Each year on this day, I make it a point to listen to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s great “I Have a Dream” speech. It’s electrifying every single time.
The content of Dr. King’s speech, his inspiring presence, and the moment in history all came together to make the iconic “I Have A Dream” speech the defining moment of the American Civil Rights Movement. But there are several other reasons why this speech, delivered over 50 years ago, remains an example of one of the best speeches in American history.
Since part of my job is to help people become better presenters, I’ve noticed several techniques that we can all learn from and be inspired by in this magnificent speech.
It’s Anchored In A Powerful Related Location
In most cases, you can’t handpick the spot to give a presentation, as MLK did for supreme symbolic effect when he stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and echoed the opening words of the Gettysburg Address (“Five score years ago . . . ). But you absolutely can amplify your message by adapting it to your setting and location.
Think about place, and how you can weave imagery, anecdote, and historical context into your presentation. Even if you’re presenting essentially the same material in Annapolis and Anaheim, it’s worth exploring what inspiration you can draw from each location to make your overall presentation more unique, more tailored, and more memorable. Abraham Lincoln also incorporated context in his iconic speech.
He Included Touchstones That Spoke To Both The Head And The Heart
In his opening paragraphs, Dr. King eloquently references the Gettysburg Address as well as the Emancipation Proclamation, the Constitution, and Declaration of Independence. These intellectual references give his words weight and credibility; they ground his speech in significant historical context.
In the latter part of the speech, Dr. King turns his attention to his listeners’ emotions as he quotes passages from the Bible, “My Country Tis of Thee,” and a stirring Negro spiritual. It’s the elegant balance between these two elements–the intellectual and the emotional; the head and the heart–that makes his speech so compelling and satisfying.
Great presenters connect with their audiences by weaving in well-chosen references and touchstones that will resonate.
It Uses Vivid And Metaphorical Language
Let’s face it: Many speeches are boring, even those about important topics that affect our lives. It’s easy to default to jargon and technical terms, or get lost in complex facts and statistics. But when you use evocative, vivid language, you create strong and memorable images.
Dr. King doesn’t just address gradualism, he warns us about the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. He paints a vivid picture of the plight of African-Americans, “living on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.” He talks about his faith, with which “we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.”
For example, Dr. King weaves in an evocative extended metaphor, like a golden thematic thread, about cashing a check:
“In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.” But 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. And so, we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.”
Vivid imagery, evocative language, and on-point metaphors are mighty tools for making your message clear and memorable.
He Sharpened Ideas Through Contrast
Nothing brings an idea or a concept sharply into focus like demonstrating what it’s not. In a presentation, there are a number of compelling ways to employ contrast–problem/solution, past/present, present/future, us/them, ideal/reality. MLK makes use of many of these, to great effect. For example:
“With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.”
“The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.”
You might notice that Dr. King repeatedly contrasts what is against what could be. If you haven’t watched Nancy Duarte’s fascinating analysis of this method in “I Have a Dream,” be sure to take a few minutes to absorb her electrifying insights.
He Reinforced Key Points Through Repetition
If there’s an important message you truly want your audience to remember and take away, saying it once is likely not enough.
Not only does repetition help your message stick, it can improve your presentation’s rhythm, structure, and flow, as in this gem of a passage:
“Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.”
Dr. King’s crucial idea–that now is the time for action–seeps into your consciousness and gathers strength through the expressive repetition and emphasis.
Purposeful repetition, stripped down to its purest essence, can be potent and poetic, but it’s worth noting that being repetitive–rambling or including too much extraneous information, is a different thing altogether. Strive for the first to make sure your key points truly sink in, and avoid the second by stripping away anything that doesn’t directly support those key messages.
His Call To Action Is Clear And Compelling
Your presentation should be designed to inspire action or effect change–if it’s not, argues Seth Godin in “Every Presentation Worth Doing Has Just One Purpose,” what’s the point of giving it at all?
Dr. King, of course, is the master, articulating in lucid detail not only the action that must be taken (and the dire consequences if action is not taken) . . .
“We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now. It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment.”
. . . but how he wants his listeners to conduct themselves as they take action.
“In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. 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 sense of urgency is palpable, and his instructions are crystal clear. It’s a compelling call to action that can’t be ignored.
He Ends On A Hopeful Note
Dr. King traverses intense emotional territory, from the “flames of withering injustice” to those “battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality.” But he closes by filling his listeners’ hearts with a hopeful, aspirational message. He paints a picture of how things can be:
“One day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”
Another example of this is the lovely passage that came to characterize his entire speech:
“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.”
While most of us will never give a speech as rousing or historically important as Dr. King’s, we can all be inspired by his masterful craft and delivery, and try some of these techniques to make our words more stirring and our messages more powerful.
—Catherine Carr is VP of marketing and chief inspiration officer at Haiku Deck, a presentation tool based on visual storytelling. Her mission is to inspire entrepreneurs, marketers, thought leaders, educators, and creative communicators around the world to set their story free. Check out her story in Haiku Deck form here.
August 28th, 1963 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his seminal speech “I have a Dream.” Today as we celebrate his birthday, I can’t help but find myself reading his speech and looking back on history and forward on our future.
What does an adventure travel blog have anything to do with the civil rights movement or having a dream?
I have no comparison to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in any shape form or fashion. I’m a quiet, middle-aged man who has a passion for the arts, sciences, travel, technology, and people. I love seeing, experiencing and living cultures; I love their food, their arts, their achievements, their experiences. I love reading about history, seeing how people overcame adversity and climbed mount improbable and conquered their fears and paved the way for greatness.
