‘I have a dream’.
It’s often cited as one of, if not THE best public speech of all time.
But ever wondered what makes it so great? More importantly, ever wanted to know what the King of public speakers and his dream speech can tell us about giving a terrific talk? If so, keep reading.
For today is Martin Luther King Day and there’s no better way to celebrate his life and legacy than to examine his 1963 speech.
This formal speech, given to a colossal yet captivated crowd from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, is just shy of seven minutes. More than half a century later, it is still difficult to find a more powerful, poetic, or pithy blend of prose and presentation.
It’s perhaps the ultimate illustration of just how impactful you can be when ‘what you say’ and ‘how you say it’ are perfectly aligned.
So, using this digitally remastered version, here I pinpoint seven ways Dr Martin Luther King Jr uses what he says and how he says it to great effect. It offers timeless learnings, for anyone can employ these techniques to help their next talk go like a dream.
1. He’s mindful of his surroundings. His platform influences his content, and his audience influences his delivery.
At 00.39 come the words: “Five score years ago…” That language symbolically mirrors Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address a century earlier. That’s poignant, given he’s speaking ‘in the shadow’ of Lincoln’s Memorial.
Then there are eight seconds from 2:13, where his audience responds to what he says. He stays silent. It can feel unnatural not to speak for eight seconds, but with practice, pause - whether used to quieten an audience or for dramatic effect - is powerful.
As the speech progresses, and audience reaction lengthens and strengthens, you sense King is using his pauses to funnel the crowd’s energy into his delivery.
2. He uses repetition to reinforce his key messages.
“I have a dream”. King doesn’t use these words until 1:54. Then he repeats them at the beginning of seven successive sentences. The first and last words in a sentence are most memorable. It’s their placement in the sentence, as well as their repetition, that gives them power.
But his ‘dream’ phrase, delivered in this structural arrangement is not the only one repeated. “Let freedom ring” is another. Indeed, he says the word ‘freedom’ even more than ‘dream’, which serves to cement the purpose of his speech.
3. He chooses words that paint vivid pictures in the minds of his audience.
At 1:05 we’re imagining people “seared in the flames of withering injustice”, or at 1:37 “crippled by manacles of segregation and chains of discrimination”. His carefully selected visual word choices continue throughout.
4. He expertly uses contrast. It’s a device he employs not only in what he says but how he says it.
Let’s start with what he says. Look again at the brutality of the language in bullet point 3. Then contrast it with his words at 2:33. These later words paint a unifying picture as we visualise “sit[ting] down together at the table of brotherhood”. His words tell us: Not that outdated reality any longer, but this visionary new one.
And his vocal delivery mirrors his words. Just listen to the contrast between the opening minute and the closing one. King expertly weaves together vocal elements, and we’ll explore some of these and how he works them to his advantage now.
5. He builds urgency by quickening his pace.
His leisurely opening is 92 words a minute versus the rapidity of his words by the end - 145 a minute. He varies his pace, yet notice he never sounds rushed. Conversationally we speak between 120 and 160 words a minute. That suggests he’s slowed his opening, so he can build speed without sounding rushed later in his speech.
6. He varies his volume to bring vocal interest.
As King’s pace quickens so does his volume. Yet he’s never so quiet as to be inaudible or so loud as to be indistinct. It’s a brilliant illustration of how you can vary volume to bring vocal variety. It’s also evidence that it’s not how loudly you speak but the vocal energy you bring that’s key. Listen to how he keeps you hooked until the end of every sentence and anticipating the next, between 2.22 -2.40.
7. He uses intonation to give his voice musicality.
There’s musicality to his voice. At times, his use of intonation is so musical it’s almost like he’s singing. There’s no better example of how you can use the rise and fall of your voice (patterns of pitch), to create that musicality than at 5:10. Here King employs rhyme and repetition but it’s how he uses his voice to deliver both that is notable.
He creates this intoxicating musical cocktail by beautifully blending intonation with his prose, pace, and pitch.
There’s so much to learn from this single, short, speech that it could form the basis of a much lengthier article.
Nevertheless, I hope these seven insights help demonstrate that it’s not only what you say but how you say it, that speaks volumes about successful speakers.
And, for me at least, it’s King’s careful blend of words and voice in this speech that crowns him ‘King’ of speakers.
Susan Room is a former corporate leader, turned coach. She was writing on Martin Luther King Day, about his ‘I have a dream speech’ given on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington in 1963. Susan is one of the rare few qualified to provide voice and executive coaching, her unique approach now sees her help others feel, look and sound confident – improving performance and happiness at work.