What Martin Luther King can teach you about public speaking

In honor of Dr. Martin Luther King. Jr. Day, let’s look at his greatest speech, “I Have a Dream.” After nearly 50 years, it remains undiminished in its power and eloquence. It provides a great model for all speakers to emulate. Here are several things you can learn from it.

Know Your Audience

For us in 21st century America, we can see the righteousness of Dr. King’s cause and the way he fought for it. We can listen to his declarations and wonder how anyone could ever question them. But 1963 was a much different world. Alabama Governor George Wallace could give a speech vowing “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” and be widely cheered. Supporters of civil rights found themselves frustrated by the slow rate of progress while facing increasing physical danger. More militant leaders like Malcolm X were gaining support. The future of civil rights and the non-violent approach to fighting for them was in doubt.

Dr. King’s challenges were to assure his followers to stick with him and to coax them away from more militant leaders without alienating those who would agree with them. For those who had reservations or opposed his cause, he had to convince them how right his position is, how it is tied with American values, and that delaying or denying civil rights will make things worse for everyone. He addressed all of those challenges with his speech. This single paragraph demonstrates this well:

We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force. The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. They have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone.

Use Language Effectively by Using It Creatively

Dr. King’s speech has a number of beautiful turns of phrase, “the fierce urgency of now,” “the tranquilizing drug of gradualism,” and “the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice.” He described the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence as “a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.” For African Americans, it was a “bad check,” but Dr. King declared “we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation.”

The descriptive language vividly depicted the plight of African Americans in a way that everyone can understand it. His words grab you because of their clarity and originality. They are words you can’t help but hear and don’t dare ignore.

Build to a Climax

Most of us listen to this speech starting with “I have a dream.” To appreciate it fully, you must listen to it from the very beginning, from the first calm and formal strains of “I am happy to join with you today…” Like any good storyteller, a good speaker must grab the audience’s attention, and then you build gradually to a crescendo as you approach the climax. Dr. King did that with this speech.

He starts with a strong hook, “Five score years ago…” This link to Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address sets the theme of the speech and ties into the physical setting in front of the Lincoln Memorial. The first section of his speech, even with all its poetic language, is an appeal to reason. Dr. King states the case for civil rights and for immediate action. Then, the speech changes both tone and cadence:

Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed. Let us not wallow in the valley of despair.

His voice rises, the language becomes simpler, and the paragraphs become shorter. He shifts from appealing to the head to appealing to the heart.

I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American 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…”

He steps back a little to appeal to reason:

This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day…

But this prepares us for the final push where we are swept away by the passion in his words:

But not only that; let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia!

Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee!

Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.

His words hit you in the chest. They well up in your heart. And by the time the speech ends, you are convinced. You can’t help but say, “Yes, Dr. King, I will follow you. I will help you make America as beautiful and just as you say it should be.” This is why 50 years later, this speech continues to inspire and challenge us.

Use Your Words to Make a Difference

We can analyze why “I Have a Dream” is such a great speech, but its real value is how it inspires us to be better people and a better nation. It gives us a clear vision of what America can and should be. It is a vision that transformed our nation and brought change to all people. The power of “I Have a Dream” spread around the world. It inspired those who stood up to apartheid in South Africa, oppression in Eastern Europe, and tyranny in the Middle East. It continues to inspire people today.

Words can have that kind of power when we use them well and use them for worthwhile causes.