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What was it that made the I have a dream speech by Martin Luther King Jr one of the greatest speaking moments of all time? As public speaking expert Sarah Lloyd-Hughes analyzes King’s legendary “I have a dream” speech, we’ll see that his magic came from much more than a good script…
Martin Luther King Jr’s “I have a dream” speech put the civil rights movement into the hearts and minds of Americans and beyond. It contributed to him being named Man of the Year by Time magazine in 1963 and to his Nobel Peace Prize the following year. Here are the key features of King’s distinctive and inspiring speaking style - and what it means for public speakers...
You can see from Martin Luther King’s body language that he was calm and grounded as he delivered his speech. Although you can’t see his feet as he’s speaking, I’d imagine him to be heavily planted to the ground, with a solid posture that says “Here I am. I’m not budging. Now, you come to me.”
As a speaker, Martin Luther King had the solidity that is surely only found with those who have completely aligned their actions with their firm commitment. The 200,000 people at the Washington rally could not have pushed King off-track if they’d tried, so solid was he in his convictions. Self-belief from a beyond-personal source gives this sort of power – and you can see the impact.
It would always take a commanding voice to inspire thousands and Martin Luther King’s booming voice was well practiced in his capacity as a Baptist preacher. His cadence, his pacing and his preacher-like drama bring real passion to the speech.
Martin Luther King used powerful, evocative language to draw emotional connection to his audience, such as:
“Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice.”
“This sweltering summer of the Negro's legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality.”
“We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities”
The intensity of King’s speech is built through bold statements and rhythmic repetition. Each repetition builds on the one before and is reinforced by Martin Luther King’s ever increasing passion.
“We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the negro's basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one.
“Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina…”
“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.”
“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.”
As the speech comes to a close the pace of Martin Luther King's repetition increases, helping to build to a crescendo.
If that wasn’t dramatic enough, Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech was never meant to even include its most famous sequence and climax. Originally penned under several names, such as the catchy “normalcy speech” and “A Cancelled check”, King put aside his script ten minutes into the speech. Few would dare risk it at such a moment, but King was said to have responded to the cry of Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson “Tell ‘em about the dream, Martin!” and ad-libbed what came next. This is what gave “I have a dream” its raw power and edge - King was living the words that he spoke.
It’s thought that King ditched the script so that he could connect more with his audience. And it worked. “I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations,” he begins. King goes on to talk to his audience and their personal situations directly, “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.”
King is with the people, fully connecting to them with his eyes and delivering a powerful rhythm in his speaking. Martin Luther King’s script writer, Clarence B Jones reflected, “It was like he had an out-of-body experience.”
So often it is the speaker who is flexible and vulnerable enough to connect with their audience who has the most powerful impact.
Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech was a time and moment in history – but still offers much for would be inspiring speakers to learn from.
How can you be more powerful, more passionate and more authentic in your public speaking? Could you ditch the script and go with your feeling?
What is the power within you that you could push behind your message?