This month we honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and his contributions to Civil Rights in the United States. While he sadly remains a controversial figure five decades after his assassination, his impact and his influence on our country is unquestionable.
Last weekend I had the opportunity to study Dr. King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech with my English as a Second Language students. I volunteer as an ESL teacher in a local community-church partnership and each month we include a cultural lesson to help our students understand American culture. This month’s lesson was about Martin Luther King, Jr.
While I am familiar with his speech, I have not watched it in many years, and this lesson was a good opportunity for review. I found his speech as moving and motivational as ever, perhaps even more so since I have become a speaker myself and I enjoy studying the work of other speakers. It reminded me of why I do what I do (volunteering in an ESL program, something I also did in my youth).
As I listened with the intent to help my non-native English-speaking students understand the speech and its message, I also started really paying attention to Dr. King’s words, his delivery and how he structured his speech. I ended up listening several times as the more I listened, the more I also began to learn about preparing and delivering a great speech. In addition to his primary message of equality for all, you can also learn to become a better speaker by studying Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
While chances are your next business presentation is probably not going to be as iconic and soul-stirring as “I Have a Dream,” that doesn’t mean you can’t employ some of these same strategies and techniques to engage and motivate your audience.
Dr. King uses some intriguing and engaging literary devices in his speech like alliteration and anaphora, as well as referencing well-known historical documents and Biblical verses. These references help connect the listener, as they will sound familiar even if you don’t know the specific reference. He is also a master of imagery, painting vivid pictures with his words that help listeners to connect on more than one level.
As I listened to his speech I could see those “little black boys and black girls” joining hands in Alabama (and elsewhere) “ with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.” I could envision “the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners [sitting] down together at the table of brotherhood.”
And I’m sure being August in Washington DC, it wasn’t hard to relate to his imagery of a “state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression.” Can you feel that sweltering heat, too?
He connected us to our roots as a nation. Besides holding his speech at the Lincoln Memorial (choosing the right setting certainly adds impact to your presentation), Dr. King starts his speech with a phrase that will immediately bring to mind Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Nearly every school child is familiar with the beginning of that speech. Dr. King starts his with “Five Score years ago. . . .” And in the next paragraph he includes another phrase familiar to us all from the Declaration of Independence: “. . . the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” By using these phrases, he connects us with our history and with ideals we hold dear. Are you using imagery in your speaking that helps your audience connect with its core values?
He weaves alliteration throughout his speech, with many sentences that repeat the same sounds or letters. In various places, he talks of “rising from the dark and desolate valley,” that many “have come here out of great trials and tribulations,” and “the sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent.”
One of the most powerful tools he uses though, is that of anaphora or repetition of phrases at the beginning of successive sentences. This not only emphasizes his point, but combined with his alliteration gives his speech a poetic, almost musical quality. And we know from multiple studies our brains more readily absorb and retain information we receive musically. For the record, in print this would be boring, but in speaking, it can be powerful.
Most notably, we hear this as he shares his dream:
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today. (By the way, I love this and pray some day it will truly be so.)
He also employs this at the end of his speech as he quotes from the patriotic hymn, “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” with “Let Freedom Ring” repeated many times with reference to different parts of our country. This repetition draws us in and reinforces his message, helping us to understand and internalize that freedom must ring in our state too.
And finally, Dr. King mixes simple common phrases and clichés with more complex and flowery phrases, which makes his speech both simple and clear, poetic and elegant at the same time. He ensures that his listeners can understand and relate to his message, no matter their educational level or social status. He was a truly a speaker for every man.
Here’s an interesting bit of “I Have a Dream” trivia for you. The last portion of the speech, where he speaks of his dream, was extemporaneous. Mahalia Jackson was in the crowd, and urged him to “tell them about the dream.” And so he departed from his written speech and delivered that last portion without prepared notes. I was impressed.
So, after watching and studying this speech (and being motivated to get out and do good in our communities), what did you learn that will help you become a better speaker and which of these techniques will you incorporate into your next presentation to help your listeners connect and remember your words?
If you’d like to have a written copy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s. “I Have a Dream” speech to study, you can download it free from the National Archives at this link. And if you haven’t watched it in a while, you can see the entire speech below. I highly recommend it. It’s only a short 17 minutes.