I have nothing but admiration for Dr. Martin Luther King. His speech “I have a dream” has a meaning, an influence and a force of shaping this great nation like very few people before him. His story is something everyone can admire and respect.
But what is our dream today? Where are we now?
Are we free at last? Are we satisfied?
“There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, “When will you be satisfied?”
I ask this question of everyone. When will YOU be satisfied? What is satisfaction in a day and age when you have the world at your fingertips, technology one could only dream of years ago, and freedoms experience by man like never before yet if you watch the news, read the social media and talk amongst peers we seem miserable, divisive and unsatisfied?
What is satisfying about saying and fighting for something so vigorously that we become divisive on it? If you love something so much, shouldn’t we focus on sharing the love?
When will you be satisfied? What is greatness?
Isn’t greatness when you’re sick, you can be healed? Isn’t greatness that when you’re poor but in good health, you can find work, earn a living and support yourself and your family? Isn’t greatness when you have the freedoms to explore, travel and see our great country and experience the greatness of other countries? Isn’t greatness great without regard for skin color and ethnicity?
Isn’t that when we’ll be satisfied? Not when privilege has granted us satisfaction we can go quietly hide away and love as if we’re supposed to be thankful for it, but satisfaction that we’re all realizing what is great about all of us?
There isn’t a day that I sit on my computer writing, thinking and contemplating just how many ungrateful people there are and how many of them speak about “greatness” without the appearance of conveying or understanding what greatness is… We’re screaming, we’re yelling, and we’re all fighting for something – but what the hell is it?
The struggle to put bigger rims on your car, a faster computer or bigger phone or bigger house isn’t a struggle for greatness. The battle to have the most Instagram followers, the most prominent Facebook page, the busiest and hottest twitter followers is meaningless. When you get that new iPhone its just a fleeting greatness, then you have years of bills and debt paying for it. But we’ll use those years of debt and pay for it to go further into debt about defining greatness as how we see it individually. Look at MY pictures, MY family, MY car – Look at how YOU hurt ME or YOUR views oppress MINE, or YOUR political beliefs are WRONG. I’m going to use my being in debt to hate you because now I can do so on a scale never before had in the palm of my hands – and I’m going to lose sleep over it because it’s important I say what I want to say… yet we all seem to seek this greatness… a material greatness…
How did we get to this nonsense nearly all of us are guilty of succumbing to?
Have we lost our humanity?
I’d say we make things great by loving each other. Loving our differences, Loving our history, loving our future. Loving the potential of every human being. Love not out of the hippy-dippy sense, but love out of respect, justice, equality and empathy for one another.
We focus on the negative entirely too much but in such a way that we fail to realize that the negative experiences of life that we overcome are where greatness comes.
Greatness doesn’t come from having it easy, a lap of luxury or billions in the bank.
But I digress.
” Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.”
I don’t hate you for wanting to make America great. I wish that too.
I don’t dislike you for having your views. I have mine too
I don’t hate your freedom; I love mine too.
Let’s stop chanting out slogans, sayings, and absurdities that fit in tweets. Let’s grow better than divisive comments and divisive meanings and stop pretending we’re striving for greatness.
“The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.”
Justice. No, not that absurd kid’s clothing shore every parent hates. Justice – “the quality of being fair and reasonable: ”
Justice is what will make America great again. Justice is how we can honor Dr. Martin Luther King.
We have to choose to fight for justice. Fight for equality, struggle to love one another and respect one another. Fight our urges to create “us vs. them”, resist our calls to seek out differences to build walls. Fight our urges to generalize people for any reason.
America is great when we stand FOR something, not against it.
I stand here (sit here) not questioning why you want to make America great or wondering why you would or wouldn’t read this or believe anything I say, I sit here thinking “why has it come to this and what can we change.”
I want the best for my children, your children, my parents, your parents, myself and you. Every day in America 300+ million of us go around in our day to day lives without questioning this – until we get online until we get on Twitter and until we get on facebook – then we’re animals. We’re conservatives, and we’re liberals, we’re defined people with chosen battle lines that cheerlead corporate overlords and politicians into fighting for our teams. We’re black, we’re white, we’re latino – we define ourselves in many ways to oppose each other.
We have to get above this.
We have to seek Justice.
We have to seek out what it means to make us human. What it means to love our country – not how YOU choose to love it, but what it means – as a society of MILLIONS of people, what it means to love our country, stand for justice and liberty for all.
For me, that’s my freedom. My ability to write stuff like this. My ability to question what needs to be asked. Share what needs to be shared.
I have a dream. A dream that maybe you can share this with your friends – to speak honestly about what matters is whats in your heart. Don’t take offense to what I say, but listen, ask me questions, leave me comments. We should be able to talk about this in the open and respect each other as humans with faults and humans with greatness. It should be a discussion, not a warcry.
My heart knows that these political sayings – of which all parties is guilty of – these divisive lines, these news bites, sound bites and everything going around is entirely meaningless and lead no one and nothing to greatness.
Greatness is something we all seek.
Greatness is coming out of the struggle, having learned, having empathy, having experience, having love, having lived.
Greatness is the trials we overcome, not succumb.
Greatness is climbing that mountain, kayaking that stream, reading that book, helping your neighbor, teaching those kids, volunteering to feed the poor or build a house. Greatness is the sacrifice, greatness is love, greatness is liberty and justice for all. We can honor Dr. Martin Luther King Junior not by dividing ourselves but understanding each other and working together. Empathy is our ability to be great and still be ourselves.
“To be great is to be misunderstood.”
― Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance and Other Essays