humor and the inability to directly express something, among other things. We can see, for example, that the Reverend King used metaphor to express in words the absurdity of the situation in which African-Americans had to live: “One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination,” he says.
So we say, be fearless and invest in metaphors. But always try to adapt them to the subject and to the audience. If a metaphor isn’t used wisely, you may end up saying something inappropriate or hurting somebody’s feelings.
THE POWER OF REPETITION
If we had to re-baptize this speech based on its repetitions, we might call it, “One Hundred Years Later,” or “Now is the Time,” or the most resounding “Let Freedom Ring.”
Repetition, repetition, and more repetition. Dr. King wasn’t sparing in his use of this device. To repeat a word or expression serves to highlight the thing and lend it importance – as, for example, what happens in songs with the chorus.
By repeating a word or expression, we unconsciously generate an expectation in the audience: “Will he/she say it again?” “Will he/she come up with something different?” “If you’re stressing this point, it must be important!” Such thoughts help keep audience attention on a speech and simultaneously trigger the memory – sometimes so efficiently that the overall content can get a bit lost when people remember only the passages that were repeated and repeated and repeated.
The Reverend use the repetition technique so as to recite melodically, creating an effect that suggests something is growing. Using repetition, Martin Luther King was able to inspire emotional responses in audience, as is done with song.
The only caution about using repetition is to know when to stop! Media experts suggest repeating something no more than three times, although certainly there can be exceptions. Reverend King said the title of his speech eight times, and he said the poetic “Let freedom ring” ten times.
The presenter’s technical ability to speak, the quality of the voice, undoubtedly influences the impact of a presentation. As a preacher, Dr. King had perfected his vocal abilities over the years. So when he gave his speech in Washington he was already able to deliver each word with melody, and to pause with precision, which in turn triggered applause and cheers and inspired an intense interaction between himself and his listeners.
This is true: the less the modulation in the melodic line of a speech, the worse the perception of an audience. The reverse is not true, however. If speakers control their volume and stay in a comfortable but interesting melodic range, the audience will stay with them. The idea is not to go so far as to disfigure your tone of voice. But you can, and should, emphasize the key moments of your speeches by using a stronger tone.
Mastering the pause, the melody and the volume comes only with practice. Reading aloud is an excellent start.
A DREAM CAME TRUE
The recognition there is today for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his “I Have a Dream” speech stems not only from his performance at the March on Washington. It is also a direct result of the consequences of that speech. Dr. King said, “Nineteen sixty -three is not an end but a beginning.” He foresaw it in then, and indeed it came to pass.
The very next year, U.S. President Lyndon Johnson signed the “Civil Rights Act,” the first step to equalizing the law as it applied to minorities; for example, segregation in public and private places was now outlawed.
Also in 1964, at the age of 35, Martin Luther King, Jr., became the youngest person to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.
Then in 1965, the U.S. “Voting Rights Act” was approved, preventing the states from maintaining legislation that denied access to the vote for reasons of ethnicity and/or financial condition. This law, along with the Civil Rights Act, paved the way for other egalitarian U.S. laws in the years to follow.
Dr. King ‘s life came to an end on April 4, 1968, when he was murdered at a hotel in Memphis, Tennessee. But his “I Have a Dream” speech lives on: “What will go down in the history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.”
I Have A Dream: a powerful speech that helped change the course of history.
AMERICA BEFORE THE “DREAM”
Dr. King’s “Dream” was a high point in the struggle for civil rights in the United States. A movement that began in 1955, when a black woman named Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give a white man her seat on the bus, and that reached a high point eight years later with the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where King told America of his Dream. That year, America still carried the burden of some hundred years of segregation and 245 years of slavery. The change King spoke of finally could not be prevented.
This was a speech – a presentation – that changed the destiny of a nation.
To watch “I Have A Dream,” click below: