I have a dream speech: Martin Luther King Jr – the anatomy of an inspiring speaker

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…

Martin Luther King Jr "I have a dream" speech

1)     Rock solid, unshakeable confidence

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.

Martin luther king with this faith

2)     The Voice

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”

Martin luther king let freedom ring

3)     Rhythm & Repetition

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.

4)     Ditching the Script

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.

5)     With, not ‘at’ his people

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 a message?

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Sarah Lloyd-Hughes is a popular speaker on confidence and inspiration, an award winning social entrepreneur, founder of Ginger Training & Coaching and author of “How to be Brilliant at Public Speaking” (Pearson).

  • ukaegbu c. c

    marthin luther king jr. is indeed. a prolific addresser of all time. i have a dream still remains afloat in our minds. the negros. let freedom ring in every corner of the cosmos.

  • owen tavengwa.

    this is a very inspiring message. its good that the people can now co-exist.black and whites…….

  • George A

    Studying him and his speech in English made me feel a different person though it wasn’t my choice to study I still find it interesting that one man can do so much to change the perspectives of so many.

  • Lucinda Black

    MLK is my idol – such a rich speaker, with a big, pure heart. Didn’t realise he ad-libbed the best bit! I’d like to take some of his passion & power to my church, although the thought of speaking spontaneously like that to all those people is terrifying!

    • Sarah Lloyd-Hughes

      Thanks for your comment Lucinda. Although King spoke spontaneously and from the heart, these are thoughts that he will have spoken a number of times to his colleagues and other audiences. As he was a preacher, he had plenty of opportunity to speak passionately and to develop the words that had the maximum power. So don’t be put off – even he started somewhere. Talk from the heart about something that’s meaningful to you and it won’t matter how many people are in your audience.

  • hadil ayadi


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  • George F.

    Happy 50th Anniversary MLK!

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  • A.C.

    I have a dream. Great speech. Thank you.

    I have a dream: Free Energy for all.

    A new petition on We the People,
    If this petition gets 100,000 signatures by September 27,
    2013, the White House will review it and respond!

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  • http://www.gingerpublicspeaking.com/dream-speech-martin-luther-king-jr-anatomy-inspiring-speaker simon dick

    this speech was a good speech and his dream came true…………….

    • hwsiw

      so agree

  • homebuilding

    I believe it must be said that MLK’s pacing is so very important.

    Throughout the speech, he is almost always SLOW enough with enough space between the words. Universally, the couple of times when he rushes a bit, the speech loses intensity.

    There’s a lesson for all, in this.

  • Dapo Ipoola

    It is indeed the most thrilling speech of the millenium.

  • Myles Henderson

    Truly inspirational. <3
    When my father died this man was like a 2nd father to me. <3
    His words gave me hope. <3
    They helped me power through my drug addiction. <3

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  • lisa

    Does anyone know anymore information about why his speech was so effective can you reply to me and tell me